Conservative Voter Suppression Group Humbled in Philadelphia Courtroom

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Ignorance of the Law Almost Brings Sanctions Against ACLU ‘Alternative’

A conservative advocacy group that tried mightily to purge incarcerated felons from the City of Philadelphia’s voter registration records was trounced in Philadelphia District Court last week. The case was dismissed and the group narrowly avoided sanctions by convincing the judge that it did not make a “knowingly false statement of the law.”

The group, called the American Civil Rights Union, was founded in 1998 by former Reagan administration officials as an “alternative” to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Conservatives are no doubt unhappy with the ACLU’s efforts to expose and oppose efforts to restrict access to the ballot, especially among minority and low-income voters, in states across the country.

The American Civil Rights Union has an “election integrity” unit that imagines that hordes of dead people and likewise ineligible voters casting ballots in urban areas hostile to conservative interests. Voter fraud vs. voter suppression. The battle is joined.

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The good guys.

The Case

The American Civil Rights Union’s original intent was to go after alleged “ghost” voters in Philadelphia, a quite popular  conservative pastime that conjures up the mythology of JFK greasing the wheels of Chicago’s precincts in his close 1960 presidential election victory over Richard Nixon. According to a District Court memorandum, “Plaintiff [ACRU] stated that the County [Philadelphia] ‘had nearly more registrants than eligible citizens and may not be conducting reasonable list maintenance…'”

The conservatives had no certainty of this. They were perhaps following the old adage, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The group asked to inspect Philadelphia’s voter registration records. When the City complied, it seemed all was in order, and the group did not contest a dismissal of its claim. Instead, it pivoted.

Philadelphia's stately City Hall

Philadelphia’s stately City Hall

The Pivot

Susan Carleson, president of ACRU, met with Philadelphia’s Office of City Commissioners and offered a new twist. Citing Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), the group demanded that the City remove the names of all incarcerated felons from its voter rolls. This was an obvious ploy: You delete incarcerated felons, many of whom are minority and low-income, from voter registration records, and chances are they won’t jump through the necessary hoops to become voters again when their hard time is up. It’s probably fewer votes for Democrats.

Just a thought: Where is their sense of decency? Being able to vote again probably doesn’t qualify as a second chance at life, but those things add up. There’re no better angels in this outfit.

Anyway, there was one major problem with the conservatives’ demand: The NVRA delegates this specific matter to the states. And, lo and behold, Pennsylvania law does not require that incarcerated felons be removed from voting rolls. Their status is merely suspended until the completion of their sentences.

When asked why it shouldn’t be sanctioned for misrepresenting the law, the ACRU had a “Oops!” moment: it simply assumed that Pennsylvania law had the same requirements as the group’s home state of Virginia. It was an admission that the ACRU failed to verify Pennsylvania law.

The group avoided sanctions. I suppose that counts as a sort of happy ending.

 

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Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of Enter, Stage Left.

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