Jim Sleeper: Treat, or Trick? Elections Officials, Beware!





In honor of Halloween, here's one more frisson about election tricks perverse enough to block the treat of a victory.

One Saturday morning in 1982 I walked into the Brooklyn Board of Elections and found 30 supporters of then-State Senator Vander Beatty" checking" voter registration cards from the recent primary election.

The hobgoblins of Florida, 2000, never outdid what I saw that morning in Brooklyn. But, believe me, it can happen again.

Beatty's minions -- the young Rev. Al Sharpton among them -- were actually fabricating"evidence" of voter fraud in Beatty's recent defeat in his bid to succeed Shirley Chisholm, who was retiring from Congress.

They were forging thousands of signatures on voter-registration cards to create enough fraud to invalidate the 54-46% victory of his opponent, State Senator Major R. Owens, in the historic Bedford Stuyvesant district, one of the first created under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Beatty would submit the Saturday morning forgeries to a county court as evidence that Owens had rigged the election!

I hadn't simply stumbled upon this scam. A political operative close to the Brooklyn Democratic machine had tipped me off. Had I not rushed down to the board that Saturday knowing what to look for, Beatty would likely have won his suit, and Owens, a redoubtable reformer, a graduate of the famed black Morehouse College, a librarian by training and a long-time progressive activist, would have been smeared.

So a lot was at stake in my Village Voice story that week on Beatty's outrageous gambit:"Look at it this way," said my tipster;"The man is either going to Congress or he's going to jail." (The pdf of these old stories is very slow, but worth the wait if you're interested. Read the second story,"Vander Batty's Desperate Gamble.")

If Beatty went to Congress, black politics in the district would take an emblematically disastrous turn, for he was a classic povertycrat, long indulged by clubhouse Democrats and a timid white liberal elite. (He'd been endorsed in the primary by the New York Times,. whose editorial arbiter of the race, the neoconservative Roger Starr, fell for the well-connected Beatty and lightly dismissed Owens' progressive politics.)

The Brooklyn judiciary that received Beatty's suit to overturn the election was notoriously full of party-clubhouse hacks just like those who ran the Board of Elections. To keep up appearances in this case, it imported a judge from the neighboring Queens machine, Eugene Berkowitz. Berkowitz ruled for Beatty, anyway, as did Brooklyn's appellate division.

Yes, let me tell you, as I watched the pious face of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certifying the vote in 2000, I saw the face of Eugene Berkowitz all over again..

Fortunately, owing to my scoop and the controversy that ensued thanks to the Times' dissident op-ed page columnist Sydney Schanberg's picking up the story, the state's highest court overturned the lower ones just in time for the general election. Owens, who said he'd felt as if he'd been in the Mississippi of the 1950s throughout the ordeal, served honorably in Congress for 24 years, retiring in 2006.

Beatty was later convicted of vote fraud, of racketeering (for looting an anti-poverty program), and of tax evasion. After serving time, he was assassinated in 1990 by a former friend.

I never did prove that Board of Elections officials -- all appointed by Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito, a diehard foe of Owens -- actively assisted Beatty's attempted scam, other than by opening their archives"to the public" early on a Saturday and then failing to supervise the visitors.

But my baptism in investigative journalism showed me that even real scoops may not interest the rest of the world if they come from the wrong side of the tracks and their implications aren't clear.To prevail, citizen-reformers and journalists must be willing to buck conventional wisdom and habits of deference. Sometimes only a committed, seasoned activist -- conservative or liberal -- can do that long enough to make others take a look.

But I also learned then that persistence fails if an activist or writer hasn't the historical memory and judgment to extract the real story from a deluge of contradictory claims and impressions. Selling my account of the Beatty scam even after it had been published meant shaking up both white liberals' and clubhouse hacks' complacency about long-standing inner-city corruption.

The sad truth is that most people resist acknowledging even incontrovertible evidence if it goes against the grain of what they believe. We need witnesses credible enough to connect the dots as well as break"news."

And that means that we need some officials who are honest enough (or angry enough, for whatever reason) to do what that political insider did by calling me early that Saturday morning.The technology may be changing, but not the corruption.

According to organizations like Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, there is already evidence of election-destabilizing activity in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. A nationwide 866-OURVOTE hotline has been set up to report voting problems.

I hope that the right officials in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida are listening, and that they know who to tip off.


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