Nativists were primed to believe something dastardly was afoot with the approaching 2010 elections. ALIPAC’s William Gheen warned that undocumented immigrants were planning to commit massive voter fraud with the help of the Democratic Party machine. An Arizona group called Ban Amnesty Now put out an appeal for people to monitor the polling stations for any suspicious activity.
The only missing element: evidence. So an Oct. 28 Internet report by right-wing-friendly columnist Jim Kouri that the U.S. Department of Justice was ignoring massive voter fraud by undocumented immigrants could not have come at a more opportune time.
Kouri’s headline, “Voter Fraud: Illegal Alien Voters Ignored by Obama Justice Department” and first sentence, “The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 28.2 percent of Hispanic voters in the 2008 election were immigrants,” told a certain type of reader everything he needed to know: Almost three out of 10 Hispanic voters two years ago were illegal aliens.
Unfortunately for the nativists, that would be an utterly false conclusion. A careful reader would notice the disconnect between the headline and leading sentence of Kouri’s article – specifically, that “illegal alien” does not equate with “immigrant,” as an immigrant can be a naturalized citizen. But Kouri’s story looked like the revelation enthusiastic nativists lusted after to validate their paranoia about illegal immigration, and before long, it had spread like a wildfire in the nativist blogosphere.
A Google search suggests hundreds of Internet sites re-posted, linked or referred to Kouri’s non-scoop. Kouri himself appears to have posted it himself in several places.
It turned up on BorderFireReport.com, whose front page provides links to the anti-Semitic, anti-government artwork of David Dees, and Examiner.com, where amateur journalists to post articles in their areas of “expertise.” (Kouri calls himself a “National Law Enforcement Examiner.”)
It was reposted on ConservativeCrusader.com alongside headlines like “Pelosi and Her Marxist Dems to Continue Fight against American People.” Cliff Kincaid, a far-right polemicist who rails against everything from the New World Order to the purported homosexual agenda, ran it prominently on his AccuracyInMedia.org website. Gheen’s nativist anti-immigrant lobbying organization, ALIPAC, and myriad other fellow travelers also picked up Kouri’s column and headline.
Reposted on SodaHead.com, a forum for discussion of all things political, Kouri’s story generated outrage among readers.
“Our election system has become a sham, and it's at the hands of the liberals; they have stolen the most sacred action of a US citizen. We must get this country back,” brayed one commenter.
“28.2 percent of Hispanic voters in 08 were ILLEGAL! We can't just let this stand people! We have to stop this nightmare!” shrieked another.
Nightmarish indeed: Just like a nightmare, Kouri’s article inspired panic – while having only the most tenuous connection to reality.
Kouri accurately attributed the Census statistic to a story by Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which publishes hordes of studies on the evils of immigration. “The dirty little secret,” Kouri wrote, “is there exists an enormous amount of proof that illegal aliens are being registered to vote and they’re being registered as Democrats. And our political leaders know it.”
But the only statistic Kouri actually cited was Camarota’s – a statistic that had nothing to do with voter fraud. The immigrants Camarota was writing about are naturalized U.S. citizens legally registered to vote.
Camarota’s story appeared as part of a discussion of why, according to a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latino voters ranked immigration as only their fifth-most important issue in the 2010 midterms. “This is not surprising when one considers that only 28.2 percent of Hispanic voters in the 2008 election were immigrants themselves. The overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters were born in this country,” Camarota wrote in “The Hispanic Vote in the Upcoming 2010 Elections.” He concluded, “The large share of Hispanic voters who do not have a direct personal experience with immigration may help explain why the issue often ranks relatively low in importance for this population.” Whether or not Camarota’s analysis holds water, which often CIS reports do not, his report said nothing about Hispanic voters as “illegal.”
In response to a request for clarification by Hatewatch, Camarota wrote, “My report in no way indicates that these individuals are illegal immigrants.”
Two days after the Hatewatch notified CIS about Kouri’s column, Camarota changed his own article’s language. He explained via E-mail, “I decided to add "naturalized U.S. citizens" to the fourth bullet of our report so it now reads: "Only 28.2 percent of Hispanic voters in the 2008 election were immigrants (naturalized U.S. citizens)."
Clarifications aside, the damage was done. Kouri’s article spread panic and rage that reached beyond the extremist base and spread far and wide. Whether inadvertently or maliciously, Kouri – whose writings are often found on white nationalist, nativist, and antigovernment sites – fueled the right’s paranoid speculations about the safety of their voting rights. Reaction to Kouri’s article showed both how readily a stoked right wing will seize on the thinnest reed of fact and turn it into “common knowledge,” and how fast a mistruth can spread on the Web.