Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin on Wednesday said tricks designed to suppress voter turnout, especially those of historically disenfranchised minorities, require Congress to pass an update to the nation’s 50-year-old voting-rights legislation.
Cardin said he would file a bill Wednesday to make it a federal offense to produce or use fraudulent election material to try to mislead or discourage voting within 90 days of an election. For one, Cardin said the bill would allow prosecutors nationwide to guard against the kind of robocalls that a Maryland jury this month decided were intended to suppress black voter turnout in the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s campaign manager, Paul E. Schurick, was found guilty of four counts of election law violations stemming from ordering the calls, which told voters in Prince George’s County and in Baltimore to “relax” and to not bother going to the polls. The automated call said Democratic candidate Gov. Martin O’Malley and President Obama had already been successful. Schurick is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16, and faces potential jail time.
Cardin noted that the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor could only pursue the case because of a 2006 change to state law. He and co-sponsor New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D), said a similar tool is needed in the hands of prosecutors nationwide. Their “Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011” would create a process for civil complaints as well as criminal penalties of up to five years in prison.
At a Capitol Hill news conference, Cardin and Schumer were flanked by placards showing examples of what they said were increasingly sophisticated attempts to suppress and intimidate voters. One showed a fabricated “sample Democratic ballot” from Maryland’s previous gubernatorial election, when paid campaign workers for Ehrlich and then Lt. Gov. Michael Steele circulated a flyer before the 2006 election that suggested the Republican candidates were the preferred choices of Democrats.
One from Milwaukee suggested erroneously that anyone who had been found guilty of even a traffic violation was not allowed to vote in an upcoming election. And another showed a flyer seemingly produced by a local election board asking Republicans to vote on Tuesday, and Democrats to vote on Wednesday.
“This should make anyone’s blood boil,” Schumer said, adding that “Democracy’s days are numbered” if the practices are not curbed. Cardin added that in an age of so many fledgling democracies seeking to take root around the world, the United States must “lead by example” in protecting citizens’ right to vote.