It’s not easy being an urbanist blogger in America. For the most part you don’t make any money, but you do accumulate lots of people who don’t like you. Randy Simes, publisher of Urban Cincy, has been a thorn in the side of the local Tea Party for some time. Having suffered a string of defeats trying to derail projects they don’t like, notably the streetcar, both in city elections and in multiple referendums, the Tea Party in the form of Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) apparently decided that if the couldn’t get what they wanted through democracy, they’d try silencing their critics by filing a vote fraud complaint against streetcar supporter Simes. Fortunately, a bi-partisan majority of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, rejected the allegations.
Simes is a Cincinnati native and graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school. Like a surprising number of city bloggers in the urbanist space, he actually spent much of his time living outside of Cincinnati for career reasons, first in Atlanta and then in Chicago. His current employer recently sent him on a two-year overseas assignment in Seoul (color me jealous!) Having no historical connection to Chicago nor owning real estate there, he made arrangements to re-establish a residence in Cincinnati by basing himself in a friend’s apartment, and making a deal with his employer to return to their Cincinnati office after his expatriate assignment finished. As part of relocating back to Cincinnati in advance of his assignment, he attempted to get an Ohio driver’s license (which didn’t happen because of problems with vision screening not being available) and registered to vote in Cincinnati. I suspect that if I left the country, I’d do something similar, probably establishing a legal residence with my parents or something since why would I spend two years paying for an apartment I’ll never use in a place where I have no historic connection?
After voting the mayoral primary, the Tea Party pounced. A group called the Ohio Voter Integrity Project filed vote fraud allegations. They describe themselves as non-partisan. However, this group has been linked to the Tea Party backed True the Vote organization by the New Yorker. The attorney representing them in the case, Curt Hartman, is an attorney for COAST. (Simes is far from the only person getting this treatment as Mary Siegel, the member of the Ohio Voter Integrity Project behind the Simes challenges, has also challenged 600 other people’s right to vote as well).
Now Simes has never hidden the fact that he was living in Chicago, so perhaps the Tea Partiers were right in raising a question initially. But upon discovering the facts, they continued to press forward with the case. They scoured Simes’ Facebook and Twitter posts to try to prove he was actually living in Chicago. They tried to subpoena all of his employment records and emails with Travis Estell, the person in whose apartment he is presently based. They asked the Election Board to refer the matter to the county prosecutor, vote fraud being a felony.
Given the politically driven IRS harassment of Tea Party groups by the Obama administration, you’d think they of all people would not agitate for heavy handed government intimidation of others. If so, you thought wrong.
This type of intimidation tactic via vote fraud allegations is hardly limited to victims on urbanist left. This case is eerily similar to a tragic situation in Indiana where Republican Secretary of State Charlie White was convicted of vote fraud and mortgage fraud in a politically motivated prosecution by a Democratic prosecutor appointed after complaints were filed by the Democratic party. White was in the middle of a divorce and having to move as a result, and was staying temporarily with his ex-wife, which is where he registered to vote. Democrats argued that this wasn’t his actual residence – their arguments seemed to suggest there was no place whatsoever where he could have legally voted – and got an aggressive partisan prosecutor to pursue the case.
This seems to be the next frontier in the degradation of American politics. Since as they say any prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and since the average American reportedly commits an average of three felonies a day thanks to the mind-numbing quantity of laws we keep churning out, it’s pretty straightforward to use these types of legal tactics to destroy the lives of your political opponents. Since unless there’s a particularly unscrupulous partisan prosecutor who violates the gentleman’s agreement that protects insiders of both parties (as in the case of White), it’s almost certainly going to be the little people and outsiders who are disproportionately the victims. This ironically includes the Tea Party. (For example, long time Indiana Senator Richard Lugar voted for many years from the address of a house he sold decades ago, but you won’t ever see him prosecuted. I’m not saying he should have been, only illustrating that prosecutions are highly selective and targeted).
I have been very fortunate in that while I’ve levied some pretty tough criticisms of various things here over the years, I’ve never experienced any form of retaliation or intimidation in return. Honestly, to my own surprise at times it’s been almost the opposite. Yet this case gives me pause to rethink things as well. Given that even small technical errors in voting cases are felonies, the increasing use of vote fraud allegations as a political weapon by both political wings, and the extreme unlikelihood that my vote will actually matter in an election, I say better safe than sorry. There’s a good chance I simply will allow my registration to lapse and never vote again. I’ll certainly never vote anywhere near anytime I don’t have an ironclad permanent address established for an extended period.
Back to Cincinnati, after a hearing in which election board member Caleb Faux said, “I find this whole proceeding to be extraordinary,” a bi-partisan majority of 3-1 ruled in favor of Simes. The one person who voted against Simes seemed to imply that it was only a matter of timing – registering too early – rather than that his residency was invalid.
Despite this vindication, the Tea Party remains unapologetic and is even attempting to raise the stakes. On Twitter they are now basically saying that if Simes really is a resident, then he’s committed tax fraud:
— COAST (@GOCOAST) October 14, 2013
Bona fide vote and tax fraud are legitimate issues. But let’s not delude ourselves that this has anything to do with justice. It has everything to do with intimidation. In fact, I doubt COAST actually thinks these allegations will stick. I think the real target is getting Simes in hot water with his employer. He works for an engineering firm that has done streetcar-related work, so they are basically saying that Simes advocacy for the streetcar is being done corruptly on behalf of his employer. They claim that the public has been “manipulated by a multi-national corporation” for “years”.
These self-styled geniuses of social media who can purport to track Simes movements such that they know he doesn’t really live in Cincinnati apparently haven’t mastered the art of LinkedIn. Randy Simes hasn’t even worked for his current employer for “years”, having only joined them in 2012 and prior to that actually working for a competitor for nearly five years. His streetcar advocacy far predates the start of his employment. Here’s but one small example from 2010. Who’s being dishonest now, COAST?
In any case, trying to drag his employer through the mud can’t help Simes’ career prospects there, so this tactic is sadly likely to work. Given that the vast majority of the urbanist press has to rely to other employment to pay the bills, trying to create negative publicity (even if the employer is not directly implicated) that imperils one’s career is clearly an effective tactic, and one that could easily be used against urbanist bloggers almost anywhere.
As a Chicagoan once noted, “politics ain’t beanbag.” Like it or not the urbanist press is involved in politics, so I’d advise people to be buckled up as there very well could be choppy waters ahead.