When Artur Davis took the stage at the True the Vote national summit in Houston earlier this year, the audience, almost all of whom were white tea partiers, went wild. Davis flattered the group, thanking them for coming out when they could've been at home watching the NFL draft. But the crowd was plenty excited to see their own star draftee: a Southern black politician who had come to confirm that their agenda is not racist.
"This is not a billy club," he told the audience, waving his drivers license. "My mother, my father and grandfather were raised on the banks of the Alabama River, at the turn of 20th century. They can tell you what a billy club was and it's not this. This is not a firehose. I'm from Birmingham, Ala. I used to count on a lot of senior citizens to work the polls for me. I used to organize a lot of my elections. They can tell you what a water hose is. This is not Jim Crow."
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It's not Jim Crow. But the aggressive way that True the Vote has trained its tea party recruits to monitor voters is uncomfortably similar to tactics once employed by White Citizens Councils in Davis' very own Birmingham. The indiscriminate voter purging they've facilitated falls disproportionately on blacks and Latinos. And the hoops many may have to jump through because they lack a car, or a birth certificate, or the multiple forms that need to be filled out do eerily echo literacy tests.
Four years ago, Davis spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In late August, the former Democratic congressman and gubernatorial candidate spoke at the Republican National Convention instead. His transformation, and the message he carries, have been eagerly promoted by those who are pushing the voter fraud narrative, all facts notwithstanding.
As I listened to Davis speak in Houston, I remembered a similar summit I attended in 2006, which was organized by "Patriot" and "Minutemen" groups. These tea party predecessors were transparent about not only their anti-immigrant stances, but their hostility towards Latinos in general. They used a lot of the same language as today's tea party groups, like "taking back America" and "restoring America's heritage." And like True the Vote, they had a couple of black speakers at their summit who absolved the otherwise all-white movement of racism charges.
Most of those Patriot and Minutemen groups dissolved, just before the rise of Obama. But in 2010, tea party groups that look and sound just like them emerged, better organized and better funded. Many are just as far to the right as their predecessors, but on race specifically they use softer language. They proclaim that they just want to help improve government, and are offended by charges that they threaten black and Latino people. Their politics are not racist, they say, and if you don't believe them, just ask Artur Davis.
A Changed Man
It's often reported that Davis first broke camp with the Democratic Party when he voted against President Obama's Affordable Healthcare Act. But the break came before that, when Davis voted against the climate bill in 2009. At the time House Democrats had a safe majority and he was planning a run for governor, so he was given the benefit of the doubt. For a black person to win a statewide election in Alabama, he needs to buck the party.
But Davis lost the race for governor in 2010 and appeared to come out of it bitter against the Democratic Party. He re-emerged about a year later with an op-ed supporting photo voter ID laws, something he had voted against when he was in Congress. "When I was a congressman, I took the path of least resistance on this subject for an African-American politician," he wrote. "Without any evidence to back it up, I lapsed into the rhetoric of various partisans and activists who contend that requiring photo identification to vote is a suppression tactic aimed at thwarting black voter participation."
In 2007, Davis had co-sponsored the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, which made it unlawful to knowingly spread false information about a federal election with the intent to discourage voting. It cleared the House. In the higher chamber, a similar bill was sponsored by then-Sen. Obama. It went nowhere. Now, Davis's change of heart leads him to believe, as he wrote in his op-ed, "the most aggressive contemporary voter suppression in the African American community, at least in Alabama, is the wholesale manufacture of ballots, at the polls and absentee, in parts of the Black Belt."
He had lapsed into a new rhetoric of "various other partisans and activists" who contend that requiring photo ID deters voter fraud, without any evidence of the fraud's existence.
Davis's words were seized upon by anti-voting rights activists and voter fraud hucksters like Heritage Foundation's Hans von Spakovsky and Wall Street journal columnist John Fund. At the True the Vote national summit, Fund shared discussions he had with Davis. You have to look at local office holders for fraud, Fund said Davis told him, "because they don't ever plan to lose, because if they lose their entire lives change."
Fund went on: "In Alabama, all of the counties that Congressman Davis used to represent had black political machines and they ruthlessly kept their power through fraud."
In the same speech, Fund referred to a "former Democratic Congressman" who told him: "If your friends, if they lose an election, they just go into something called the private sector. My friends lose an election, they don't eat. ... People who can't eat will do an awful lot of things their mothers might not be proud of in order to eat."
In their book "Who's Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk," Fund and von Spakovsky devote a section, titled "Shooting the Messenger: Truth-Tellers Artur Davis and Harold Metts," to Davis's accounts of voter fraud that happened in his district when he was a Congress member. Since Fund provided no footnotes or sources to verify Davis was telling the truth, I asked Davis himself for specific examples of this fraud (Talking Points Memo also asked Davis for details, but was rebuffed).
"I know there is some fixation on the left with my support for voter ID laws. I find it interesting that I have written 65 columns on my website, not one of which deals with this issue, without your magazine writing," he wrote in an email exchange, in which he declined to discuss the matter in detail.
"We may simply have a difference of perspective," he wrote, "but voter fraud is so common in the Alabama Black Belt that I never knew it was in dispute: frankly it was not until I made the assertion and certain Democrats in Alabama decided that their best recourse was attacking my credibility.
"If you are asking if I will name individuals whose organizations regularly practice such tactics, why would I elevate unknowns to my level by identifying them and giving them a national forum? I understand that you are doing your job as a journalist but I don't owe your readers any clarification."
'Disrpupting the Narrative' With Race
Davis isn't the sole black voice proclaiming voter fraud truly exists.
Anita Montcrief is a black woman who once worked with ACORN and now has made it her mission to expose the communist agenda she says it had, as carried out through President Obama. She appears regularly in right wing media to discuss the subject. Recently, she was incensed by an article about True the Vote's reputation for voter intimidation written by News 21 investigative reporters. "Every time blacks are used as pawns in the voter fraud game, it ignores the blood spilled for our rights, including the right to vote," she wrote for Breitbart.com.
Montcrief has been on tour for a while, ever since going AWOL from ACORN, claiming to expose the no longer existing organization for trying to implement a "socialist wishlist" to upend the nation. The New York Times has already debunked her ACORN screeds line for line. But Montcrief's role, like Davis's, is not truly to document examples of fraud. Rather, it is to stir up audiences with racialized keywords that bring out the worst in the far right: "ACORN," "illegal aliens," "socialist" and so on.
True the Vote is acutely aware of this charge, and has a ready rejoinder. At a recruitment meeting convened with Americans for Prosperity in July, Logan Churchwell, True the Vote's then-newly hired media director, advised the recruits on what to do when approached by a reporter. They will accuse you of racism, he told them, and offered talking points to respond.
First, tell them that voter ID laws are a device for equal protection not voter suppression. Tell them that minority voter turnout has increased in states with voter ID laws and that voter ID laws have increased in popularity since ACORN was exposed. Note that Rhode Island passed its voter ID law with the help of black Democrats. And when asked "Why now? What's the rush with passing these laws?" say, "ACORN."
With the lone exception of the Rhode Island talking point, a pure outlier so far, each of Churchwell's talking points are canards that have been repeatedly debunked. But that's not the point.
The meeting also featured Hanna Giles, known popularly as the woman in James O'Keefe's prank videos who put on a pair of Daisy Dukes and presented herself as a prostitute in ACORN offices. The video stunts were largely responsible for dismantling ACORN, even though they were deceivingly edited and a later investigation absolved ACORN of any wrongdoing. Giles said that Andrew Breitbart told her the videos worked because they "disrupted the narrative." She now runs the America Phoenix Foundation, to help train more people to prank organizations in the name of "disrupting the narrative." She said at the True the Vote meeting that if her and O'Keefe pulled their stunt in 2008 rather than 2009, we'd probably have a different president, despite True the Vote's non-partisan rhetoric.
These days, Davis sounds like he wishes it were so. Asked recently by The Root about his change of politics, Davis said: "I really believed that Barack Obama being elected would change race in this country. I believed that it would change the way we regarded each other around racial lines. And I believed that it would make this the kind of country where African Americans could aspire to hold office without their color being a disqualifier."
Now, True the Vote and its tea party patriots are the people Davis is entrusting with changing the way we regard race.
Much has been written about voter intimidation complaints filed against True the Vote. True the Vote has denied these charges vehemently and has dispatched people like Davis and Montcrief to do the denying for them when convenient.
I sat down in July with one of True the Vote's directors, Erin Anderson in Denver, and asked her about their poll-watching philosophy of making voters feel like "driving and seeing the police following you." Anderson first responded "Anita Montcrief expresses it a lot better," before confessing that the policing analogy was a "poor choice [of words] because that implies the authority of the law."
Instead, said Anderson, the better analogy is "a parent," in whose absence "the kids will act up more." For True the Vote, American voters' default setting is corruption.
I asked Anderson if she could empathize with black and Latino voters who might find the "police following" analogy troubling, especially given our nation's racial history with police. Had they ever done or considered any racial sensitivity trainings? After all, though poll watching is legal, the way it is carried out can be unlawful.
Said Anderson, "We don't look at things from that point of view. It doesn't occur to us to do that because we're thinking, yeah, the election law is the same for everybody and we're focused on training people on what the process and what the law is, and to observe and make sure it's followed." Then she trailed off into Churchwell's talking points on racism.
"Watching" is not a neutral verb. George Zimmerman was "watching" the neighborhood before he killed Trayvon Martin. He was looking for fraudulent activity and whether he found it or not, he caught someone whom he thought fit the profile of it. Like True the Vote, he was self-authorized and believed he was doing a civic duty. And when the murder was viewed as racist by some, he was defended by saying he had black friends.
But the optics of black friendship couldn't illuminate the reasons why he was "watching" in the first place, nor his presumption that Trayvon Martin was up to something bad. And so there stands Davis, the black friend of True the Vote and the tea party, who either is unaware of their own vigilante "watching" or knows and doesn't care. In Houston, he told his new friends, "Don't let anyone tell you you are what's wrong with America, you are what's right with America!" He doesn't owe us any clarification.