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'In Justice': David Iglesias On U.S. Attorney Firings

An internal Justice Department investigation has concluded that the controversial U.S. attorney firings of 2006 were of a partisan political nature. One of the seven fired attorneys, Iglesias discusses his book, In Justice, an insider's account of the affair.


Other segments from the episode on October 8, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 8, 2008: Interview with David Iglesias; Interview with Zach Stalberg; Interview with Tova Wang; Commentary on language.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
"In Justice": David Iglesias On U.S. Attorney Firings


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. A record breaking turnout is expected on Election Day. Today, we're talking about dirty tricks and political manipulation of the voting process. Our first guest, David Iglesias, is a former U.S. attorney in New Mexico who thinks he was fired because of his refusal to prosecute voting fraud cases that he thought were without merit - cases that would have likely cut down on Democratic votes - and for refusing to rush an indictment of Democratic leaders, right before the 2006 election. Iglesias is one of the nine U.S. attorneys who were fired by the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales, for what many believe were politically-motivated reasons.

Late last month, attorney general Michael Mukasey appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether criminal charges should be brought against Alberto Gonzales and other officials, in connections with the firings. Iglesias's case is cited as the key reason why a counsel should be appointed.

David Iglesias has written a new book called, "In Justice: Inside the Scandal That Rocked the Bush Administration." He writes that in 2002, less than a year after he stepped into his new job, the Justice Department sent an email to every U.S. attorney, suggesting they should immediately start investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases.

Iglesias didn't realize this emphasis was unique to the Bush administration. I asked him what made this emphasis on voting fraud unusual.

Mr. DAVID IGLESIAS (Former U.S. Attorney, New Mexico): You have to understand, Terry, there are 4,000 - approximately 4,000 federal criminal laws to prosecute. Most of the voter-fraud crimes are contained in just a couple of statutes. There's just not a whole lot - a lot there, and they've not really become - they have not traditionally been something that U.S. attorneys spent much time doing.

For instance, in my office in New Mexico, and my district covers the entire state, the last voter fraud prosecution was in 1992. So it had been 10 years. So I thought it was - later as I reconstructed things, I found it was odd that there was a push to investigate and prosecute voter-fraud cases, because for the most part they're misdemeanors.

They're not serious felonies in which people are going to spend years in federal prison. In one case that I did find, I reviewed the file, I got it out of archives, and I looked at it, and I think the two ladies that were convicted, ended up serving two years, a year and a half. I mean, very, very minor sentences.

GROSS: You point out that the emphasis had formerly been on safeguarding the franchise for disadvantaged citizens of every description, but now the new emphasis in the Bush administration was on using federal power to take people off the rolls, who were accused of voter fraud. At what point did you start to think that there was a political agenda behind this emphasis on voter fraud?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, after I examined the evidence, which is what any good ethical prosecutor does, I set up an election-fraud task force in 2004, based on the apparent explosion of voter fraud problems we were having in New Mexico. Lots of the local media ran stories. Underage people were getting voter-registration forms.

So I sincerely believe there to be a significant problem in New Mexico with voter fraud. So I set up a task force, which I was roundly criticized by Republican conservative operatives, stating that they thought it was a joke. They believed that there was a tremendous problem, and it was my duty to investigate it by myself, just the FBI and myself.

I refused to do that, because I knew enough about politics in New Mexico, to know that anytime you're snooping around using FBI agents, it could be perceived as a partisan-political investigation. So I included Democrats, I included state and local officials, in addition to the Justice Department Public Integrity Section and the FBI.

I wanted this to be above board and bipartisan. And so we investigated, and after almost two years, I didn't find one case I could prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So, I didn't file anything.

GROSS: So, what did you think the political motivation was for the Bush administration emphasis on finding and prosecuting voter fraud?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, all it takes is a few well-timed and well-placed voter-fraud prosecutions, before an election to send a chilling message out to the community. And frankly, there are people out there who have the right to vote, but maybe afraid that if they didn't get their registration perfectly right, they're subject to federal investigation and prosecution.

And that's - I mean, that crosses over from a legitimate law-enforcement reason into - and improper political reason. So, reconstructing what happened to me, it was clear to me that the Justice Department's awesome powers was being used in an improper partisan way.

GROSS: To intimidate people?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, sure. In fact, there are instances I'm aware of, not in New Mexico, but across the country, where older voters who don't have driver's licenses, because they're legally blind, but perhaps they don't have a birth certificate, they can't prove where they were born.

They can't vote, and that strikes me as being unbelievably un-American that somebody can't vote, because they can't find their driver's license, or they can't find their birth certificate.

GROSS: Now, you were also investigating a group called ACORN, which is an acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. And one of their projects is to register new voters. What were you looking into with ACORN?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Right. ACORN was active in New Mexico, which is considered a swing state and a bellwether state. We - in fact, the one case that had some merit that at the end of the day we couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt, was involving a lady who worked for ACORN, who was signing up people who did not have the right to vote.

For example, she signed up a 15-year-old boy. However, after interviewing her, it became clear to us that she did it for the money. She was getting paid on a piecemeal basis. She was low-income herself, so, you know, one of the things I would've had to prove to trial was that she did this to - with the intent to affect the outcome of that election, and it was clear to me that she couldn't care about the outcome of the election, and should - had this gone to trial, she would have - I don't think it would even gone to the jury. I think the judge would have thrown it out of court.

GROSS: Were you pressured to keep pursuing this, even though you thought that you didn't have a case?

Mr. IGLESIAS: I wasn't pressured directly by the Justice Department. I mean, Alberto Gonzales or his deputy didn't call me and say, you know, you keep that - to find these cases and crack it down. It was the local Republicans. It was the local conservative wing, the activists who were just convinced there were hundreds, if not more, provable cases of voter fraud, and it was my duty to investigate and prosecute.

So, I would get phone calls, long and rambling phone calls, I would get emails. I remember seeing an email in last week's report about the state-party chairman saying you need to be a part of the team, and which was unbelievably inappropriate, because a U.S. attorney once in office has to remain apolitical. It's required of us just like it is for a federal judge, that the state party chairman did not understand that difference.

I ignored that email. But there were lots of instances in which my voting-fraud coordinator, courier federal prosecutor, would also receive these emails and these letters basically saying, you all are asleep at the watch. You need to do something. You need to prosecute these cases.

GROSS: They way you describe it in your book, it sounds like you think that Republicans pressured you to investigate voter fraud, because the Republican party thought it would give them the edge in the election. So, how does investigating voter fraud give Republicans the edge? Was - is the implication that it would eliminate Democratic votes?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Sure, I never had any pressure to investigate Republican political figures or Republican-backed organizations. The point to make here is you have to remember, in the 2000, Al Gore's margin of victory in New Mexico was less than 400 votes. It was a razor-thin race.

States like New Mexico that are that close, a perfectly-timed investigation and indictment can make a difference in terms of scaring away those people who may have a right to vote, but may be afraid that they didn't fill out their paperwork right. They may think there are federal agents in polling booths - polling stations which is not the fact, but they may think that. You know, what this experience taught me was to build additional firewalls between partisan-political activity and law-enforcement activities.

GROSS: So, in other words, the type of voting fraud that you were being asked to investigate involved the - demographically the kind of voter, who would more typically be a Democrat, immigrants, minorities, poor people - is that...

Mr. IGLESIAS: Which is - my understanding is, that's the type of demographic that ACORN was looking at.

GROSS: When they were registering people.

Mr. IGLESIAS: ACORN wasn't going to high-income areas that tend to be Republican. They weren't going to - or rather, they were going to more low-income areas that have yes, a lot of immigrants, minority, elderly populations.

GROSS: You were just one of the U.S. attorneys who was fired for what appears to have been political reasons. What did you learn from some of your fellow fired U.S. attorneys, about pressure on them to pursue voting irregularities that they didn't think were real issues?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, I can think of two other districts in the United States. One would be the Western District of Washington, which is the Seattle area in which John McCain received the phone call from Congressman Doc Hastings, chief of staff, in which they wanted to, you know - inquiring about confidential matters.

If you recall, there was a gubernatorial race that had to be recounted three times there, and they wanted John to get involved in that, even though it's purely a state matter, didn't have a federal nexus. There was tremendous pressures put on John to investigate and indict people. Well, John looked at the evidence just like I did, and didn't have a provable case, so he naturally didn't file a case.

When John was being interviewed by Harriet Miers at the White House, the first question she asked John was why are the Washington Republicans so angry at you? So that tells me very clearly they had communicated their anger about John not indicting bogus cases to the White House.

The other district was in Kansas City in which Todd Graves was also put under pressure to find voter-fraud cases. Missouri is a swing state also, and there was allegations of ongoing systemic voter fraud. Todd looked into the matter, investigated it, didn't have any provable cases, so he didn't file it either. Todd was the first - Todd Graves was the first U.S. attorney to be forced out in 2006, it later turned out to be nine of us.

But Todd was the first one, and in my way of thinking, Todd was the beta. He was the test case to see if there'd be any media or political pushback, and there was none.

GROSS: You write in your book "In Justice," a U.S. attorney with a partisan agenda could tie up otherwise settled election results with all manner of investigation, indictments and prosecutions, no matter what the merits of the case.

In short, U.S. attorneys wielded the power to wreak havoc on the electoral process, if they so intended. What do you mean by that? How could U.S. attorneys wreak havoc on the electoral process?

Mr. IGLESIAS: If it's a close race in which it's unsettled who the actual winner is. I mean, you go back to Florida in 2000. What if the U.S. attorneys then would have started filing indictments, claiming that one side or the other were engaging in massive voter-fraud case - voter fraud activities, that would've had to have been litigated, that would've affected the actual outcome of who actually won.

So, you could've used the criminal process in a partisan-political matter. And it's my contention that's not good. That's not a good practice, especially since when you keep in mind, an indictment is merely an accusation. It's not proof. It's saying we have some evidence, we have enough evidence we think, to charge somebody. But it's not at the point yet we could prove it in court.

You get an unscrupulous U.S. attorney who files this type of election-fraud or voter-fraud matter in an unsettled case, and it's going to have a devastating impact on finding out who the winner actually is.

GROSS: You write in your book that you think the U.S. attorneys were expected to help fulfill Karl Rove's goal of a permanent Republican majority. Would you explain what you mean?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, Karl Rove had this idea that it'd be possible to actually create a permanent Republican majority in Congress on both sides of the House, and to - I guess, even into the White House, to have a monopoly over the two of the three branches of the government.

And I think Rove is the first person who was able to figure out that you could use the Justice Department in a partisan way to affect the outcome of the elections, using the awesome power of the federal indictment. And what he failed to understand, or refused to understand is the Justice Department was one agency that had a long history of staying above partisan matters.

That it was the watchdog, it was the agency that provided legal advice for the President about what he could or could not do. And there was the attempt which began, but I'm glad to say, I don't think was successful.

But there was the attempt to politicize the Justice Department at the highest levels and throughout the country, because most of the Justice Department is comprised of United States attorneys out in the districts. We have a lot more federal prosecutors out in the 50 states, than work at Washington D.C.

GROSS: When you were describing that you think the U.S. attorneys were expected to help fulfill Karl Rove's goal of a permanent Republican majority, do you think that part of that goal was to have you as attorneys in place, who would, you know, actively pursue voter-fraud cases that would get Democrats knocked of the rolls, and then have Republican judges in place, who would rule on related cases in ways that would be favorable to the Republican party?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Oh, I think that's conceivable. The thing you have to keep in mind is we never got any direction, any specific direction from Karl Rove. This was in my view, and I think once we get to the evidence in the White House, you'll see probably memoranda and emails from Rove to Gonzales, indicating what he would like to see done.

But none of that's been released, and the White House is fighting Congress in terms of producing evidence. But I mean, I believe the evidence suggesting what you just stated is out there. But no one has had the chance to reveal it, because of alleged executive-privilege matters.

GROSS: The Justice Department released a report late last month by its inspector general, criticizing the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys in the process that led to them, and the report recommends a prosecutor be named to continue the investigation.

Your case was singled out as the key reason why a council should be appointed to investigate whether any criminal offense was committed, surrounding your firing. How does that feel to have your case singled out as perhaps the most egregious example?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Vindication, that the rule of law actually exists. It's not some dry arcane academic concept that I've taught about with the Navy. Last week was a good week. It really restored my faith in checks and balances.

It restored my faith that the Justice Department is back toward becoming what it once was, which was an apolitical organization that gives its best honest broker advice to the people in power. And I have faith that eventually we'll find out what happened, both through the litigation process that the Congress has filed against White House officials, and both through this special prosecutor who's been appointed.

GROSS: Who would you like to see testify, that has so far refused to comply?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, clearly, Karl Rove, Harriett Miers, Josh Bolton. You know, those are critical to find out what the plan was to use U.S. attorneys in a improper manner.

GROSS: Is there any single question you'd like - most like to know the answer to?

Mr. IGLESIAS: I'd just like to know why they thought they could get away with it? I mean, did they really think that the power structure in Washington D.C. would allow this? I'm convinced that had this scandal broken two years prior, that it would have never made the light of day, because Congress would not have exercised its oversight, it would have never called hearings, and my colleagues and I would have had to have gone away quietly, because no one would have listened.

GROSS: And because it was a Republican Congress?

Mr. IGLESIAS: Because it was a Republican Congress, who would have done the old institutional nudge and wink, and wouldn't have done anything. And I'm very grateful to people like Chuck Schumer and John Conyers for exercising their legitimate oversight, and uncovering what turned out to be this enormous can of worms. Not just with the U.S. attorneys, but with other things going on at the Justice Department.

GROSS: Do you think that there's still partisan pressure on U.S. attorneys?

Mr. IGLESIAS: I don't believe so. And I base it on speaking with quite a few currently-serving United States attorneys that have all confirmed to me. Not only have they supported my colleagues and me, but that they have unprecedented independence, which is really what the scandal is all about.

It's about maintaining the independence, the historic independence of United States attorneys, who have to be able to call the shots, and not let any outside person or organization do that for them.

GROSS: What are you going to be looking for on the days preceding the election, and on Election Day, regarding how partisan politics might enter the process of investigating voter fraud?

Mr. IGLESIAS: I would look to see if there are any hi-vis(ph) investigations announced by United States attorneys across the country, if they're looking for voter fraud, if they're setting up task forces like I did, and Steve Biskupic did in Milwaukee in 2004. But I would look and see if allegations of voter fraud in the community are actually being investigated, and to what extent are they receiving ink.

I do know, in Albuquerque for example last month, there were some coverage about voter fraud in terms of false registrations. And I'm glad to see that the guy that took my place hasn't taken the bait.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. IGLESIAS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: David Iglesias is one of nine U.S. attorneys whose firings are being investigated by a special prosecutor. His new book is called "In Justice."
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Voter Intimidation Efforts In Philadelphia


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look at deception, caging and intimidation techniques that threaten to disenfranchise voters as reported in a new study of 10 swing states. But first, we have a very strange example from the city Fresh Air is based in, Philadelphia.

My guest, Zack Stalberg, is the president of the city's election watchdog group, The Committee of Seventy. He's former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He's brought with him a flyer that urges some voters not to vote, for their own protection. Zack Stalberg, welcome to Fresh Air. Tell us about this flyer that you've been keeping track of.

Mr. ZACK STALBERG (President, Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia; Former Editor, Philadelphia Daily News): An anonymous flyer started to show up in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia and around some colleges, really aimed at keeping people from coming to the polls on Election Days, with bad information.

GROSS: And what's the gist of it?

Mr. STALBERG: The gist of it is that if you have outstanding warrants, if you had once been a felon, if you have outstanding traffic tickets, that you could be - this is a trap. Voting is a trap.

GROSS: And it's written as if it were an anonymous letter. Would you read the opening paragraph for us?

Mr. STALBERG: Sure. Recently at school, an Obama supporter approached me during a Rock the Vote assembly. He informed me that on the day of the election, there will be undercover officers to execute warrants on those who come to vote, based on the anticipated turnout.

He advised me that if I had any outstanding warrants or traffic offenses, I should clear them up prior to voting. They assume this to be an opportunity for those who normally go by fake names and addresses, to give their real names and ID's, allowing them to place name and face together and voila, got you. Arrested on the spot. So, if you have one or the other, take care of it.

GROSS: And one of the amazing things about this flyer is that in another paragraph, this anonymous writer makes it seem as if it's coming from Obama.

Mr. STALBERG: Yes. Well, it's very cleverly done. I should say that I have had Republicans suggest that this was written by Democrats in a way to cast a bad light on Republicans. So, we shouldn't automatically assume that it came from the Republican side. But it is as these kinds of things go, this is very cleverly done.

GROSS: How have you been tracking where this flyer has been disseminated, how it's been posted?

Mr. STALBERG: This flyer has mostly appeared on telephone polls and the like, in around college campuses and low-income neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, in places where people might have had outstanding traffic tickets, or some sort of a criminal record that was disposed of, but this might scare them away from the polls.

GROSS: What are your fears about how this flyer is going to actually affect the vote?

Mr. STALBERG: In this case, I would say that it's - there's plenty of time to discourage it. It's the stuff that comes out a day, or two, or three days before the election. It really has the opportunity to scare people away.

Another fact here is that these young voters and new voters have the tendency to register, feel they have done their work, and not necessarily show up to vote on Election Day. So, this is one more thing that helps keep them away.

GROSS: Do you have any evidence that people believe this? Have you heard on the streets, any place, somebody saying to you, did you know that you'd get arrested if you - if there was a warrant out for you, and you went to a voting place?

Mr. STALBERG: Yes, at community meetings, on college campuses. I've talked to a lot of people who believe information like this, and who don't want to get nailed. It can be as simple as outstanding traffic tickets. But if you owe a fair amount of money, and you don't have it, and your commitment to voting isn't that deep in the first place, then it can certainly have an effect.

GROSS: So you think there's more to come of flyers like these, disseminating false information to discourage people from voting?

Mr. STALBERG: There's no question in my mind. It's the biggest election in anybody's memory. A lot of it will hang on the new voters, and the - those who haven't voted before. And I think it'll come from both sides frankly. Voter suppression has become a science in this country, and it's an ugly, mean science, but it's part of the election process.

GROSS: Zack Stalberg, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. STALBERG: Thank you.

GROSS: Zach Stalberg is the president of the Philadelphia election watchdog group, The Committee of Seventy.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Voting Access In 10 Key States


My guest is Tova Wang. She's just written a report about caging, deception, intimidation, voting machine allocation, and other problems that threaten to disenfranchise voters in 10 swing states. The report is jointly sponsored by Common Cause and the Century Foundation.

Wang is the vice president of research at Common Cause. Why is challenging someone's right to vote sometimes used as a political tactic?

Ms. WANG (Vice President of Research, Common Cause): Well, here's the way it works. I mean, usually a party, or a group, or even individuals will send out a mailing, and they will send that mailing just to people in a certain community that they know is a demographic that typically votes for the party that they oppose.

And any piece of mail that comes back as undeliverable from that community, they will put that person's name on a list, and they will use that list either to challenge the person's eligibility to be on a registration rolls, or they will actually take that list with them on Election Day, and challenge people's right to vote at the polls.

The interesting thing about this is that the groups and individuals who do this, tend to make big announcements that they're doing it when they do, which makes a lot of people suspect that it's not actually because they really thing that there are all these ineligible voters who are going to come out and vote, but rather it's meant to make people nervous about voting, and think that they might be challenged or have problems at the polls when they turn up on Election Day. And so, it's become quite controversial.

GROSS: That technique that you've described is what is known as caging?

Ms. WANG: That's right.

GROSS: And which are the groups that are being targeted in these cagings?

Ms. WANG: Well, in Montana, it is being undertaken by the Republican Party, and the Democratic party contends that they are targeting Democrats. The Republicans say that they are targeting people who have filed change of addresses, but have not changed their voter registration, and that they happen to be predominantly Democrats.

Typically, unfortunately, minority neighborhoods will be targeted for this kind of activity. That's been sort of the traditional route to go.

GROSS: Have there been any states that have made efforts to legally prevent caging as a way to manipulate the vote?

Ms. WANG: Well, no state has completely eliminated as a possibility, but there are states who have made it more difficult to abuse the practice of caging and challenges. Actually, the model law for this in my estimation is in New Mexico, where they actually do not allow just any voter to challenge the voting rights with the eligibility of another voter, but restrict it to the secretary of state, or the county-party chair, or 20 voters in a group to challenge, and only on Election Day itself, only poll workers are allowed to challenge voters, not other voters.

And in a piece of good news, I think, in this election cycle, having experienced mass caging and challenges in the 2004 election, Ohio actually changed their law, and the secretary of state has even taken further action to try and improve it even more.

Now under Ohio law, you're not allowed to challenge someone within 20 days of the election, and they will have a hearing, and you know, various procedures will have to be undertaken. And then on Election Day itself, the only people - again, like New Mexico, the only people who are allowed to make challenges to other voters on Election Day are poll workers, not other voters.

So, you won't have the situation where groups will be claiming that they will have people there, either for the purpose of challenging other voters on Election Day, and that was a real step in the right direction.

GROSS: There's a lot of new voters who registered this year. What are some of the challenges you're afraid they might face?

Ms. WANG: Well, one of the concerns that we have is that there are so many people registering. And even now as the registration deadlines are coming this week, and have already passed in some places, the election administrators are having a real challenge processing them all, more so in some states than in others.

And so there is real concern that a lot of these new voters will not end up on the voter registration list in time, especially for early voting, because you know, in some of these states they start voting while - a few, they've started already, and then several more will be in the coming weeks.

And of - even more concerned in those states that are taking these voter registration forms, and putting them under a microscope, that's really delaying the process, and rejecting voter registration applications in a way that is not doing any productive good, and is threatening the disenfranchisement of a number of voters.

And I point particularly to Florida, where this has come up. In Florida, they are requiring that the information that a voter puts on their registration application, exactly match the information that the state already has in their DMV records, or social security administration records. And this has already resulted in well more than 7000 people having their voter registration forms initially rejected.

And it's usually for silly things like, typos were made in the processing of the application, someone may have used a different variation of their name, you know, David or Dave, or put in a middle name where they don't have a middle name in the other forms.

And so this is becoming a real problem there, both in that people may end up coming to the polls, and only being able to cast provisional ballot, and it's also a problem in that I suspect that it is slowing down the process of getting all those voter registrations, processing them and putting people on the list.

GROSS: So, in a place like Florida, where voter eligibility is being challenged, because there's a slight discrepancy between how they registered to vote, the way they gave their name there, and the way it's on other records in the state. Are there partisan reasons behind that? Like, what's the political motivation behind that?

Ms. WANG: You know, I can't really divine anybody's intentions behind this. I know that the secretary of state there and the governor there, defend law as being necessary to make sure that there is no voter fraud, although we have no evidence that there has been any voter fraud of the kind that they're talking about, or trying to preventing in the state of Florida.

But the truth is that this is not a very good process to ensure that there's not voter fraud, and it is a very good process for potentially disenfranchising thousands of voters. And so I take them at their word that they think that this is an essential process to undertake, but my estimation of the balance of good and harm is that they are doing much more harm with it, than any good they might possibly be doing.

GROSS: One of the groups that risks having its votes challenged is students…

Ms. WANG: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Who often have two addresses, the home address where they're from, and the address where they're living in the city that they're attending college. So what risks do they face at the polls?

Ms. WANG: Well, you know, this is not a new phenomenon, but we are seeing it already happen across the country, students being challenged as to their right to vote, based on the allegation that they are not true residents of the community in which they go to school, which for most students simply is not the case.

And the most recent, most sort of egregious example, this was in Virginia where this has happened before, where the State Board of Elections continues to this moment to who have a questionnaire on their website, implying that students are risking their financial lead and scholarships, and status as a dependent on their parent's tax returns and their health insurance, and all these kinds of things if they register to vote from school in Virginia.

None of which is true for these student voters. If a student considers where they go to school, their community and where they are residents, then they are absolutely able and have the right to vote from their school.

GROSS: The turnout for this election is expected to be very large. In Ohio in 2004, there were several polling places where the lines were hours long, and I'm wondering if there has been any attempt to make sure in this election that in Ohio and other places, there's an adequate number of voting machines.

Ms. WANG: Well, ironically, it has been to some degree, at least in Ohio, but in most states, it certainly has not. Most states do not have any kind of state standard for the minimum number of voting machines you must have, for a certain number of voters.

And so, it's a completely local decision on how many voting machines will be purchased, and how they will be distributed. And you know, in fairness to election administrators, one of the big problems is, we have all these new voters, which we've all been hoping for, and we don't have any new money.

And so, we have the same number of machines most likely in most places, except where they have made allocations at the state or local level for more machines. And so, we also don't know how they're going to be allocated. On Ohio specifically, the secretary of state there issued a directive asking the counties to have one machine per every 175 voters, which is a pretty good ratio.

And she asked that counties, who are not going to use that formula, publicly disseminate what their plans are for allocation of voting machines.

GROSS: This election is happening during an incredible mortgage crisis and economic crisis. So many people have lost their homes in foreclosures. How might that affect their ability to vote?

Ms. WANG: Well, there's sort of two things going on there. One is the fear that lists of people who are in foreclosure proceedings will be drawn up, and used as a basis to challenge people's eligibility to vote, and the fact that someone is in foreclosure proceedings is not an all-good indication of whether they are eligible to vote or not, first of all because even if you're in foreclosure, it usually takes a year or more to actually then leave your house and move.

And also, because under most state laws, you are allowed to use that - your old polling place as a place from which you vote, if you have moved within a certain period of the election, and within a certain geographic range of where you lived before. The more serious concern in some ways is that because of the foreclosure crisis, even more Americans than usual may have moved recently.

And especially if they've moved out of state or far away from where they were living before, not have realized that they need to re-register. And so, the concern is, is that a lot of people will assume that their registration has moved with them, and hopefully someday will have a process by which voter registration is not so much of a burden on the citizen, but actually will be a government responsibility to a greater degree, but right now that's not the case.

And so, that these people may show up at the polls, and not realize that they're not registered.

GROSS: Some states no require voter ID at the polls, in order for you to vote. What are some of the battleground states that require that now, and what kind of issues is that presenting?

Ms. WANG: Well, identification rules vary tremendously by states, and people should know that in about half the states, there's a very minimal ID requirement, but the number-one state on the list in this regard is Indiana. Indiana has the most-strict ID law in the country, and it is now considered a swing state.

In Indiana, every voter is required to produce a government-issued photo ID at the polling place in order to vote. This generally speaking means a driver's license. And so that anyone that doesn't currently have a driver's license, is basically left at this point to scramble to somehow get one, which means they have to produce a birth certificate in most cases, an original copy.

And so, if they don't have that birth certificate, they're going to - have navigate the system, and pay for it, and then go to a DMV or Board of Elections to get the proper identification card that they will need to vote. This is obviously something that will disproportionately impact minorities, and particularly students, and older people who will not have an Indiana driver's license.

The other part of the problem with the identification issue is that in the last couple of election cycles, we've seen tremendous confusion over ID, and poll workers asking people or demanding ID that is not required.

GROSS: You know, sometimes during elections there are rumors that are spread, that keep people from going to the polls, because they're afraid that they're going to be ineligible to vote, or that they will be punished in some way.

Ms. WANG: Right.

GROSS: So what are some of the rumors you're hearing this year, particularly in the swing states?

Ms. WANG: Traditionally, they've been flyers that give misinformation about the voting process, and we're seeing this again in Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area this year. A flyer in black communities is being distributed that implies that if you have any outstanding parking tickets, and you go to vote, they will be there waiting for you to arrest you, and this is not unusual, and we see those kinds of flyers every year.

There's a whole email rumor going on about whether you can or cannot wear campaign clothing to the polling place, when you go to vote on Election Day, and in fact actually that is a state-by-state and often county-by-county determination.

And so, it is actually something people need to inquire into a little bit. You know, other things that we've seen in recent elections are robocalls the night before the election, telling people that their polling places changed, completely false. And so, you know, I have every expectation given that it's already started, and given the closeness of this election, that those kinds of tactics will be used again.

GROSS: Is it ever possible to trace those misinformation flyers to the source?

Ms. WANG: They haven't been so far. And I think part of the problem is, is that law enforcement on all levels has been not very engaged in investigating and prosecuting people behind that. It's difficult to find the people in the first place, and I understand that they are also hamstrung by the fact that - and this comes as a great surprise to people, but there is no federal law and in most cases no state law, that directly criminalizes this kind of behavior.

Ironically, Senator Barack Obama back in 2005, introduced legislation called Deceptive Practices bill that would criminalize this kind of activity, and required certain measures be taken to ensure that the communities affected be given the correct information immediately.

A handful of states have their own laws on this, but most don't, although people should realize that to the extent that they are used to intimidate voters who are racially discriminatory. There's the Voting Rights Act that can be used, but as an area that is typically not pursued as it should be.

GROSS: Tova Wang, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. WANG: Thank you.

GROSS: Tova Wang is the vice president of research at Common Cause. Her report "Voting in 2008: Ten Swing States" was a joined project of Common Cause and the Century Foundation. You can find a link to the report on our website,
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Parsing The Politics of "Main Street"


As the financial crisis has deepened, everybody is talking about helping Main Street, and not just Wall Street. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been wondering, where exactly is Main Street, and who lives there?

GEOFF NUNBERG: In 1928, the Women's National Democratic Club offered a price for the best slogan for the Democrats in that year's elections. The winner was Mrs. Wilbur W. Hubbard of Chestertown, Maryland, who received an etching of Woodrow Wilson's tomb for her entry "Eight Years of Wall Street, Now Give Main Street A Chance."

The slogan was a bit premature. Populist anger at Wall Street and the Republicans would be a lot easier to rouse after the crash of 1929. But in fairness to Mrs. Hubbard, the slogan wasn't as hackneyed back then as it sounds today. Wall Street had long been used to refer to the financial world, but that broad use of "Main Street" only went back to 1920.

That was when Sinclair Lewis published his novel "Main Street," a satiric picture of the narrow-mindedness and shallowness of life in a small midwestern town. The book was a publishing sensation. It set the whole country to choosing up sides, and its title rapidly became a generic name. The book ushered in an age of self-confident urbanity, which regarded provincial life with ridicule and condescension.

As Harold Ross famously announced in 1925 in his prospectus for the New Yorker, the magazine would not be edited for the old lady from Debuke. But others rush to rural America's defense. In an essay called "Let Main Street Alone," the Indiana novelist Meredith Nicholson praised the neighborliness and community spirit that was always on display in the daily drama on small-town Main Streets. "Main Street" knows what America is about, Nicholson said.

And its people don't need the uplifting help of outsiders who despise them. Before long, Main Street was an approving term. When Lewis's novel first appeared, it outraged the residents of his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the model for the fictional gofer prairie of the novel. Just five years later, the town's high school athletic teams had proudly renamed themselves "The Main Streeters."

And by the time Mrs. Hubbard submitted her prize-winning slogan to the Democrats in 1928, "Main Street" stood in not just for small-town America, but for all the ordinary Americans who shared the small-town values of hard work and community. Of course, "Main Street" also implied that the real America was far from its big cities.

They were full of people who were too rich or too poor, the wrong sorts of foreigners, and reds, bohemians, and writers who turned their backs on America, and looked across the Atlantic for their cultural inspiration.

The picture of small towns as the real America, was nostalgic and outdated even back then. As it happens, "Main Street" was published in the same year in which the census showed for the first time that rural Americans had become a minority of the population. In the coming decades, that proportion would continue to dwindle, as rural areas lost population to the cities, over themselves absorb into the expanding sprawl of some nearby metropolis.

But nostalgic or no, the term "Main Street" somehow survive the urbanization of America, and it's ensuing suburbanization, which have ultimately left five out of six Americans living in metropolitan areas, most of them low-density suburbs.

It even survive the eclipse of Main Street itself, as serious commerce relocated to the malls and big-box stores. Most of the towns and subdivisions developed in the last 30 years, never had a main street in the first place.

And in the ones that still do, it's either dust blown and desolate, or has been brought back as a pedestrian friendly outdoors mall, with its restored facades, housing ice-cream parlors and gift shops, like its platonic counterpart at Disneyland. There are still places where Main Street is thriving, mostly in upscale suburbs and city neighborhoods, not to mention South Hampton and Aspen.

But for most Americans, urban or rural, the real business of life goes on at the Wal-Mart Super Center off I-94. Of course, you could say that these days, Main Street is just a name for ordinary Americans, and doesn't have a specific geographical meaning, no more than Wall Street does.

But when I hear Main Street, I still flash on a line of low buildings with Gower's Pharmacy at one corner, and the Bailey Building and Loan at the other. The name still glows with the capraesque wholesomeness that not even the combined efforts of David Lynch, the Cohen Brothers, and Wes Craven have been able to dispel.

When Sarah Palin calls herself a "Main Streeter," she isn't saying just that she's ordinary or middle class. She's suggesting that her small-town background has given her a special insight into our core values, that she can see America from her window.

And in response, Joe Biden pumps up his own Main Street cred, by mentioning his frequent trips to Home Depot and his youth in Scranton and a Delaware steel town. Back in 1920, Sinclair Lewis wrote sarcastically that Main Street is our comfortable tradition and sure faith.

That hasn't changed. Eighty years after it was first coined, Wall Street versus Main Street is still a potent political slogan. We still feel the need to write our moral differences on our geography, so we can put some actual distance between ourselves and the bad guys. Somebody should build a little plug-in that will automatically plot greed and honesty on Google maps.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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