By Cynthia Tucker
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For several years, Republicans have waged a brilliant, Machiavellian campaign against the right to vote, persuading Americans that fair elections were under attack from a widespread and pernicious campaign of voter fraud. It’s classic sophistry; there is virtually no fraud by fake voters showing up at the polls.

Nevertheless, the voter-suppression campaign succeeded in state legislatures, where Republicans passed restrictive voter ID laws, and in courtrooms, where judges upheld them. Republicans also won the public relations battle, taking on a veneer of moral authority as they posed as protectors of the ballot.

But Barack Obama’s awesome get-out-the-vote machine overwhelmed the GOP’s cynical tactics, which had depended on shaving off a few hundred or a few thousand votes of poor and elderly Americans who didn’t have driver’s licenses, and who just happened to tend to vote for Democrats. In Obama’s winning campaign, the GOP couldn’t deter enough Democratic voters to make a difference.

Republicans didn’t just lose the presidency and congressional seats around the country. They also lost the veneer of respectability covering their campaign to block the ballot. They panicked as Obama’s poll numbers rose and in their desperation, they began throwing out one tactic after another to try to discourage voters from going to the polls. The alarm they raised was so absurd that it was comical.

Karen Handel, Georgia’s GOP secretary of state, became a partisan martinet, the Katherine Harris of this campaign. (You may remember Harris as the Republican secretary of state who dutifully carried water for George W. Bush in Florida eight years ago.) Handel took aim at Jim Powell, a Democrat running for the Public Service Commission, insisting that he didn’t meet residency requirements. Even though courts kept ruling against her, she kept after Powell until she was finally slapped down by a unanimous ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court.

But she was undeterred, finding other ways to harass Democrats. Having first declared that Democrats were having little luck registering new voters, she later did every thing she could to try to keep as many new voters as possible from casting a ballot. The Department of Justice finally put state election officials on notice because they subjected an unusually high number of registered voters to background checks. It later turned out that, in most cases, errors such as typos in electronic databases were the problem, not voter fraud.

And when Handel saw that legally registered voters were enduring four- to six-hour waits to vote early, she refused to try to extend early-voting hours, hiding behind the claim that Georgia law didn’t explicitly give her authority to do so. Operating under a similar law, however, Florida Gov. Charlie Christ extended early voting there.

(On the other hand, Handel is correct to investigate Fulton County’s lengthy and disorganized process for counting absentee ballots. Election officials allowed workers to leave the premise and return later to finish the task, in apparent violation of laws intended to guarantee ballot security.)

Meanwhile, state Rep. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) actually denounced early voting, even though he and other GOP officials had voted in favor of the practice earlier this year as a way to make elections more convenient for their suburban constituents. Johnson lost his enthusiasm for early voting when he saw hundreds of thousands of black Georgians taking advantage of it.

“Even if it was well-intentioned, we may find that we’ve opened up more opportunities for those people who are looking for ways to cheat,” Johnson said, adding that early voting allows “the ability to have time to go out there and pick up homeless people, and carry them to the polls, and register cats. It just opens up a 30-day period of time when, if your goal is to undermine democracy, you’ve got 30 days to do it instead of one.”

Johnson didn’t explain how cheating is any more likely with early voting than with Election Day balloting, since the same state-sponsored photo identification is required for both. Instead, he and Handel managed to shred their carefully constructed rationale for harassing legally qualified voters. Their campaign against voter fraud is, well, a fraud.