“We’re okay. Relax. Everything’s fine.” Those reassuring words phoned to tens of thousands of Maryland residents last year on Election Day were part of a smarmy effort to convince voters that — even though the polls were still open — they need not vote because Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) already had won. “The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight.” The calls were deceptive and, state prosecutors have concluded, illegal. Their decision to bring criminal charges is a powerful message that such tactics should not be tolerated.
Two political operatives who worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also a former governor, were indicted by a Baltimore city grand jury Thursday on charges of orchestrating robocalls to more than 100,000 Democratic voters as part of a scheme to suppress the African American vote. Paul E. Schurick, top aide to Mr. Ehrlich, and political consultant Julius Henson were charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to violate Maryland election law. Mr. Schurick, a fixture in Maryland politics, was also indicted on a count of obstruction of justice for allegedly withholding documentation that had been subpoenaed. An indictment is an allegation of facts, not proof, and lawyers for both men proclaimed the innocence of their clients. An attorney for Mr. Schurick said the charges were based upon “a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts” and said they would be vigorously challenged.
The law under which the two are charged makes it illegal for any person “to willfully and knowingly influence or attempt to influence a voter’s decision whether to go to the polls to cast a vote through the use of force, fraud, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward, or offer of reward.” It also makes it illegal to “engage in conduct that results or has the intent to result in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race, color or disability.” Mr. Ehrlich was governor when the General Assembly passed the measure in 2005; his own bruising style of politics was singled out by some as the reason for authorities to have more power to go after political behavior that crosses the line. Some 15 other states have similar laws.
No doubt some would argue, as Mr. Henson has claimed in a separate civil action springing from the robocalls, that political activity, including so-called dirty tricks, is protected by free speech. But intentional falsehoods designed to deny others their voice in government fall outside those protections. Telling voters the election has been decided is akin to saying the polls have closed. Adding to the deception is that the robocalls carried no authority line; they were delivered anonymously with the clear suggestion they came from the Democratic camp.
Central to the case will be the intent of the defendants. Prosecutors point to a plan — the so-called Schurick Doctrine — they say was developed to suppress the vote in hundreds of black precincts. Mr. Shurick’s lawyer counters that the plan was rejected out of hand and never implemented. According to the indictment, Mr. Henson was told in the summer of 2010 that the strategy was too expensive. But the defendants will have to explain a chronology of phone calls showing Mr. Schurick in close consultation with Mr. Henson on Election Day as the calls were being readied for delivery.