Voter Intimidation and the Politicization of Justice
Last November's election was in many ways a high point. An energized electorate became engaged in a long and hard-fought campaign, and a young Senator captured the imagination of the nation. Turnout was high.
Yet, on Election Day, an obscure incident in Philadelphia served instead as a low point, and the story that has since evolved from that incident would make fair-minded Americans everywhere cringe. Individuals from the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense stood outside a Philadelphia polling place in uniforms, one of them swinging a nightstick, claiming to be providing security. Witnesses later recounted the men using racial slurs and intimidating would-be voters.
The right to cast a vote, by secret ballot, free from intimidation and coercion, is absolutely fundamental to the legitimacy of our form of government. It is a right that our veterans have fought and died defending. It is the right that separates our nation from the various tyrants and thugs around the world who give mere lip service to democracy.
The facts surrounding the case are not in question. A video of the two men is available on YouTube, where more than a million people have viewed it. Bartle Bull, a civil rights activist who worked with Robert F. Kennedy in an effort to secure voting rights for black voters in Mississippi during the 1960s, was present at the polling place that day and has been quoted as saying it was "the most blatant form of voter discrimination I have encountered in my life."
But the outrage surrounding the story does not end with the behavior of the men at the polling place that day.
Career lawyers at the Justice Department rightly pursued the case in order to bring charges. They worked on the case for months. The civil suit accused the men of "coercion, threats and intimidation...racial threats and insults...and menacing and intimidating gestures.”
This would appear to be a no brainer for prosecution. Few cases seem so clear-cut, with such convincing evidence. The men did not even show up to defend themselves against the charges, displaying as blatant a disregard for the case as they did for the rights of the individuals they intimidated on Election Day.
Yet now, political appointees at the Justice Department have stepped in and ordered the suit dropped. Apparently this Justice Department has no problem with voter intimidation or politicization of justice.
Eric Eversole, a former attorney with the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of at the Department of Justice told the Washington Times, "It is truly unprecedented for the Voting Section to voluntarily dismiss a case of such blatant intimidation. The video speaks for itself."
With this move, the Justice Department has made clear it does not take voting rights seriously. It has indicated that threats and racist insults are acceptable behavior at our nation's polling places.
Almost as outrageous has been the muted response in the media. Aside from a few notably conservative publications and columnists, the story has gone mostly unreported.
This is unacceptable, for both the individuals who enforce our nation's laws and the press, who are supposed to hold government accountable. Critics of the Bush Administration were quick to accuse the Justice Department of politicizing justice. I cannot understand where those critics are now. This case is a blatant and offensive politicization of justice.
Career civil servants pursued this case for months, looking to uphold the law and punish voter intimidation. Political appointees stepped in to stop that from happening, with no proper explanation. How are observers to come to any conclusion aside from political interference? This case stinks of political actors dismissing justice to reward political loyalties.
The President should demand Attorney General Eric Holder reverse this decision and make things right. The legitimacy of our democratic process depends on the integrity of our elections and the even-handed distribution of justice. This case has violated both of these principles.
Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) is a featured NetRight Nation contributor.