A Montgomery County legislator wants to ban misleading campaign fliers such as those used last year by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, which wrongly implied that prominent black leaders had endorsed Republican candidates for governor and Senate.
Sen. Michael G. Lenett, a newly elected Democrat, also wants to require a paper trail for Maryland's electronic voting machines and to develop a "Voter's Bill of Rights" in an effort to keep people from being turned away at the polls.
"I wanted to enhance the anti-fraud protections to make sure minorities or other vulnerable groups couldn't be coerced misled or improperly influenced," Lenett said.
On Election Day, the Ehrlich and Steele campaigns hired poll workers -- many of them homeless people bused in from Philadelphia -- to distribute sample ballots in African-American neighborhoods in Prince George's County implying that several black political leaders had endorsed the Republican leaders. None of those pictured on the ballots had endorsed Ehrlich, and most had not endorsed Steele.
Similar fliers were distributed in parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has unsuccessfully urged Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to investigate the incidents as acts of voter fraud. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who defeated Steele in the fall, made a similar appeal this week.
Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller said Democrats may be "trampling on the Constitution" in an a bid for political gain. Democrats should remember that they aren't innocent of misleading campaign fliers either, Miller said, noting an effort in 1998 to paint GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey as racist.
"I would like to remind the Democratic Party of the fliers put out against Ellen R. Sauerbrey by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's campaign," Miller said. "These are well-documented campaign tactics that have been used before by top Democrats."
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is working on similar legislation, said he has consulted with attorneys in the Department of Legislative Services and believes restrictions can be crafted so that they do not violate protections on free speech. Rosenberg said the Ehrlich and Steele campaign activities in the past election make clear the need for such restrictions -- which would carry civil, not criminal penalties.
"You had literature that was patently misleading in terms of implying that respected members of the community were supporting candidates that they weren't supporting," Rosenberg said.
The top leaders in the state House and Senate have said that adding a paper trail to Maryland's electronic voting machines will be a top priority this year. Voting advocates have complained for several years that Maryland's touch-screen electronic voting machines could be manipulated without anyone knowing because they provide no verifiable paper trail.
Lenett's bill calls for greater voter education to make sure that no one who is eligible to cast a ballot is turned away from the polls.
"It would take all the current, existing voting rights, put them in one place, add a new one with the paper trail," Lenett said. "We would disseminate it at every polling place, disseminate it with every sample ballot, so people are advised and know their rights."