Robocall incident should spur changes

In the weeks leading up to the Maryland gubernatorial election in 2006, the campaign of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.commissioned and distributed "voter guides" which were, in fact, filled with misinformation. The leaflets falsely implied that Mr. Ehrlich and Republican Senate nominee Michael Steele were Democrats and that they were endorsed by popular Democratic leaders including Kweisi Mfume and Wayne Curry. Four years later, Mr. Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, commissioned robocalls on Election Day in 2010 in primarily African-American districts, informing voters that the Democrats had already won and that they should stay home.

It is impossible to know how many people were confused or discouraged from voting by these malicious acts, but criminal or civil action against political operatives who willfully deceive voters can go a long way toward making sure it won't happen again. Unfortunately, under Maryland law, doing so is presently very difficult. In fact, the 2006 leaflets may have been legal under state law, which only prohibits attempts to suppress voters, not influence their choice under false information.

The 2010 robocalls were a more clear-cut case of voter suppression, and Mr. Schurick became one of the first people to be convicted for deceptive elections practices. However, due to the broadness of the fraud statute, conviction was possible only because of the overwhelming evidence of malfeasance, with one internal memo describing the campaign's strategy of "promot[ing] confusion, emotionalism, and frustration among African-American Democrats."

Two steps can be taken in Maryland to ensure that elections in 2012 and beyond will be free from electoral vandalism. The first is a much-needed clarification of present election law, with specifically worded statutes to criminally prosecute deceptive election practices. Legislators likewise ought to provide for a private right of action, so that disenfranchised voters will have legal recourse even if state or federal authorities do not take proper action.

John Mumby, Bel Air

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