Senate looks at election tactics

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson said he had planned to spend Election Day visiting polling places and talking with voters last November. But that was before he saw the flier.

The "Official Voter Guide" produced and distributed by the campaigns of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Michael S. Steele featured a photograph of Johnson and suggested -- incorrectly -- that he and two other prominent African-American Democrats had endorsed the Republicans in the gubernatorial and Senate races.

"I was simply flabbergasted that my name and likeness could be appropriated in such a manner," Johnson told a U.S. Senate hearing yesterday. "Rather than using my time to visit with voters and talk about issues of mutual concern affecting the county, I spent the entire day using all my energy to inform citizens that the literature was a hoax."

Johnson and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, both Democrats, joined Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Charles E. Schumer at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing chaired by Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah was the only Republican at the sparsely attended session.

Cardin, who defeated Steele last fall, is co-sponsoring an Obama measure that would make it a federal crime to knowingly disseminate false information about polling times and places, voter eligibility or candidate endorsements -- tactics that he says are used disproportionately to disenfranchise minority voters.

"It is time for Congress to once again take action to stop the latest reprehensible tactics that are being used against African-American, Latino and other minority voters," Cardin said. "These tactics undermine and corrode our very democracy and threaten the very integrity of our electoral process."

Some at the hearing testified that new legislation might do more harm than good. Washington attorney William B. Canfield, a specialist in federal election law, said complaints might swamp the U.S. courts even though local and federal law enforcement agencies are equipped to respond to alleged violations of voting rights. Canfield also said the legislation was vague on what constitutes a deceptive practice.

Peter N. Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said the legislation would not prevent false voter registrations, multiple registrations and compromised absentee ballots. Cardin and Kirsanow differed on which was a more significant problem -- eligible voters being prevented from voting or ineligible voters being able to cast ballots.

At the outset, Cardin showed what he said were examples of false or misleading literature distributed in recent elections: a flier from McCandless Township in Allegheny County, Pa., directing Republicans to vote on Nov. 2, 2004 -- the actual Election Day -- and Democrats to vote Nov. 3, the day after the election; a letter sent to recently registered voters with Hispanic surnames in Orange County last year warning that immigrants who attempted to vote could be imprisoned or deported; and the "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats" guides that were distributed in predominantly African-American precincts in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

Obama called the fliers "egregious." Schumer, chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, said they made him "furious."

"Somebody who does this does not deserve a slap on the wrist or even a fine," Schumer said. "They deserve to go to jail just like a bank robber does, for they're robbing people of their democracy."

Obama said his legislation, which carries penalties of up to $100,000 and five years in prison, would have a "prophylactic" effect. "If people know that the law takes this seriously, they will not do it," Obama said.

A surprise visitor at the hearing was former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland. Mathias, 84, did not speak, but Cardin read from a letter by the Republican in support of the bill.

"While the methods employed to deter voting differ today from those in vogue 40 years ago, the deplorable objective remains the same: to help destroy the integrity of the election process by suppressing participation, especially by minorities," Mathias wrote.

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