On Election Day 2010, with the polls still open, computers placed calls to 112,000 voters in predominately African-American precincts in Baltimore City and Prince George's County with an unusual message: "Relax" and stay home. The recorded message did not identify the calls' sponsor; essentially, it told voters that Gov. Martin O'Malley had won and they did not need to vote.
Such campaign "dirty tricks" have been part of Maryland elections for years, pursued by both parties largely because the perpetrators judged they would neither be caught nor prosecuted.
In any case, there now are hopeful signs that such hijinks may soon be a thing of the past. A Baltimore grand jury recently returned criminal indictments against two aides to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., charging them with arranging the robocalls in a scheme to suppress voter turnout in heavily Democratic areas. One of the defendants, Julius Henson, also is among the targets of a multimillion-dollar civil suit filed by Maryland and U.S. officials.
Of course, an indictment is not a conviction, and defendants Paul Schurick and Mr. Henson will have their day in court. But just by bringing the charges, prosecutors and the grand jurors have sent a welcome and critical message to the state's political establishment: Voter suppression is not a clever political tactic; it's a crime — and the state will treat it as one.
It would be nice if that message traveled well beyond Maryland. While state legislators in much of the country are purporting to fight "voter fraud" by introducing bills to require voters to produce written or photographic identification at the polls, available evidence in recent years suggests that voter suppression is a far larger problem:
•In 2010, Spanish language robocalls were made in Southern California that targeted Hispanic voters, telling them to remember to vote Nov. 3, the day after the election.
•That same year in Kansas, robocalls told voters they need to bring their voter registration card to the polls as well as proof of homeownership in order to cast a ballot — neither of which is true.
•In 2006, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan reported that in one county, "robo-calls warned voters to bring photo ID to the polls or they would not be allowed to vote." Meanwhile, in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, voters reported receiving calls before the election claiming that their registrations had been cancelled and that they would be arrested if they tried to vote.
Contrast these incidents, which involved hundreds or thousands of voters, with the isolated reports of voter fraud that some elected officials have seized upon to make their case for tough new laws that would require prospective voters to produce government-issued photo IDs in order to vote. In fact, evidence of voting by noncitizens or improperly registered college students — two groups targeted by voter ID advocates — is scant, and Maryland law already bans fraudulent voting. These bills are cynical and play on the electorate's emotions by creating a perception of fraud where there is no evidence of a systematic problem.
Indeed, there's strong evidence that the push for voter ID laws is actually part of a voter suppression strategy. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that 11 percent of the population lacks a government-issued photo ID and that the percentage is considerably higher among students, the elderly and minorities — voter groups all considered predominately Democratic.
Rather than pursuing such anti-voter measures, Maryland should focus on continuing to make it easier for citizens to vote. In recent years, the state has provided for early voting and online voter registration. Technological advances, however, have made feasible additional reforms, such as same-day voter registration and permanent absentee ballots. If adopted, these reforms would continue to enhance voters' access to the ballot box and move Maryland in the right direction on electoral issues.
Susan Wichmann is executive director of Common Cause Maryland. Her email is email@example.com.