By SCOTT SHEWFELT, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Misleading election fliers used by Republicans in his own U.S. Senate race prompted Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Wednesday to join Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to introduce the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act.
The legislation would make it a crime to provide voters with false election information. Cardin said he hopes it would eliminate the kind of deceptive campaign literature distributed in Maryland during the November 2006 election.
"The federal government needs to protect against a pattern aimed to suppress minority votes," Cardin said.
In November, Republicans printed a "Democratic sample ballot" that suggested former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, running for re-election, and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, running against Cardin for Senate, were backed by prominent black Democrats, including former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson. Both men supported Cardin's Senate run.
The campaign bused in distributors from Philadelphia to hand out the literature under the guise of giving them jobs, Cardin said.
"A clear effort to confuse African-American voters," Cardin called it.
The Maryland GOP said the fault for misleading material lies on both sides and the legislation proposed may be unconstitutional.
"It's another example of trampling our First Amendment rights." said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.
Democrats are guilty of deceptive practices, too, she said, citing ads run during the 1998 gubernatorial race between former Gov. Parris Glendening and Republican challenger Ellen Sauerbrey, which implied Sauerbrey voted against the Civil Rights Act, but she in fact opposed a minor state measure concerning sexual harassment suits.
This is an example of "Ben Cardin hypocritically and self-righteously trying to limit political speech," Miller said.
Obama agreed that voter suppression efforts have been perpetrated by both parties. Minorities, the disabled and the poor are having their votes suppressed across the country, he said.
Deceptive practices are outlined in the bill as knowingly providing false information about the time or place of elections, eligibility or registration rules, party affiliation and/or endorsements.
Misleading voters "is the murder of democracy," Schumer said.
The bill, which applies to federal elections, aims to increase the maximum penalty for voter intimidation from one year in jail, to five years plus a $100,000 fine.
The bill also would allow individuals to make a claim without having to wait for action by the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice declined Schumer's request to look into the tactics used in Maryland's Senate race, but Cardin has asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to reconsider.
The current law was not specific enough to prosecute what happened in Maryland and around the country, but this law should rectify that, Cardin said.
The bill is the beginning of a dialogue with Republicans on the matter, Obama said, although he acknowledged he has not spoken to the GOP about it.
Maryland's GOP wasn't seeing it that way, said Miller: "It's a whiny attempt that will be laughed out of any court."