Was Pressure on Prosecutors a Partisan Issue?

Were some of the eight U.S. attorneys fired for failing to support a White House plan to prosecute voter fraud cases. Some Democrats are convinced the pressure was based on political concerns over tight races.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

While the president gave the attorney general high marks for his testimony, as far as the Senate Judiciary Committee is concerned, there are still key questions. Did eight U.S. attorneys lose their jobs because of poor performance or bad politics? Some Democrats are convinced the attorneys' unwillingness to prosecute voter fraud cases distressed key Republicans. In fact, voter fraud has been a focus for Republicans for some time.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams joined us to discuss the issue. And he says heightened concern over a number of extremely close races has prompted some Republicans to push investigations.

JUAN WILLAMS: Republicans believe there were abuses at these polling places, especially in the cities, and even extending to some Indian reservations. They were especially concerned in places like New Mexico, Wisconsin, where close votes were common and the minority vote often provided the margin of victory for the Democrats. But this kind of protest has been raised by Republicans, actually, for many, many years.

AMOS: So it's been going on for longer than this last election cycle. How long has it been an interest for Republicans?

WILLIAMS: You know, this is an interesting point, Deb, because it's been a concern of theirs for decades. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist began his public career as a young lawyer in Arizona - this is half a century ago - serving as a poll watcher for the GOP there. Basically, wherever reports have suggested that people were voting illegally, Republicans have tried to get the law to address the problem or the perception of a problem.

Let me say here that a recent election assistant commission report said the extent of voter fraud is open to debate today. That report was edited to downplay the expert conclusion that there is little actual voting fraud taking place, and where there is voting fraud, most often it's an individual mistake. There is little evidence of widespread or systematic voter fraud.

AMOS: But the GOP seems to be driven on this issue. So what steps are they taking to address it?

WILLIAMS: Well, they've sent monitors to polls in certain areas. They've pursued investigations at every level - local, state and under a Republican Department of Justice at the federal level, too. It's been also a topic for many conservative writers, commentators, editorialists. And I might also say here that there is a focus on putting in place voter identification programs. Another recent report said that where voter identification has been put in place - requiring photographs before you're able to vote - it reduces voter turnout, especially among minorities.

AMOS: And how does this ballot integrity make Democrats react?

WILLIAMS: Well, it absolutely drives them crazy. They see it as voter suppression. They say it's really aimed at holding down the number of people who are casting legitimate votes when those votes are being cast by blacks, Hispanics, Indians on reservations and immigrants - people who most often vote for Democrats. And here you have the Republicans, in the Democrats' mind, trying to limit the power of that minority vote.

AMOS: So when a Republican-appointed U.S. attorney investigates and says no, there's not a lot of voter fraud or only a few cases worth pursuing, the Justice Department gets caught in the middle?

WILLIAMS: Indeed. The prosecutor is being told, in some cases by the White House, you've got to do a better job of pursuing voter fraud. And then that seems to be a factor in the evaluation of federal U.S. attorneys over the last year. And it's become a controversy, and it's certain to be with us now I think for some time to come.

AMOS: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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