It’s only August, but we’ve reached the stage of the presidential race in which both sides ceaselessly sling mud at a wall, hoping something will stick. Have you heard the one about how Barack Obama wants to restrict the rights of military voters? It’s a perfect example of how campaigns misrepresent their opponents’ positions to mislead voters and gain an advantage.
Here’s the gist. On July 17, Obama for America, the DNC and the Ohio Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging the Buckeye State’s policy for early voting. In 2011, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature eliminated a policy that provided for three days of early voting for all Ohioans, which was thought to have provided an edge for Obama in 2008. Now only military families and civilians living overseas can participate in early voting until the Monday before Election Day; everyone else can do so until the previous Friday. The complaint challenges this “disparate treatment,” which affords a small group of voters special privileges, and seeks “to restore in-person voting for all Ohioans during the three days prior to Election Day — a right exercised by an estimated 93,000 Ohioans in the last presidential election.” You can read the lawsuit for yourself here.
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One assumes the Romney campaign perused it, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they reacted. The candidate blasted out a statement on Saturday declaring Obama’s position “an outrage. The brave men and women of our military make tremendous sacrifices to protect and defend our freedoms, and we should do everything we can to protect their fundamental right to vote.” Katie Biber, Romney’s general counsel, wrote a memo attacking Obama’s “despicable” lawsuit. “We disagree with the basic premise that it is “arbitrary” and unconstitutional to give three extra days of in-person early voting to military voters and their families, and believe it is a dangerous and offensive argument for President Obama and the DNC to make,” she wrote. “It is not only constitutional, but commendable that the Ohio legislature granted military voters and their families this accommodation.”
It is legitimate to debate whether military members should receive special accommodations because of the demands of their jobs. It is an abject lie to claim, as conservative propagandists did, that Obama was “suing to restrict their ability to vote in the upcoming election.” The lawsuit doesn’t attempt to restrict the voting rights of military members, or anyone else for that matter. It seeks to grant the privilege afforded to one group of voters to everyone. “Never does the filing mention stripping away privileges from service members,” as a Washington Post’s Fact Checker analysis notes. “The lawsuit in question would not change the deadline one way or another for military voters. It simply requests an order for the state to extend its civilian deadline.”
Romney’s camp knows this perfectly well. But for obvious reasons, it wants to nurture the perception that Obama is hostile to military voters in a pivotal state. Its statements are a riot of innuendo, carefully worded to stop short of factual inaccuracy. Romney’s statement was headlined “WE MUST DEFEND THE RIGHTS OF MILITARY VOTERS,” an implicit suggestion that Obama wants to take them away. Romney pledges to “work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them,” again intimating Obama is doing exactly that. The Biber memo doesn’t explain the substance of the lawsuit; it simply blasts the Democratic side for claiming it is “arbitrary” and unconstitutional to extend the three days of early voting to military members, and points to a coalition of military groups challenging Obama’s position. The campaign does not actually accuse Obama of restricting military voting rights. It’s just sayin’.
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This is how campaigns fudge without lying, preying on the uninformed in the process. “Most of the time it’s not like campaigns are making crystal clear factual claims” that aren’t true, says Bill Adair, the editor of the fact-checking website PolitiFact. “They’re cloaking factual claims in other kinds of rhetoric. They’re using some really sneaky tactics.” Adair wasn’t talking about the military voting issue specifically; Romney’s campaign had yet to latch onto the attack when we spoke. He was speaking more generally about the sophisticated techniques campaigns use to attack each other without spouting outright falsehoods. The military voting claim was widely exposed as bunk, and the Romney campaign has since moved onto a new attack, this time on welfare reform. But plenty of reputable news organizations reported the allegations without prejudice. It’s likely that many voters are laboring under the misconception that Obama is trying to restrict military voting rights. At the very least, the recriminations deflected attention from Harry Reid’s unsupported and cynical — but undeniably effective — claims about Romney’s tax returns.
So the military-voting canard is but one example of how campaign strategy is rooted in the assumption that every attack, no matter how baseless, carries political benefits. To be sure, both sides employ misrepresentations to hit their opponents. The new ad from the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action is a nasty bid to tie Romney to the death of a steelworker’s wife; the connection is extremely tenuous even before you factor in the haziness of its timeline. If this is the muck voters have to trudge through in August to find the facts, can you imagine the depth of the slime we’ll be contending with come October?