With Election Day fast approaching, many long-time political observers smell something fishy in the air: House Republicans eagerly scheduled a Congressional contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder last week. The big question: Is the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee contempt vote, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., really about Holder’s role in the botched gun-tracking program infamously known as “Fast and Furious?”
Or, is it really an ugly Republican power play based on Holder’s potential role in radically altering (or repairing) the political landscape in November 2012?
Could the contempt vote be a screen for more nefarious motives? Not unnoticed by some observers is the alignment of the contempt vote against the backdrop of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the unpopular Republican governor who recently sparked outrage and condemnation when he pursued an aggressive voter roll purging program that many said targets minorities. Others are worried that the move could turn into Gore v. Bush déjà vu if Scott isn’t stopped.
And beyond Florida is a growing list of battleground states with pockets of voters who would vote for incumbent President Obama on November 6 — if they can first navigate the muddied waters of new voter ID laws and, now, voter roll purging.
“This is Republicans actively trying to keep Holder from doing his job on voter suppression tactics in swing states,” said one senior Democratic aide, speaking off record.
Observers have been bracing for dirty political tactics since the primaries. And the evidence could be in the convenience of the timing, as tempers flared last week over Holder’s fate. The Committee has probed the program for some time, with Issa and other Republicans on the Committee pressing the Attorney General during testy hearing exchanges over exactly what happened in Fast and Furious. Started in 2006 under the Bush Administration as Project Gunrunner, Fast and Furious was a bold attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to somehow track illegal weapons sales and distribution to Mexican drug cartels from the United States. The ATF, eager to catch illegal arms dealers and their cartel connections, pursued a plan whereby law enforcement would turn a blind eye to the sales in hopes they’d arrest criminals in the transfer.
What ended up happening, however, was a failed “gunwalking” program in which out of 2,000 firearms sold, only 700 were uncovered. Issa pressed Holder for a year for discovery documents.
After months of hearings, heated exchanges and ceaseless posturing, the chair decided to hold a contempt vote against Holder, claiming in a statement that “Congress has an obligation to investigate unanswered questions about attempts to smear whistleblowers, failures by Justice Department officials to be truthful and candid with the congressional investigation, and the reasons for the significant delay in acknowledging reckless conduct in Operation Fast and Furious.”
The ranking Democrat on the Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was unleashed on Issa, firing back and calling the contempt vote an “extreme and blatant abuse of the Congressional contempt power that undermines the credibility of the Committee.”
But, it’s the timing of what appears to be a dug-in and concerted effort to force Holder out that is breeding some skepticism amongst readers of the electoral tea leaves. While Republicans on Capitol Hill are preoccupied with Fast and Furious and abortion votes, there is growing concern over the wave of voter ID laws being passed throughout the country, a movement primarily led by Republican state legislatures and Governors. Critics of the laws say it’s a GOP attempt to rig the voting game, since the laws seem to unfairly target minority voters, seniors, young voters and others that would lean Democratic in an election year.
Even more suspect is that the states that have passed the strictest or the most draconian voter ID laws all have Republican Governors and are led by GOP legislatures. From Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Mississippi to Florida, Georgia, Indiana and Kansas, there has been an uptick in voter ID laws since after the 2008 election.
This election year finds the Justice Department exceptionally busy as it struggles to enforce federal voting rights law in what is turning into a clash of institutional, party and political heavyweights over the electoral outcome on November 6. Holder’s DOJ, after mounting criticism from civil rights leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus for not doing enough, finally filed a complaint against Florida.
It could get even busier as reports cite voter purging in other states that’s making Florida look like child’s play. Congressional Black Caucus members claim a combined loss of 2.5 million voters from the rolls in Texas and Ohio. After scanning through official documents from all Ohio county Boards of Elections, the Columbus-based Free Press recently discovered over 1 million voters purged from the rolls, with very urban Cuyahoga County, housing Cleveland and a large African-American population, leading with nearly 268,000 purges.
Hence, Holder could be the key to stopping the suppression tactics, particularly in key swing states where the outcome of the election could hinge on a few votes. But, enforcing voting rights laws could get even trickier and more taxing if the Justice Department finds itself under siege from contempt votes, subpoenas and pressure from the conservative blogosphere for Holder to resign. As it stands, the DOJ has only been able to respond to 11 out of “18,000 requests under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” according to Holder.
In the meantime, it could all come down to an eleventh hour deal, as Holder acquiesced later in the week, offering to release documents related to Fast and Furious. “The Department’s willingness to provide these materials is a serious, good faith effort to bring this matter to an amicable resolution,” Holder wrote in a recent letter to Issa, extending an olive branch in the dispute. “However, I continue to believe that a meeting is required both to assure that there are no misunderstandings about this matter, and to confirm that the elements of the proposal we are making will be deemed sufficient to render the process of contempt unnecessary. I seek your direct engagement for precisely that reason.”