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Fighting the spread of democracy

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Joel McNally
October 7, 2008

One Bush administration cover story for going to war in Iraq to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in no-bid contracts for Halliburton and other corporate cronies was that it was to spread democracy in the Mideast.


Meanwhile, the president’s party continues to battle the spread of democracy in the Midwest. With less than a month to go before the election, the collateral damage from Republican efforts to fight the spread of democracy continues to pile up.


The latest victims are convicted felons who are looking to get jobs to support themselves and their families without resorting to crime. A Republican National Committee official has attacked voter registration groups in Wisconsin for employing convicted felons. The party’s chief lawyer said the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) hired seven convicted felons to register voters.


The natural reaction to such an accusation should be: So what?


Even though Republican legislators are constantly trying to demonize ex-offenders, state law recognizes that it’s very much in the public interest for felons to be able to obtain legitimate employment. In fact, it’s against the law to discriminate against a job applicant solely on the basis of a criminal record unless the crime has some possible connection with the job responsibilities.


Banks don’t have to hire convicted embezzlers, day-care centers don’t have to hire convicted sex offenders and so on. But unless there is some direct connection that would bar hiring a convicted felon, we all benefit when ex-offenders get jobs and become solid citizens.


In fact, that was the first reaction from ACORN when the organization was attacked for employing felons.


“We have a lot of folks with felony records (in this state),” said Carolyn Castore, state political director for ACORN, “and, frankly, they need jobs.”


It’s unlikely any of those employees were ever convicted of vote fraud because, despite the exaggerated claims of Republicans, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southeastern Wisconsin and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office have found organized vote fraud to be virtually non-existent.


The fact that someone might have been convicted on drug charges or other unrelated offenses has nothing to do with registering voters. In the absence of any disqualifying connection, ACORN as well as the Milwaukee Election Commission considered employment discrimination against felons as voter registration workers to be illegal under state law.


Republicans are citing an opinion back in April by a staff member of the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections, claiming that convicted felons were not allowed to serve as registration workers.


That was news to both ACORN and the Milwaukee Election Commission. None of the materials provided by the state to local election officials say felons are barred from registering voters.


Republicans have another underlying motive for attacking ACORN. It is an organization that engages in that dreaded community organizing. It actually tries to give a voice to the poor and most vulnerable among us.


Community organizations such as ACORN are on the front lines of promoting democracy in this country while Republicans are trying to stop its spread. Republicans are particularly opposed to increasing participation in democracy in Milwaukee with its large African-American and Latino populations.


The Republicans’ concept of democracy goes back to the original idea of our Founding Fathers to limit voting to white, male property owners. That was glaringly obvious when Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen formed a joint task force to investigate allegations of vote fraud on Election Day with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and the Milwaukee Police Department.


Let’s see. There are 72 counties in Wisconsin. Within Milwaukee County, there are 19 municipalities. In only one of those 72 counties and in only one of the 19 municipalities within that county is the state attorney general setting up a task force to fight vote fraud on Nov. 4.


As they say on “Sesame Street,” what makes the city of Milwaukee not like the others? There’s just something about that Gordon on “Sesame Street” that makes him seem like the kind of person who would commit vote fraud.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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