October 31, 2012

The shadow campaign: Political dirty tricks

Voters in key states are being subjected to misinformation campaigns aimed at keeping them away from the polls.

Curt Anderson / The Associated Press

MIAMI — With a week to go until Election Day, the nasty campaign tactics are coming out. People in Florida, Virginia and Indiana have gotten calls falsely telling them they can vote early by phone and don't need to go to a polling place. In suburban Broward County, Fla., a handful of elderly voters who requested absentee ballots say they were visited by unknown people claiming to be authorized to collect the ballots.

Joel Gilbert
click image to enlarge

Joel Gilbert attends a screening of his movie “Dreams from My Real Father” in Bellmore, N.Y., in September. The film, mailed to 7 million homes, claims that President Obama’s real father was Frank Marshall Davis, a communist agitator, author and poet who lived in Hawaii, not the former Kenyan who shares the president’s name.

The Associated Press

And there's a mysterious DVD popping up in mailboxes that purports to be a documentary raising questions about the true identity of President Barack Obama's father.

It's one more indication of just how close this presidential election is. Voting rights advocates say reports of political deception and underhandedness are on the rise.

"Unfortunately it seems like the shadowy individuals that want to prevent people from voting are doing things earlier," said Eric Marshall, legal mobilization manager at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The organization is part of a coalition called Election Protection that is monitoring voting access and rights nationwide, including a toll-free hotline set up to take complaints.

Indiana's secretary of state launched an investigation of the phony voting instructions being phoned to homes in that state, and Virginia officials issued a warning to voters there asking them to report any such calls.

In the Broward County, Fla., case, elderly voters "were told, 'I'm an official and I'm here to pick up your absentee ballot,"' said Alma Gonzalez, a senior Florida Democratic Party official working on voter protection efforts. "There is no official who picks up your ballot."

In addition to those cases, garish billboards warning that voter fraud is a crime punishable by jail time and fines were put up in minority neighborhoods in Ohio and Wisconsin. They were recently taken down amid complaints they were aimed at intimidating African-American and Latino voters. The people behind the billboards have not come forward.

"It's hard to believe that these were just public service announcements," Marshall said. "Those neighborhoods were specifically targeted."

"It doesn't pass the smell test."

Independent Florida voter Jane Bowman smelled something bad, too, when she recently discovered a DVD in her mailbox questioning the identity of Obama's father.

"I think it's just a dirty trick. It just astonished me," said Bowman, a Jacksonville resident who says she plans to vote for Obama as she did four years ago. "I think they're doing everything they can to win Florida. It's a sorry situation."

The DVD's director, who says he has mailed some 7 million copies to homes in swing states, says that he is unaffiliated with political campaigns or their supporters and that the film reflects his own painstaking research into Obama's family background.

The DVD, "Dreams from My Real Father," posits that the president's true father was a communist agitator, author and poet living in Hawaii named Frank Marshall Davis -- not the Kenyan man who shares the president's name. Both men are now dead.

The title is a reference to Obama's book about his family history. That book does mention a poet named "Frank" who was a friend of Obama's maternal grandfather.

In an interview, DVD director Joel Gilbert described himself as a nonpartisan independent who seeks only to tell what he views as an extremely important story. Gilbert said he did not coordinate distribution of the DVD with any political entity and also took no political contributions to finance it. Yet the DVD was targeted at voters in key battleground states, including 1.5 million in Florida and 1.2 million in Ohio, according to Gilbert's website.

"It's a publicity measure," he said of the free mail distribution. "This has been an effort to force and embarrass the media into covering the content of the film."

(Continued on page 2)

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