Republicans in vote-rigging row

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - The Republican party's efforts to woo black voters lay in tatters yesterday, amid a blazing political row over whether it paid church ministers to suppress the normally pro-Democrat black turn-out in last week's election for the New Jersey governorship, which the Republican candidate won by just 28,000 votes, writes Rupert Cornwell.

As the clamour mounted, black ministers across the state reacted with fury to allegations they had accepted up to dollars 500,000 ( pounds 340,000) from Republican coffers, in return for an undertaking not to urge their parishioners to vote for Jim Florio, the incumbent Democratic governor defeated by Republican Christine Todd Whitman on 2 November.

Almost incredibly, the indication of sharp practice came from none other than Ms Whitman's campaign manager, the celebrated Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who handled winning presidential bids by Ronald Reagan and George Bush before an unhappy stint as top adviser to Ross Perot during his 1992 White House run.

On Tuesday, Mr Rollins astounded a group of reporters by saying that Republican donations had been offered to charities named by the church leaders. 'How much have the Florio people paid you? We'll match it. Go home, sit and watch television,' was his verbatim account of the tactics.

The result was a firestorm. Ms Whitman called the very idea 'absolutely inconceivable'; Mr Rollins was 'off the wall'. Black church leaders in New Jersey accused him of a deliberate slur: dollars 500,000 was 'crumbs from Caesar's table', said one. 'For us to sell out for that is really a joke.'

Under intense pressure, Mr Rollins issued a contorted disclaimer, ascribing his remarks to an excess of elation at the result. 'My desire to put a spin on events,' he said, 'has crossed the line from an honest discussion of my views to an exaggeration that turned out to be inaccurate.' But the damage had already been done.

For whatever reason, black turn-out did drop, from 12 per cent of those who voted in 1989 to only 8 per cent, and the difference was enough to unseat Mr Florio. National and state Democratic officials have called for a full investigation. Should there be proof of payments, they say, the election result must be declared void.

Already though, the affair has reinforced the image of the Republicans as a white party which plays dirty tricks. It has dealt a devastating blow to the party's efforts to boost its credibility among blacks.

It is scant consolation that a disgraced Mr Rollins has highlighted the murky role of 'street money', funds used to compensate activists for taking time off to get out the vote on election day, but which may now have been used to achieve the opposite result. Nor that Republican shenanigans in New Jersey are anything new.

After the 1981 governor's election, Democrats won a court order forbidding Republican toughs at black voting stations warning that incorrectly registered voters would be prosecuted.