Thursday, January 10, 2019

Activist Matt Osborne admits Dry Alabama was a form of voter suppression, but he claims to have acted within legal boundaries while boosting Doug Jones

Matt Osborne
A left-leaning activist at the center of the "Dry Alabama" disinformation campaign admits in an August 2018 article that the project was an act of voter suppression. Matt Osborne, in an interview published yesterday in his hometown Florence (AL) Times Daily, claims the deceptive nature of Dry Alabama did not violate laws. It's unclear if state and federal authorities agree with that.

In a LinkedIn article dated August 9, Osborne discusses Democrat Doug Jones' victory over Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's 2017 special U.S. Senate election. Osborne focuses on Baptist pastors as a key component of Roy Moore's political base, largely because of their shared opposition to alcohol sales and consumption:

Southern Baptists are the largest denomination in the state, accounting for at least 1 million of our 4.8 million residents, and churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have always promoted teetotalism, both as private and public policy. They have led resistance to liberalization of alcohol laws since the heyday of the temperance movement. When Clarke county residents voted on the issue in 2017, Baptist pastors were at the forefront of opposition.

Although he speaks to all sorts of churches, Roy Moore is a Southern Baptist. His abstinence from alcohol is a point of pride, and Breitbart has emphasized it in their promotions of his candidacy. As a candidate, he seems to perform best in the most rural parts of the state.

Osborne provides insightful background on the "politics of alcohol" in Alabama:

Twenty-five of Alabama’s 67 counties are "dry counties" which ban the sale of alcohol, yet all of them now contain wet municipalities. Conversely, there are still dry municipalities in wet counties.

Alabama seemed to reach a tipping point regarding alcohol politics over the last decade. In 2010, a referendum to allow liquor sales failed in Rogersville, a small town at the eastern end of Lauderdale County, by a single vote. . . . Sunday sales were almost impossible to imagine in most of the state just 20 years ago, but they have become common since 2005. Regulation has also begun to shift. Last year saw the Alabama Beverage Control board rescind an unpopular decision to ban margarita pitchers, for example.

It is important to note that this change of climate has coincided with the Republican takeover of the state. After many years of Democratic decline, the GOP swept all state offices and took supermajorities in the legislature in 2010, whereupon the industries with an interest in liberalization (bottlers/distillers, hospitality, municipal convention centers, etc.) finally found their voice and emphasized that such measures were “pro-business.”

That's how Democratic operatives decided on alcohol as an issue that could drive a wedge between "business" conservatives (who favored Luther Strange, loser in the primary to Moore) and "cultural" conservatives (who favored Moore). Dry Alabama, a social-media campaign that falsely claimed Moore supported a statewide ban on alcohol, was a "smashing success," Osborne writes -- essentially using Moore's teetotaling religious base against him:

Finally, it is worth understanding that Moore relies very heavily on this very same network of teetotaling pastors as his primary means of mustering voters to the polls. Indeed, his 2017 US Senate campaign almost exclusively relied on that mostly-Baptist pastor network for GOTV activity until the national party came to his rescue. However, that alliance was interrupted for almost three weeks during the last month of the campaign when the Washington Post reported a series of stories alleging past sexual misconduct. Because Moore has always had trouble bringing the "business wing" of the state party into his fold, this failure to motivate voters left him vulnerable to social media campaigns aimed at driving this alcohol policy wedge.

Which is exactly what happened. Hoping to deter white male suburban voters from voting for Roy Moore, a campaign targeted Facebook users with ‘false flag’ pages for thirteen days prior to the election. This limited run was a smashing success that reached 3 million targeted voters, achieving 4.6 million impressions with 97,000 engagements, posting videos that were watched 430,000 times, and presenting links that received 403,000 clicks. At least one of the associated memes received unexpected amplification on the Facebook page of a Grammy-winning celebrity. Debates broke out in the comments, with "piety Republicans" and "economic Republicans" disagreeing over the issue.

By every available metric, the campaign succeeded in spreading the message that a vote for Roy Moore was a vote against service industry jobs, against brewing industry jobs, and for going backwards to a "Dry Alabama."

Curiously, Osborne does  not admit -- as he recently did to The New York Times -- that he helped conceive the Dry Alabama scheme. He does, however, admit it was designed to help Doug Jones win. So much for the notion that recently uncovered Democratic disinformation campaigns were mostly for purposes of "research":

Given that Doug Jones won by less than 21,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million ballots cast, this campaign -- which was inspired by, and modeled on, the Facebook voter suppression efforts that Roy Moore backer Steve Bannon undertook in 2016 -- appears to have made a real difference at a very small cost compared to TV advertising or other forms of election communications.

While it is impossible to prove that this one effort was solely responsible for Moore's defeat, it is a good example of how to use local culture war wedge issues to limit an opponent's turnout in races that will be won at the margins.

Note the highlighted sections above, where Osborne clearly states: (1) Dry Alabama was modeled on GOP voter-suppression efforts led by former Donald Trump strategist Seve Bannon; (2) Dry Alabama was designed to limit opponent turnout, in this case those who likely would have voted for Roy Moore.

As for the interview with his hometown newspaper, Osborne boldly claims that he acted within the law -- and the Jones campaign was not connected to Dry Alabama:

In a Tuesday interview with the Times Daily, Osborne said part of the reason behind the movement was to get challenger Doug Jones elected. He said the Jones campaign was not connected to the "Dry Alabama" movement.

Jones beat Moore by a narrow margin.

However, Osborne said the effort went beyond that race. He said conservative entities have used "dark money" for similar tactics to benefit Republicans, so he did the same as a way to show the type of impact such tactics can have.

"There's nothing I participated in that crossed any lines of legality," Osborne said. "The real crime here — if there is a crime — is that you can get away with this stuff."

Are we to believe the Jones campaign had no knowledge of Dry Alabama -- or a similar project called Project Birmingham? We have already shown that Osborne contacted me in October 2017 and indicated he had "direct knowledge" of events tied to the Jones campaign -- and we now know Osborne readily admits being connected to Dry Alabama.

Roy Moore
Osborne can't seem to make up his mind on the subject of possible criminality connected to Dry Alabama. First, he proclaims he didn't cross "any lines of legality." Then, he follows immediately with language that hints, "Well, maybe there was a crime here -- who knows?"

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has referred the matter to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for possible investigation. Elections form a complex, murky area of the law -- involving both state and federal jurisdictions. It's doubtful that Osborne (or a Dry Alabama colleague, such as D.C.-based digital strategist Beth Becker) is qualified to make an assessment about the legality of deceptive election practices.

(Note: According to her Twitter account, Beth Becker seems to have launched an island-based vacation in the past day or two -- with stops at "Jamaica, Caymans, Cozumel and Havana." Has someone suggested Becker "get out of Dodge," due to heat from Dry Alabama and Project Birmingham?)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation suggests that election meddling, in general, is unlawful. It seems clear that voter suppression, in some forms, is illegal.

Where does the Dry Alabama variety fall? It might be too early to say, but Osborne's claim to have acted within legal lines probably should not be taken to the bank -- at least not yet.

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