They just wanted to protect the sanctity of the vote. That’s the administration’s pious explanation for why they fired eight U.S. Attorneys who were Republican enough for Bush to have appointed them in the first place.

"The president recalls hearing complaints about election fraud not being vigorously prosecuted and believes he may have informally mentioned it to the attorney general,” explained White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

How could you question such a laudable goal?

Of course the justifications keep shifting, as with the Iraqi war. First it was the general performance of the prosecutors. Then a preference for specific replacements.  Now it’s concern for the democratic process.

But the administration and its allies have a long history of using the specter of election fraud to justify reprehensible actions. In 2000, Jeb Bush claimed to be fighting potential fraud when he purged over 55,000 voters from the Florida rolls for felony convictions that never applied under state law—or never existed to begin with (for instance if someone had a name similar to a convicted felon). Staffers of the data-collection firm that handled this effort acknowledged that the purges disproportionately targeted low-income Democrats, particularly African Americans. A follow-up by BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast found that 90 percent of those scrubbed were legitimate voters, enough by far to have made Al Gore the winner. And the Supreme Court that handed Bush the presidency was led by William Rehnquist, who got his start harassing black and Hispanic voters in South Phoenix as part of a Republican effort called Operation Eagle Eye.

Election fraud was also the watchword in 2004. Ohio Secretary of State (and Bush state campaign chair) Ken Blackwell claimed he was just protecting the legitimacy of the vote when he knocked 300,000 voters off the rolls in key Democratic cities like Cleveland, far exceeding Bush’s margin of victory. Blackwell also tried to reject new Democratic registrations because an arcane law said they were supposed to be on 80-pound paper stock (presumably more secure), then had to back off when his own official forms failed the same criterion. And he went to court to ensure that provisional ballots would be considered only if cast in the right precinct, defeating their key purpose, even as he sowed voter confusion by pulling machines and closing down polling stations in longstanding Democratic neighborhoods.  

But maybe voting integrity really is the issue in the current wave of firings. In the same 2004 election, according to Mr. Palast in another BBC report, Karl Rove aide Timothy Griffin, just named the new U.S. Attorney for eastern Arkansas, originated a strategy to send 70,000 letters challenging  the addresses of black and Hispanic voters in places like Florida’s Jacksonville Naval Air Station, a local homeless shelter, and the historically black Edward Waters College. As Mr Palast writes, Republicans sent the letters out with do-not-forward instructions. When they came back undeliverable, as when soldiers were deployed overseas, Florida then struck the voters from the rolls so even absentee ballots no longer counted. Maybe that’s what White House Spokeswoman Perino meant by showing concern for the sanctity of the vote.

If election fraud was a legitimate issue, such abuses might have a shred of legitimacy. Yet the documented cases of deliberate illegal voting are minuscule. For reports entitled “Securing the Vote” and “The Politics of Voter Fraud,” the think tank Demos and the civic involvement group Project Vote conducted national studies, seeking documented evidence of actual fraud. They ran comprehensive searches of newspapers and court records, contacted secretaries of state and state attorneys general. Except for cases involving a handful of isolated individuals, every rumor of illegitimate voting turned out to be baseless. The image of armies of unregistered, illegal, and dead people swarming the polls was and is a Republican myth. 

But it’s a convenient one to try to damp registration and turnout.  In Florida, Republicans created such draconian restrictions on registration drives that the League of Women Voters stopped their registration work.  In Missouri then-governor John Ashcroft twice vetoed legislation that would allow groups like the League to register voters in inner city St Louis.  In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, warned about voter fraud in opposing early voting. Ironically, his 2006 campaign and that of Republican Senate candidate and then-Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele then bused in homeless men from Philadelphia to hand out misleading fliers in black neighborhoods featuring photographs of former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson with the words "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats" — though Mfume and Johnson had unequivocally endorsed the Democratic opponents of Ehrlich and Steele.  

As for the fired U.S. attorneys — in the end, what was their sin?  It seemed that they weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about joining compatriots who investigated or indicted local Democrats by a nearly five to one margin over Republicans, often with election eve headlines that melted away, along with their cases, as soon as the polls were closed. Some may have refused to go after Democratic groups who were trying to register voters, or in the words of fired US Attorney John McKay of Washington State, ”to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury” in a situation where “there was no evidence.” San Diego’s Carol Lam even had the audacity to prosecute Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham and begin to investigate Congressman Jerry Lewis.

Perhaps this solidly Republican group actually believed their job was to serve all of America’s citizens, instead of playing the role of political attack dogs.  It’s too bad that couldn’t be the standard for the administration that terminated them.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See   To receive his monthly articles email with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles