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From the vault: meet blowsy Evan and the deep disquiet of Tea Party faithful

Despite looking like a spectacled jewalike, our correspondent infiltrates a Tea Party-aligned poll squad on the US campaign trail. But will Rundle miss out on the juiciest bit?

You know we’ve got so much to get through, ah think we’ll just skip the last chapter,” said Evan, the breezy woman at the front of the class. Standing beside an overhead projector, with three ranks of eager students attending to her every word, Evan was a tall Texas drink-of-water, with a Farrah hairdo, a long s-xy drawl, and a red rash going from her neck and down her chest. Curiously, she wore a plunging blouse.

The blemish and the accent gave her an extra dimension, the wounded vulnerability of a Tennessee Williams heroine, interest, backstory. She had seen and suffered much. She was here for a serious purpose. Today, that purpose was voter fraud, the prevention thereof, and she cast a steely eye over the ranks, 30 or so potential recruits for True The Vote, the utterly non-partisan, unquestionably entirely independent voting supervision outfit that was started by a Texas Tea Party outfit, and has now spread through the country, based on nothing more than commitment, hard work and nearly a million smackeroos from DC-based right-wing fundraising outfits.

They’re focused on swing states, and especially those states — Ohio, Colorado and the like — that they allege to be hotbeds of voter fraud. They aren’t; individual at-the-poll-place identity fraud is vanishingly small, and True the Vote has been accused of running strong-arm tactics to intimidate voters who’ve created technical breaches of enrolment (misspelling their address, failing to re-register on changed address, and the like, all of which are more likely to impact on voters oriented to voting Democrat). Now they’re building a national organisation, and that’s why there’s a half-day session in the basement of the Independence Institute, a two-storey pebbledash building in the middle of nowhere. There’s fake wood panelling and a fishtank in the hallway, the faded air of a bad guy hangout from a 70s Bond film.

The class only half-fills the basement, an all-beige affair, with a table of litteratoor in the back, and steaming bain maries, filled with enough lasagne to make a carbo-raft from. Evan has been running the class for about 10 minutes when I come in. She has the air of Tea Party leaders everywhere — brisk, but friendly, knows her audience because she’s from them, but now with the added sheen and suavity of intensive training. When the Tea Party was supercharged by Fox News in 2009, it had elements of a grassroots movement, and those leaders that did emerge were super-angry at the Obama administration for reasons fair and foul.

Freedomworks and others scooped many of them up, put them through intensive workshops well within the beltway, and sent them back into the field, to sharpen the organisation. Those who never got the training can be seen instantly, because they can’t organise their anger. Evan and others have been inculcated in the dark arts, trained to steer the inchoate mass of white people in the flyover states, to a higher purpose. Here, the task is to get them to first of all shut up — and then to try and drill the basics of electoral law into them. We’re at chapter two — “how is a polling place run” — and Evan is trying to explain the difference between an affiliated observer and an election official. It’s necessary but boooooring, and the audience are as restless as any crowd of people downloading free lasagne can be.

Ma’am last year I found a house where 23 people were registered — “we’ll uh get to that in, uh, five chapters,” says Evan, glancing at the overhead projector. “Let’s save the question to the end mmmk?” Looking around, the audience is for the most-part middle-aged white women, at the lower-end of the middle-class spectrum, judging by the chain store clothes, and bargain spectacles. They are, as a class, the backbone of the Tea Party everywhere, and they’re particularly well-represented in the “True the Vote” movement. Hard to know why that is. Perhaps it is the unheroic nature of the activity, standing at Gerald Ford Middle School in Duff Plains throughout the polling day, quibbling because a voter who lives in motels neglected to change their address from the Knights Inn to the Gold Key.

True the Vote was pinged as a right-wing outfit from the start, and it rapidly acquired an ugly reputation in its foundational area, Harrison County …”

Men in the Tea Party, I’ve noted, are somewhat more enthusiastic about standing around in tricorn hats and waving “don’t tread on me” flags, than in doing the slow work of modern politics. The only people in the audience who look out of place are me, in hornrims and three-day growth looking like a Jewish ACLU lawyer with a great bebop LP collection, and a young, curly-headed man in a calico top who may as well have “Democratic Plant” tattooed on his forehead. Evan has glanced at both of us more than once, a little archly. Perhaps she’s conflicted — we are, after all, the only ones taking notes.

I’d like to remind everyone that if you want to be a pollwatcher you must be affiliated to a party or a candidate,” says Evan. “Now lissen up y’all! We cannot arrange that for you. We are a non-partisan independent group!” She will say that three or four times throughout the afternoon. True the Vote was pinged as a right-wing outfit from the start, and it rapidly acquired an ugly reputation in its foundational area, Harrison County, centred on Houston, where they browbeat and harassed election workers on any pretext. Having taken guidance from pro right-wing outfits, they saw the light — they didn’t need to be nakedly partisan. They simply advertised on Tea Party websites, and got the people they wanted. The old-fashioned tactic of bullying and scaring poor and minority voters in historically racist states yielded to anther tactic — simply enforcing voter suppression laws enacted by Republican state legislatures. It’s the old Mafia switch, from shaking down businesses to owning them. Legitimacy is the greatest crime of all.

The teaching materials reflect this, made as boring as possible, a series of black and white minimally animated chapters — how voting works, who can supervise, how to register a complaint, etc. Like much of American instruction these days, it goes at about half-speed because, unmistakeably, average Americans have simply become slower on the uptake than people elsewhere, ever so slightly, amiably stupid, a mix of a failed education system, cable TV and carbs. Evan has dampened down any red-meat red-neck race-baiting from the audience, but Democrat boy and I are waiting for the final chapter, tantalisingly displayed on the projected homepage as “a call to arms”. At that point Evan looks at us, looks at her watch, and says “wahhll I guess we’re gonna have skip the last chapter …”.Afterwards, milling around, as people load on more of the lasagne and pink lemonade, the would-be pollwatchers talk more openly. It’s shop-talk about Democrat nefariousness of course. I listen, not speaking. Who knows, there might be something to it. Large sections of the Democrats have been run by gangsters for decades after all. But the talk among the volunteers is largely recirculated. “I heard of one place, nine people were registered when they went there it was a vacant lot.” “Did you report it?” says someone else. “Well, it was a friend who told me about it.” “Last time around,” Jan, a teacher, subsequently laid-off, tells me, “the Democrats narrowly took this state, that’s why I’m doing this.” I ask: “And you think it was stolen?”

She looks at me vaguely surprised there could be any doubt; “well I certainly hope so! There were six districts we were really worried about where there was a lot going on … a lot!” I say: “So are there any news reports I can check back for these?” “Oh no, you won’t find anything …”.

After a dozen or so Tea Party events, I know the drill by now. “The liberal media?” I say, in a neutral but mildly sympathetic tone. “Exactly!” she says. Later, she will be cross that I do not know New Zealand’s leading right-wing blogger, and it takes everything short of anatomically-correct dolls to explain that there is no country called “Australasia”. “People are so unengaged that’s why this country is on the wrong track.” “Yeah but in Greece everyone’s engaged and they’re not doing so well either.” “Oh yes, but they’ve got centralised government”. Round and round it goes, the Tea Party mindset bubbling away in the bain marie, in the beige basement of right-wing resentment and dismay.

Three weeks ago, everyone stopped paying attention to this malarkey, as Obama gained a clear lead, and the votes that might be disqualified were of no concern. Now, with the election back on a knife edge, True the Vote has come back front and centre, with an energy that the left cannot match — because it comes from a deep, foundational disquiet that their fantasy America does not match the real one. The country has been stolen from them, and now they want it back, and if that means some practices on the ground that are less than fully honest, well, that is in service to the higher America, the real one, that exists in their imagination, the way out of the basement.

While black caterers with small bowties and their names on their shirts clear up the dead pasta, Evan gathers up her materials, and prepares to leave. “I wanna thank y’all for comin’,” she says to me archly, the y’all here meaning, I think, pesky Jews or jewalikes, or other liberals. Wounded, wounded people trying to make things right, outside and in.

Should they lose, again, to Obama, what will they be cooking up in the basements next year?

21
  • 1
    susan winstanley
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Great story Guy, this is where the action will be if Romney gets within a whisker of winning

  • 2
    Michael James
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Individual at-the-poll-place identity fraud is vanishingly small”

    Jesus Rundle, you must be smarting at the recent revelations that Democrat National Committee employees were assisting voter fraud, and got caught on tape doing so.

    That follows on from voter fraud practices that saw the ACORN get out to vote group closed down for massive, systemic voter fraud last year, including registering people’s names found on headstones.

    In fact Democrat Attorney general Eric Holder is on the record as stating voter fraud is a problem.

    Voter fraud is a growing problem in the US, unfortunately the States refuse to implement either a state or national voter registration system or mandate that identification be produced to verify the vote.

    As such voter fraud will continue to grow as a problem until they do.

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Michael James: as Guy noted yesterday, while voter fraud does exist, almost all documented cases in the US involve postal/advance voting, whilst almost none involve people impersonating other (real or fictional) people at physical polling stations.

    The former is easy and almost risk-free to organise in bulk; the latter is difficult and carries high risks of detection (since you either need huge numbers of people in on the scam, or a single person to vote multiple times in disguise).

  • 4
    paddy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Downright scary to think of what was in that bain marie.
    So many unhappy people, so much mis-information.
    Glad it was you, not me, on today’s little adventure Guy.

  • 5
    Andybob
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    @ Michael James

    The record here on planet Earth has Eric Holder stating “voter fraud is a problem that does not really exist”.

    Changing that into “voter fraud is a problem” is … strange. Next thing you know you’ll be hanging tea bags off your hat….

  • 6
    the invigilator
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Wow. You’ve been to MULTIPLE of these things. Dedication!!

  • 7
    moe hassan
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    haha, I’m starting to think guy actually enjoys cavorting around with these rustic provincial morons. great reading as always.

  • 8
    mary singh
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Obama will go down as the worst President in American history.’ Soon he will be gone and a real man Called President Mitt Romney will have to reshape America and bring it back to its former glory days. It wont be long now.**==

  • 9
    Rourke
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    … it comes from a deep, foundational disquiet that (mary singh’s) fantasy America does not match the real one”

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    …me, in hornrims and three-day growth looking like a Jewish ACLU lawyer with a great bebop LP collection…’

    From today this hilarious image of Rundle is permanently imprinted.

  • 11
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Are you for real Mary - or just ODing from too much green tea.

  • 12
    geomac62
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    When anybody states such and such is the worst whatever in history you know they have nothing worth listening to . Usually ill informed about the subject and not actual;y knowing about the history concerned .

  • 13
    Peter Hannigan
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    The competition for the title of ‘Worst US President ever’ is outstanding. The 19th century had a marvellous collection of characters. You would have to set your criteria carefully - and probably exclude any president since Nixon on the grounds that there is not enough historical perspective yet.

  • 14
    Andrew McMillen
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    …me, in hornrims and three-day growth looking like a Jewish ACLU lawyer with a great bebop LP collection…” is a fantastic self-assessment, Guy. I LOL’d.

  • 15
    michael r james
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile, where the real election stealing is likely to happen: (both from Slate):

    Poll: Obama Leads in Early Votes
    By Abby Ohlheiser | Posted Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, at 9:27 AM ET
    .
    Obama’s doing well with early voters, at least according to one poll that puts him at 59 percent against Romney’s 31 percent among those who have already voted.
    .
    That poll, from Reuters/Ipsos, has a pretty big “credibility interval” of 10 percentage points for early voters, though Obama still leads above that margin.
    .
    About 7% of the electorate will vote early.

    and:

    Is the Supreme Court About To Swing Another Presidential Election?
    If the court cuts early voting in Ohio, it could be a difference maker in the Buckeye State.
    By Richard L. Hasen|Posted Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, at 3:52 PM ET
    .
    The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to reverse a federal court ruling requiring the state of Ohio to let its counties decide whether to permit early voting during the weekend before Election Day. With the presidential race tight in Ohio, and the presidency potentially turning on the state’s electoral votes, the court’s decision could help determine who will win the White House.

  • 16
    j.oneill
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Voter fraud in the sense used by Mr Rundle may be “vanishingly small”, but that is only part of the story. As Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman have exhaustively and convincingly shown it is the use of electronic voting machines that are the main instrument of voter fraud. Each election since 2000 has been seriously flawed in this way to the point where one can simply no longer trust the stated results. Although not invariably the case the Republicans are the usual beneficiaries of this fraud. There is a reason for this bias and one doesn’t have to be a genius to figure what it is.
    Let’s stop deluding ourselves that the US is a democracy any more and look at the world as it really is.

  • 17
    michael r james
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Incidentally one of the reasons for the drive for early voting is that the demographic who work service jobs (whose bosses specifically don’t give them time off on that Tuesday) are overwhelmingly Democrat (the bosses Republican). It is why there is often battles and scuffles at polling stations on voting night because some attempt to keep them open to allow workers coming off their shift to vote — particularly in some states which have snow and cold weather issues.

  • 18
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    A rough semi sentient, slouching towards Armageddon, the good lack conviction and the bad are filled with passion & intensity…with apologies to Yeats.

  • 19
    Andrew L
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    …I think it was “brain marie”. Overheated and full of cheesey gloop. Apropos of nothing, michael r james is hilarious - those untidy battling and scuffling service job workers should be struck off the roll and kept away from decent conservative folk who should have the sole right to decide who will be prezident (like Dubya).

  • 20
    geomac62
    Posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    For some reason the election is always held on a Tuesday as far as I can recall . Thats seems an odd choice instead of a weekend day . Florida chads and every state having their own voting system instead of a national standard . Land of the free ?

  • 21
    Steve777
    Posted Thursday, 18 October 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Tuesday was a convenient day for what was in the early 19th century an agricultural society. Saturday was another work day and it was not acceptable to hold the election on the Sabbath (Sunday). And November came at the end of the harvest in what was usually a quiet time in the farming calendar. So it allowed farmers to vote when they went into town to get supplies or sell their produce.

    And in spite of massive societal changes, the USA has stuck with the first Tuesday after November 1 every four years - normally Melbourne Cup day each leap year, except when that is November 1 (All Saints’ Day), when the election is held on November 8.

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