A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Home Foreclosures and Voting


Q: Are the Republicans really trying to keep people from voting whose homes are in foreclosure?

A: Republicans deny they have any such plans, and a voting rights group says those with homes in foreclosure can’t be barred from the polls anyway.

FULL QUESTION

I’ve heard they’re trying this in Michigan and Ohio.

FULL ANSWER

This widely e-mailed claim stems from disputed reporting in a small, liberal-leaning Michigan publication, which has since published a clarification.

The Michigan Messenger, a self-described "coalition of long-time progressive bloggers, freelance writers and professional journalists," wrote in a Sept. 10 report:

The Michigan Messenger (Sept. 10): The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day. “We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses,” party chairman James Carabelli told Michigan Messenger in a telephone interview earlier this week. He said the local party wanted to make sure that proper electoral procedures were followed.

Carabelli denies ever having made that statement, however. He was quoted in a Detroit News report saying:

The Detroit News (Sept. 12): I never said anything even close to that. We won’t be doing voter challenges on foreclosures, and we’ve never had a plan to do it.

The Messenger then accused Carabelli of changing his story but still maintained that he had used the words the paper quoted originally.

The Messenger did, however, retract a portion of its story that had claimed Ohio Republicans had said they would challenge voters whose homes were in foreclosure. In its original story, the Messenger said that a local GOP official, Douglas Preisse, had been quoted in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch as saying he had not ruled out voter challenges "due to foreclosure related address issues.” Actually, the Dispatch only quoted Preisse as saying he wants "clean, accurate voter lists," with no mention of challenging foreclosed homeowners. Preisse wrote the Messenger to complain about being misquoted, and the Messenger published a "clarification" acknowledging its error.

Democrats Sue Anyway
 
 

Nevertheless, on Sept. 16, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee filed suit against the Michigan Republican Party and the Republican National Committee in the eastern district of Michigan. The suit alleged that Republicans planned to initiate a " ‘lose your home, lose your vote’ vote-suppression program" – a repeat of the Messenger headline. The suit relies, in part, on the statement Carabelli says he never made:

Obama Campaign & DNC Lawsuit (Sept. 16): The Defendants’ threat to Plaintiffs is thus not hypothetical: Defendant Republicans have already announced through the news media that they are acquiring foreclosure lists and intend to use them.
State and national GOP party officials, according to numerous reports, insist the program doesn’t exist and that no plans were put in place. According to a Sept. 16 blog report by The New York Times, Democrats dismiss the GOP’s denials as "backpedaling."
 
 

Would It Work?

Regardless of what the GOP intends, foreclosure lists provide little legal leverage to prevent anybody from voting. We spoke with Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He told us:
Greenbaum: Just because you’re on a foreclosure list, that in itself shouldn’t provide a sufficient basis to challenge somebody. It’s no indication the person has actually moved. They might still be intending to move back to the house. In Michigan, they may, if they moved within the same township, still go back and vote in their same township and correct their information at the time they vote. Within 60 days, if they move to another county, they can still go to their old precinct and vote.
According to Greenbaum, the foreclosure record is a "poor basis" for challenging an individual’s right to vote. "Under Michigan law," says Greenbaum, "in a lot of situations, even if the person had moved they’d still be entitled to vote at their old precinct prior the next federal election." After that election, voters would be responsible for registering in their new precinct.
 

The suit brought against the GOP is still pending.

 

– Emi Kolawole

Update: Jefferson Morley, National Editorial Director of the Center for Independent Media, objected to our portrayal of the Messenger’s story and subsequent clarification. He said our article suggested that the newspaper had retracted or backed down from its original report of what Carabelli said:

Morley: We strive to do top-quality journalism, and that is exactly what Eartha Melzer did in publishing "Lose your house, lose your vote."Notwithstanding his denials, Mr. Carabelli said what Melzer reported. We have the time stamped notes, phone records and email to corroborate her reporting. Melzer won a National Press Club award this summer, and I stand by her reporting 100 percent.

We of course can’t resolve the dispute between the Messenger and Carabelli, and have no way of knowing what he actually said or didn’t say to their reporter. We also think our article is quite clear that the Messenger’s clarification related to what Preisse said and not what Carabelli said. But we are happy to publish Morley’s statement to avoid any possibility of confusion on that point.


Sources

Hoffman, Kathy Barks. "Mich. Messenger agrees it misstated GOP comments." The Associated Press State & Local Wire, 20 Sept. 2008.

Melzer, Eartha Jane. “Lose your house, lose your vote.” The Michigan Messenger, 10 Sept. 2008.