WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON If you wonder why the Republican Party has such a problem attracting black Americans, the answer may lie in the implications of the "ballot security" program run by North Carolina Republicans in the celebrated contest last week between Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt.
The message in that program was about as crudely insulting to a group of voters as you could imagine. And it undercut the much-heralded attempt by the national party to make serious inroads in the black community.
With the opinion polls showing the contest nip-and-tuck a week before the election, the North Carolina party mailed 150,000 post cards to voters that said: "When you enter the voting enclosure, you will be asked to state your name, residence and period of residence in that precinct. You must have lived in that precinct for at least the previous 30 days or you will not be allowed to vote. It is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in jail, to knowingly give false information about your name, residence or period of residence to an election official."
In theory, of course, there is nothing wrong with making certain that only legally eligible voters cast ballots in any election. But the Republican postcards were mailed only to "high performance" Democratic precincts meaning in this case precincts that were obviously overwhelmingly black. The attempt intimidate these blacks was obvious to everyone but President Bush.
Asked about the program, Bush, the party's ultimate leader, pleaded ignorance. "I read a lot of charges and counter-charges," he said, "and I've heard some people say it's bad and I've heard others say it's not. ... It depends on how it is done. And I just don't know enough about what you're trying to get me into to get into that."
Why the strategy should be a mystery to a former Republican national chairman is a mystery itself. The fact is that the Republicans have used similar programs on several occasions in the past most recently in the 1986 Senate campaign between Democrat John Breaux and Republican Henson Moore in Louisiana. And, because of that case and one in New Jersey four years earlier, the Republican National Committee had been obliged by a federal court to sign a consent decree agreeing it would not do the same thing again. But, because the decree applied only to the national party and not to the state organization, a federal judge ruled there was no legal barrier in this case.
Although it is true that the state and national parties are separate entities, it should not be overlooked that the chief spokesman for the RNC, Charles Black, was also the principal consultant to the Helms campaign. At the very least, that was one of your basic unfortunate coincidences.
As a practical matter, there is no evidence that the intimidation of black voters had any measurable effect on the outcome in North Carolina. Helms won 53 to 47 percent by generating a zTC huge turnout 61 percent of eligible voters, compared to 50 percent in the last Senate race in a non-presidential year in 1986 in some measure by accusing Gantt of favoring "racial quotas" in employment. That turnout meant that blacks made up only 18 to 19 percent of the electorate rather than the 22 percent or more Gantt had needed to have a realistic chance to win.
But the fact that the intimidation strategy probably wasn't either effective or politically necessary does not change what it says about underlying Republican attitudes toward blacks. Would the Republicans have sent the same postcards to, for example, preponderantly but not overwhelmingly Democratic precincts in academic communities?
None of this suggests that Republicans are the only ones who sometimes play sleazy politics. There are too many well-documented cases of Democrats voting graveyards for anyone to argue that dirty tricks cannot be bipartisan. Nor does it suggest that all Republicans approve of sleaze. On the contrary, in the Louisiana case four years ago, there appeared to be a clear backlash against such patent racism among white voters, including conservatives in north Louisiana, as well as blacks.
But the use of this particular technique an official-looking mailing designed to frighten unsophisticated voters reveals a mindset among Republicans that gives the lie to their big talk about "broadening the base" of their party.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.