Schurick trial: Robocall no mere 'faux-pas'

The conviction of Paul Schurick, the aide to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., on charges of election fraud is a sad end to a long career in Maryland politics. Mr. Schurick served this city and state long and well (much of it under the auspices of the late William Donald Schaefer), and it is a shame that the good he has done is now overshadowed.

But it would also be difficult to imagine a jury coming to any different conclusion. The basic facts of the case were never in dispute. Mr. Schurick himself admitted on the stand that he authorized the text of the infamous "relax" and "watch it on TV" robocall that went to hundreds of thousands of homes of African-American voters in Baltimore City and Prince George's County during the last two hours of the 2010 gubernatorial election. That recorded message clearly had no other purpose than to discourage Democrats from going to the polls.

That the call did not include an authority line to make clear that the Ehrlich campaign paid for it was pretty damning as well. Whether the whole mess was cooked up by controversial political consultant Julius Henson (who will soon be on trial on related charges, too) or Mr. Schurick was largely irrelevant. As Mr. Ehrlich's campaign manager, the buck stopped at Mr. Schurick's desk. Mr. Schurick authorized the call and knew what it said.

As the judge in the case observed, the jury needed only common sense to see that the call was an attempt to get people to stay home and not go to the polls. The defense's argument that it was an effort at reverse psychology was ludicrous and insulting to the jurors' intelligence.

The truth is often an early, and frequent, victim in political campaigns. Those who run for governor or any high office seldom win with a game of patty-cake. Political dirty tricks are not exactly unknown in this state (or nation). And, hey, it didn't play a factor in the election's outcome — a landslide re-election victory for Martin O'Malley — so it's not a big deal, right?

But what A. Dwight Pettit, Mr. Schurick's defense attorney, referred to in closing arguments as a "faux pas" was something far more troubling and despicable than the customary hyperbole and empty promises of political campaigns. It was a deliberate attempt to use fraudulent tactics to get those living in the state's two predominantly African-American jurisdictions to not exercise their constitutional right to vote.

That is not just reprehensible, it's fundamentally un-American. It's an assault on democracy, and it's something Maryland law makes a criminal offense, with those convicted of it subject to up to five years in prison on each charge.

A faux pas? Perhaps that makes literacy tests or poll taxes of earlier times a matter of poor manners. Maybe the Baltimore gangs of 160 years ago hired to keep certain groups from voting were just exercising their own rights to "persuade" the electorate.

No doubt Mr. Pettit will challenge the outcome on First Amendment grounds. He can argue that candidates and their supporters have a constitutional right to lie. But do such protections extend to fraud and voter suppression? Should Mr. Schurick's right to free speech trump the rights of those Maryland residents who were fraudulently dissuaded from voting?

But that is a court case for another day. For now, the message should go out to the dirty tricksters of politics, whether Democrat or Republican, that fraudulently discouraging Maryland residents from going to the polls is a crime not to be taken lightly.

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