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Group with Clinton Ties Behind Dubious Robocalls


Thousands of North Carolina residents answered their telephones last week to hear this message, delivered in a deep, soothing voice:

"Hello. This is Lamont Williams. In the next few days, you will receive a voter registration packet in the mail. All you need to do is fill it out, sign it, date and return the application. Then you will be able to vote and make your voice heard. Please return your registration form when it arrives. Thank you."

In fact, the deadline to register for the May 6 Democratic presidential primary had already passed. The robocall went to many registered voters who were expecting to vote that day. The call and follow-up mailings left many wondering whether they were registered for the primary or not.

This sounds like a classic example of voter suppression — sowing confusion in order to drive down turn-out. The calls seemed to be aimed at African-American communities, places where Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is expected to run well ahead of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

But the group behind the calls isn't partisan Republican or ideologically conservative. It's Women's Voices Women Vote, a 501(c)(3) charity that states its mission as registering single women to vote. The robocalls seem completely at odds with the group's usual, upbeat message. In one of the group's public service announcements, the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus strolls thru a replica of the Oval Office and fantasizes about women electing a woman president (herself, actually, not Clinton; Louis-Dreyfus is actually supporting Obama).

Women's Voices, Women Vote did not make anyone available for comment on Wednesday or Thursday.

Just a week ago, the group's founder, Page Gardner, contacted the North Carolina Board of Elections to let them know about the mailing. She noted that the Women's Voices packet, which she said was intended to boost registration in general, would arrive in mailboxes just before the primary. Gardner wrote: "We hope this unfortunate coincidence in timing does not lead to any confusion or aggravation for either your state's voters or registrars."

Group's Ties to the Democratic Candidates

Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting , who collaborated in reporting this story, found some Obama backers among the Women's Voices leadership, but the group mostly has ties to Clinton and her campaign. Gardner worked on former President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Board member John Podesta was President Clinton's chief-of-staff. Maggie Williams, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, used to be on the Women's Voices leadership team and did consulting work for the group.

Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, in Durham, N.C., says there's no hard evidence that the robocalls were meant to suppress the pro-Obama vote. "We can't show that there's any formal or direct connection," he says.

Investigating the Origin of the Robocalls

The Institute for Southern Studies began investigating after receiving complaints about the robocalls. The institute traced the calls to Women's Voices, which has acknowledged responsibility.

The Institute turned up other complaints about the group as well, in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. A "Lamont Williams" robocall similar to North Carolina's ran in Ohio last fall. In Virginia, robocalls days before the February primary caused voters to flood the board of elections with phone calls, in turn triggering an investigation by the state police.

Kromm says this shows at least five months of a "deceptive tactic, illegal in many states." He notes, "Each time this group is criticized for this activity, they apologize for the confusion."

The North Carolina attorney general says the robocalls are illegal. State law requires that automated phone calls identify the sponsoring group and give the recipient a phone number or other means of contacting the group. The Lamont Williams call did neither.

Gardner told the North Carolina elections board that the follow-up mailing would go to 276,118 women. Now, the fair-elections group Democracy North Carolina is working with Women's Voices to pull back as many of those mailers as possible.

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Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.