Voter Suppression Charges Roil Supervisorial Race

Supervisorial Wannabe Deflects Facts by Charging ‘Fake News’

Rock the Vote | Credit: Courtesy | Rock the Vote Twitter

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I lack the computational skills needed to calculate how many angels can actually dance on the head of a pin. Such measurements exceed my pay grade when it comes to math, theology, and dance appreciation. But I’m betting Bruce Porter, now running a second time for 3rd District county supervisor, could tell you. When it comes to splitting hairs, Porter has proven himself a board-certified microsurgeon. 

Bringing this to the fore is Porter’s response last week upon being asked to describe his relationship with Robin Howe, who recently resigned as head of Rock the Vote Santa Barbara amid allegations of voter suppression in Isla Vista on behalf of Porter’s campaign. 

Porter told Independent reporter Delaney Smith that he had no connection at all with the local Rock the Vote effort or with Howe. Smith reported as much.

Smith also reported what Howe told her, and he directly contradicted what Porter said. Howe said that it was Porter himself with whom he first met when applying for the job.

After Smith’s story appeared highlighting Porter’s denial and Howe’s rebuttal, Porter quickly issued a clarification, which Smith immediately included. He acknowledged he met personally with Howe but insisted that his campaign had no contact with him or Rock the Vote S.B. 

Huh?

When some politicians are accused of being “too cute by half,” this is precisely the sort of double-talk people have in mind.

Porter then doubled down in a mailer to supporters accusing the Independent of spreading lies. Smith’s article, he stated, was “ludicrously inaccurate,” and the Independent guilty of “proactive complicity” with the Democratic Party bosses now trying to get his chief rival, incumbent supervisor Joan Hartmann, elected to a second term. Such tactics, he averred, were “vicious and vile.”   

I get it; when backed into a corner, play the “Fake News” card.  

At a time when the president is being tried for impeachment and the sanctity of America’s National Pastime is once again rocked by a high-stakes cheating scandal, why should you care?

Unlike what happens at the state, national, and international levels, we actually exert a modicum of control over what happens locally. This March, three of the county’s five supervisorial seats are up for grabs. Hanging in the balance is which way the supervisors will swing. Sucking up all the oxygen in the room is the 1st District race, in which two liberal, progressive, environmentally minded candidates ​— ​incumbent Das Williams and challenger Laura Capps ​— ​are going after each other. It’s our very own analog of the Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren food fight. But whoever wins that one, the tilt of the board won’t change.

The same can’t be said, however, for the 3rd District, the most sprawling, complicated, and divided of the five districts, which encompasses Isla Vista, parts of Goleta, and the Santa Ynez Valley. The 1st District may pack the most melodrama, but the 3rd District is for all the marbles. Whichever side wins this one controls the board, which otherwise remains evenly split according to north-south lines. In this context, there are some clear choices with Hartmann and Porter being the two front-runners. 

Hartmann, a former EPA administrator, has long supported tougher greenhouse-gas rules on new and existing oil development. Porter, by contrast, has sought to rebrand the local oil industry in terms that will resonate kindly with the artisanal foody crowd, describing it as “locally sourced, locally regulated, ‘farm-to-table petroleum.’ ” It’s worth noting that the last time Porter ran, the oil industry poured $60,000 into a political action committee dedicated to getting him elected. In this scenario, the importance of the Isla Vista voting bloc can’t be overstated. That’s because in a typical election, Isla Vista voters account for one-third of the votes cast in the 3rd District. For candidates offering the oil industry a more sympathetic ear, Isla Vista can be a cold place in hell. For them, voter suppression might be their only chance. 

Typically, we respond to allegations of Isla Vista voter suppression with all the same torpor and lassitude that we react to charges of political yard sign tampering. We hear it every election; it’s background noise. But this year was different. We got tips indicating that the national Rock the Vote campaign disavowed the local Rock the Vote initiative. Reporter Delaney Smith made a few phone calls and determined that the national had put the locals on notice not once, but twice, to cease and desist using the Rock the Vote name. Smith tried numerous times to get an interview with Howe, who ran the I.V. effort, but to no avail. When she drove out to the Isla Vista address listed by Rock the Vote Santa Barbara, Smith was stunned to discover that no such street number existed. 

Things were getting weird. 

Hartmann campaign aides have charged that Howe ​— ​and, by extension, Porter ​— ​have sought to suppress the Isla Vista vote by encouraging new arrivals to register back home. They allege students have been told their car insurance rates will be higher if they register to vote in I.V. Howe, for the record, denies this vehemently. Porter’s campaign was dogged by similar allegations the last time he ran. Back then, he also denied accusations of voter suppression. It was all about providing would-be voters “choice,” he said. 

Not to split more hairs, but in the same missive in which Porter dismissed our reporting about alleged voter suppression as “ludicrously inaccurate,” he also bragged about how effectively his Rock the Vote Santa Barbara campaign had been at just that. “Far more students chose to register back home,” he wrote, “and there are 1,400 fewer students registered to vote in I.V. this year compared to this point in 2016.” 

I may not know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but I know an admission of voter suppression when I see it.

And I didn’t say it. Bruce Porter did. 

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