Vote caging

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Vote caging, as commonly known, is a voter suppression tactic. The term is derived from a direct mail term. In the direct mail industry, when a third party runs a direct mailing campaign on behalf of a client organization, one of the activities undertaken is to compile all of the responses, handle contributions and to deposit received funds into the client's account, and also update the database of names and addresses that were mailed to with the responses or corrected addresses obtained. Since some of the activities were controlled carefully (donations and deposits) and conducted in a manner similar to the activities within a "teller's cage," the process is called "caging" and the end result of the data entry updates and address corrections is called a "caging list." This led to the term "voter caging" for voter registration analysis and challenges conducted via mass mailings.

Caging, as Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) "helpfully pointed out, 'is a term of art in mailhouses' – it refers to the place where letters go when they have no address, all batched up in a separate room."[1]

As House Committee on the Judiciary chair John Conyers (D-MI) added, caging "in the context of elections 'is not an issue of the mail at all.' Voter caging, in the context of elections, means blocking voters out – choosing whole lists of voters whose vote will be challenged, chosen by whom and the criteria for challenge enunciated by whom, under this [the Bush] administration, still not fully explained."[2]

How vote caging works

In vote caging, letters marked "Do Not Forward" are sent to selected voters. If letters are returned it is assumed that the voter no longer lives at the address, and the voter is either removed from the voting rolls, or is challenged if the voter arrives at a polling place on election day.

Flaws in vote caging

On the surface it may seem that a letter marked "Do No Forward" that is returned indicated that the intended recipient has moved from that location there are many alternate reasons that the letter could be returned. A person being treated for a long period in a hospital might, for example, ask that mail be forwarded until the person recovers. People going to another area for an extended vacation also might request that their mail be forwarded. In addition, the system depends on a 100% accuracy rate in mail delivery, which is especially unlikely in under-served or poor neighborhoods.

Legality of vote caging

In 1981, the Republican State Committee New Jersey and the Republican National Committee sent a mailing targeting primarily African-American and Latino neighborhoods.[3] A lawsuit was filed, DNC v. RNC, and as part of a 1982 settlement in the case the Republican National Committee admitted wrongdoing and agreed to:

"...refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities there and where a purpose or significant effect of such activities is to deter qualified voters from voting."

The settlement was legally binding and applicable nationwide. Unfortunately, this method of voter suppression did not stop, and the 1982 consent decree has formed the legal basis for multiple challenges over the years. Some examples include:

  • In 1986, the Louisiana Republican Party instituted a "ballot integrity program", which targeted parishes that supported Walter Mondale in 1984. After Democratic leaders in the state filed a $10 million lawsuit, a federal judge released an internal RNC memorandum which stated:

"I would guess that this program will eliminate at least 60-80,000 folks from the rolls," Kris Wolfe, a Middle Western regional director for the Republican National Committee, wrote. "If it's a close race, which I'm assuming it is, this could keep the black vote down considerably."[4]

  • In 1990, another consent decree was issued after the Republican Party of North Carolina and the re-election campaign of GOP Sen. Jesse Helms sent 125,000 postcards to mostly African American voters to compile a list of voters to challenge.
  • In 2004, the Ohio Republican party sent out a mailer to newly-registered voters and used the results to create a challenge list. After several voters filed suit, the judge in the original DNC v. RNC case, Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise, ruled on Nov. 1, 2004 that the state GOP had violated the original injunction, and issued a court order banning the use of the challenge list. This decision was upheld on appeal; however, in the early hours of Nov. 2 -- election day -- the Third District Court issued a stay of Judge Debevoise's court order, allowing Republican challengers into the polls. [5]

Caging in the 2008 election

There are numerous reports of vote caging during the 2008 election cycle.

Florida: Possibly due to high foreclosure rates and poor economic climate in southwest Florida, even the traditionally Republican[6] Collier and Lee counties were targeted by voter caging[7] the weekend of September 6th, 2008. Letters from the John McCain campaign[8] in envelopes marked "Do Not Forward" were mailed to voters registered either as Democrats, independent, or unaffiliated [9] throughout the area. The events prompted an extended discussion of voter suppression techniques on public radio Sound off with Sasha program on September 12, 2008 [6]and an editorial from the Naples Daily News on September 22, 2008[10] that heightened awareness of the problem in the electorate.

  • Ohio: In Ohio Project Vote warns that "significant numbers of minority voters will be included on the county-generated caging lists" if voters are removed without a hearing after the state mailed letters marked "Do not forward" and over 500,000 were returned as undeliverable[11].
  • Michigan: A Republican plan to cage voters foreclosed from their homes[12] was blocked[13] before it could keep people from voting. As part of a settlement of a lawsuit seeking to prevent the use of foreclosure lists to challenge voters, the Republican party agreed that the appearance of an address on a foreclosure list does not constitute grounds for removal of voters from that address from registration rolls. From a statement by the Michigan Democratic Party[14],"The settlement acknowledges the existence of an illegal scheme by the Republicans to use mortgage foreclosure lists to deny foreclosure victims their right to vote." The Justice Department said it would "monitor closely" the caging reports.[15]
  • Montana: In Montana Project Vote issued a statement blasting vote caging of at least 6,000 residents based only on their filing change-of-address statements with the Post Office[16]

Caging in the 2004 election

In 2004, BBC reporter Greg Palast reported:

Two e-mails, prepared for the executive director of the Bush campaign in Florida and the campaign's national research director in Washington DC, contain a 15-page so-called "caging list".

It lists 1,886 names and addresses of voters in predominantly black and traditionally Democrat areas of Jacksonville, Florida. An elections supervisor in Tallahassee, when shown the list, told Newsnight: "The only possible reason why they would keep such a thing is to challenge voters on election day." ...

When asked by Newsnight for an explanation of the list, Republican spokespersons claim the list merely records returned mail from either fundraising solicitations or returned letters sent to newly registered voters to verify their addresses for purposes of mailing campaign literature. Republican state campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker Fletcher stated the list was not put together "in order to create" a challenge list, but refused to say it would not be used in that manner. Rather, she did acknowledge that the party's poll workers will be instructed to challenge voters, "Where it's stated in the law." There was no explanation as to why such clerical matters would be sent to top officials of the Bush campaign in Florida and Washington. Rather, she did acknowledge that the party's poll workers will be instructed to challenge voters, "Where it's stated in the law."[17]

Palast also reported that:

A confidential campaign directed by GOP party chiefs in October 2004 sought to challenge the ballots of tens of thousands of voters in the last presidential election, virtually all of them cast by residents of Black-majority precincts. Files from the secret vote-blocking campaign were obtained by BBC Television Newsnight, London. They were attached to emails accidentally sent by Republican operatives to a non-party website.

One group of voters wrongly identified by the Republicans as registering to vote from false addresses: servicemen and women sent overseas. Here's how the scheme worked: The RNC mailed these voters letters in envelopes marked, "Do not forward", to be returned to the sender. These letters were mailed to servicemen and women, some stationed overseas, to their US home addresses. The letters then returned to the Bush-Cheney campaign as "undeliverable." The lists of soldiers of "undeliverable" letters were transmitted from state headquarters, in this case Florida, to the RNC in Washington. The party could then challenge the voters' registration and thereby prevent their absentee ballots being counted.

One target list was comprised exclusively of voters registered at the Jacksonville, Florida, Naval Air Station. Jacksonville is third largest naval installation in the US, best known as home of the Blue Angels fighting squandron.[18]

Tim Griffin, a former Karl Rove protégé, Republican political strategist and top adviser to President George W. Bush, was "formerly research director of the Republican National Committee. The 2004 BBC News report showed that Griffin led a 'caging' scheme[19] to suppress the votes of African-American servicemembers in Florida."[20]

The LA Times reported that "African-American leaders denounced the caging scheme as 'another 'shameful' Republican effort to keep blacks from voting.'"[21]

Articles and resources

See also


  1. Margie Burns, "Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty Testifies to Congress One Last Time," The Brad Blog, June 21, 2007.
  2. Margie Burns, "Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty Testifies to Congress One Last Time," The Brad Blog, June 21, 2007.
  3. Justin Levitt and Andrew Allison, Reported Instances of Voter Caging', Brennan Center For Justice, June 29, 2007.
  4. Martin Tolchin, GOP Memo Tells of Black Vote Cut, New York times, October 25,1986.
  5. Democratic National Committee v Republican National Committee, Project Vote, gathered December 9, 2008.
  6. Florida does not have open primaries, so the majority of voters declare a party affiliation when they register to vote. Collier County Supervisor of election statistics [1]records indicate 101,271 registered Republicans of 200,926 voters as of October 1, 2008.
  7. Naples Daily News, September 20, 2008, [2]
  8. Naples Daily News, September 20, 2008, [3]
  9. Naples Daily News, Letters to the editor, September 25, 2008, [4]
  10. Naples Daily News, September 22, 2008, Don't be Intimidated, Don't Yield Your Vote[5]
  11. Ohio caging, see David G. Savage, "Battle brewing in Ohio over voting-record discrepancies," Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2008.
  12. Ertha Jane Melzer, "Lose your house, lose your vote," Michigan Messenger, September 10, 2008.
  13. emptywheel, "Michigan Dems and the Obama Campaign Sue for Foreclosure-Related Vote-Caging,", Firedoglake, September 16, 2008.
  14. Marcy Wheeler, "MI Republicans Admit to Illegal Foreclosure Scheme, “Surrender” to Democrats,", Emptywheel, October 20, 2008.
  15. Jonathan E. Kaplan, DOJ says it is monitoring Michigan GOP, Michigan Messenger, September 24, 2008.
  16. Montana statement by Project Vote, see Project Vote Blasts GOP Attack on Montana Voter, Jackson Free Press, October 3, 2008.
  17. Greg Palast, "New Florida vote scandal feared," BBC News, Oct. 26, 2004.
  18. Greg Palast, "Buffalo Soldiers Scrubbed by Secret GOP Hit List,", undated.
  19. Amanda Terkel, "Post Reporter: 'So What Is This Caging Thing?'" Think Progress, May 25, 2007.
  20. Amanda Terkel, "Did White House Pull Nomination To Avoid Questions Over 2004 Minority Voter Suppression?" Think Progress, March 2, 2007.
  21. tonyroma, "Republicans 'Caged' in DOJ Scandal," Drudge Retort, May 26, 2007.

External resources

External articles






Tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law, according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times.