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Real Solutions Needed on Voter Deception

A voter deception conviction last week in Maryland illustrates the need for real, not false solutions to combat voter suppression.

  • Keesha Gaskins
December 13, 2011

Cross­pos­ted at Huff­ing­ton Post.

Last week, Paul Schurick, the campaign manager for former Mary­land Governor Robert Ehrlich, was convicted of two counts of conspir­acy to viol­ate elec­tion laws and two counts of elec­tion fraud for orches­trat­ing a scheme of robo-calls inten­ded to deter 100,000 Demo­cratic African-Amer­ican voters from voting in the City of Baltimore and Prince George’s County Mary­land.

The robo-calls, delivered in a woman’s voice, assured Demo­cratic voters that the Demo­cratic Governor Martin O’Mal­ley had already won the elec­tion as of 6:00 p.m. on Elec­tion Day 2010.

“Our goals have been met. The polls are correct and we took it back. We’re OK. Relax. Everything’s fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight.”

At trial, Schurick argued his inten­tion was to anger voters sympath­etic to his candid­ate in order to motiv­ate them to vote. A jury rejec­ted his argu­ment and found Schurick’s intent was to mislead and discour­age Demo­cratic Afric­an‑Amer­ican voters from going to the polls.

Schurick’s convic­tion comes in the midst of a robust national debate about the import­ance of ballot secur­ity and how to protect Amer­ican elec­tions. Since Janu­ary 2011, 15 states passed laws — with more legis­la­tion currently pending in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Virginia, among others — that burden indi­vidual voters by making it harder for citizens to register and to vote. These efforts range from elim­in­at­ing early voting on Sunday, to making it more diffi­cult for citizens to register, to requir­ing a specific kind of govern­ment-issued photo ID to vote. In almost all cases these laws are justi­fied as a means to prevent voter fraud. This justi­fic­a­tion fails.

Simply put: these laws do noth­ing to prevent voter fraud, while putting up unne­ces­sary barri­ers to the ballot for millions. Making it all but impossible for the League of Women Voters to register citizens in Flor­ida — as a new law does — will not prevent someone who wants to submit a false regis­tra­tion form from doing so, but it could keep thou­sands from ever getting on the voter rolls. Elim­in­at­ing days avail­able for early voting will not keep supposed “fraud­sters” from the polls, but it will affect the 1–2 million voters who used those early-voting days to vote in the 2008 elec­tions. Requir­ing a driver’s license, gun permit, milit­ary ID or pass­port to vote (while not allow­ing student IDs or public bene­fit cards) will not improve the secur­ity of our elec­tions, but it may prevent the 3.2 million citizens without the right kind of photo ID from voting. All total, up to 5 million Amer­ican citizens may be affected by these laws, with no evid­ence that any voter fraud will be preven­ted.

These new laws raise concerns for the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Five million votes is greater than the margin of victory in 2 of the last 3 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Moreover, there are a total of 175 elect­oral votes controlled by the states that enacted laws impos­ing new restric­tions on voting and voter regis­tra­tion for the 2012 elec­tion — equal­ing 65 percent of the 270 elect­oral votes needed to elect the next Pres­id­ent.

Conversely, the “voter fraud” evan­gel­ic­als ignore the very real prob­lems created by voter decep­tion. In a case before him in 2009, federal Judge Dickin­son Debevoise found that voter intim­id­a­tion tactics present an ongo­ing threat to parti­cip­a­tion in the polit­ical process" and continue to pose a far greater danger to the integ­rity of the process than the unproven and undemon­strated threat of voter imper­son­a­tion and improper voter regis­tra­tion.

The distri­bu­tion of misin­form­a­tion about elec­tions and voter eligib­il­ity under­mines public confid­ence and discour­ages citizens from parti­cip­at­ing in the elect­oral process. Examples of voter decep­tion include:

  • In 2002 in Louisi­ana, flyers in an African Amer­ican neigh­bor­hood inac­cur­ately told voters they would be able to vote three days after the elec­tion.
  • In 2004 in Ohio, flyers in Frank­lin County told voters that due to heavy voter regis­tra­tion, Repub­lic­ans should vote on Tues­day and Demo­crats should vote on Wednes­day.
  • In 2006 in Virginia, voters living in areas with large minor­ity popu­la­tions received calls incor­rectly report­ing that their polling places had changed.
  • In 2008 in Phil­adelphia, fliers posted near Drexel Univer­sity incor­rectly warned that police officers would be at polling places look­ing for indi­vidu­als with outstand­ing arrest warrants or park­ing tick­ets.
  • In the 2006 midterm elec­tion, 14,000 Latino voters in Orange County, Cali­for­nia received mail­ings from the Cali­for­nia Coali­tion for Immig­ra­tion Reform, warn­ing them in Span­ish that “if you are an immig­rant, voting in a federal elec­tion is a crime that can result in incar­cer­a­tion” without refer­ence to the fact that a natur­al­ized immig­rant may legally vote.

Other types of suppress­ive voter activ­ity by polit­ical oper­at­ives or private citizens are:

Voter caging: efforts to identify and disen­fran­chise registered voters solely on the basis of an undeliv­er­able mail­ing;

Voter intim­id­a­tion: conduct that intim­id­ates or threatens voters into voting a certain way or refrain­ing from voting; and

Discrim­in­at­ory or intim­id­at­ing voter chal­lenges: formal chal­lenges to the eligib­il­ity of persons present­ing them­selves to vote either at the polls or prior to Elec­tion Day in a way inten­ded to intim­id­ate voters or in an inten­tion­ally discrim­in­at­ory pattern.

Paul Schurick’s convic­tion evid­ences the type of activ­ity that is well-docu­mented and clearly demon­strated to be a real prob­lem.

Niomi Rosen­berg, one of jurors from the Schurick trial said it best: “Suppres­sion of the vote is a very big prob­lem. Our coun­try is foun­ded on the right to vote.”