I remember looking
at the piece of paper in my hand and thinking, "I can't believe it."
It was 20 years ago on the 3rd of November. I was standing outside a polling place near Park Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. Trash blew around my feet; I remember seeing more than one liquor bottle in a gutter. It was a polling place at an elementary school, the exact one slips my mind. I was holding a slip of paper, a photocopy of a photocopy, the letter made grainy by all the reproductions. It had been one of a number of them slipped under nearby vehicle windshield wipers.
The piece of paper claimed that, in order to lessen lines at the polling places and facilitate easier voting, Democratic voters should show up on Wednesday the 4th and their votes would be counted as normal.
I had heard of stories of things like this, but there it was, in my hand. Someone-some anonymous entity-was trying to game the vote in West Baltimore.
That was 1992. The difference between then and now, Sen. Ben Cardin told me after a press conference on Maryland voter suppression and intimidation held at the offices of a Baltimore union, is that now the opposition party tries things like this as a matter of policy, not as an underhanded anonymous stunt. "Imagine my surprise," he said, speaking of his Senate election in 2006, "when I found out that people who endorsed me were included in a brochure. . . and listed as endorsing my opponent."
Rep. Elijah Cummings remembered back in 2002 when one of his campaign workers handed him a flier with his picture on it-except the purpose of the flier was to promote the candidacy of Republican Robert Ehrlich, who was running for governor at the time. He was quoted in
The Washington Post
in 2006, saying "They handed me this big, beautiful piece of literature. It was better than any of the literature I have ever produced. . . . I said, 'Boy this is a wonderful photo.' There's my pastor, and [then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary] Mel Martinez, and [former Baltimore delegate] Tony Fulton and myself. Then I saw Ehrlich in the picture, and I saw the words and I said, 'Uh oh.'"
Then, of course, there were the robocalls of 2010, when political operative Julius Henson was hired by the Ehrlich campaign to place election-eve robocalls to try and keep African-American voters from going to the polls by telling them "Our goals have been met. . . . The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight." Both Henson and Ehrlich aid Paul Schurick were convicted of election fraud for the dirty trick, but Cardin and Cummings warn that just because there's now a law on the books, it doesn't preclude other efforts to work around it.
Dirty pre-election tricks are nothing new. Nixon henchman Donald Segretti's term for it, made famous in the book and film
All the President's Men
, was "ratfucking." Over the years the GOP, usually in efforts to restrain, suppress, or curtail the minority vote, has created programs called "ballot security," "voter caging," and now "voter ID" in an attempt to make it as difficult as possible for voters who are inclined to cast a ballot for the Democrats to do so. "Ballot security" involved sending individuals into predominantly minority urban precincts and challenging voters by flashing badges or bringing dogs. Former Nixon attorney John Dean wrote in his book
The Rehnquist Choice
that former Chief Justice William Rehnquist aggressively accosted black Phoenix voters at the polls in 1964 with these tactics.
"Caging" was a ploy to send registered letters to houses in urban areas; if the letters were returned, then all the people listed at that house would have their voter registration challenged or purged from voter rolls. This was a favored ploy of GOP tactician Ed Rollins, who also claimed that he paid off African-American ministers in a 1993 election in New Jersey to get them to tell their congregations to stay home.
Now, given that poorer people are more likely to vote Democratic, Republicans have instituted a nationwide effort to create more hoops for voters to jump through in order to cast a ballot, involving state-issued picture identification, which involved a convoluted process and often required a burdensome cost of time and money to acquire.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor of
magazine and a native of West Baltimore, recently wrote on his blog that "There are millions of people alive today whose early lives were marked by violent attempts to infringe upon their right [to vote]. This is not something that happened in your great-great grandfather's time. It's something that happened in your mother's time." The violence may be gone, but the goal hasn't changed.
It's happening now.