Sen. Cardin Backs Voting Law To Tackle Deceptive Election Tactics

By HALLIE C. FALQUET, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., returned to the House Wednesday, telling his erstwhile colleagues of the deceptive election tactics that marred his Senate race last year and backing a bill to prevent voter intimidation.

"We will not tolerate practices by campaigns to intimidate voters," Cardin, who spent 20 years in the House before winning election to the Senate in November, told the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing focused on House Bill 1281, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007, which was introduced by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., on March 1 with Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, as co-sponsors.

The bill closely resembles Sen. Barack Obama's, D-Ill., Senate Bill 453 that was introduced Jan. 31 and co-sponsored by Cardin. That bill has yet to reach the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Obama, who sat beside Cardin at the hearing, was the only other senator to testify.

The act "makes voter intimidation and deception punishable by law, and it contains strong penalties so that people who commit these crimes suffer more than just a slap on the wrist," Obama said.

No penalties were issued during Cardin's 2006 U.S. Senate race after a so-called "Democratic Sample Ballot" was distributed to voters, that implied former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, running for re-election, and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, running for Senate against Cardin, were Democrats, although they are Republicans.

The same pamphlet suggested Ehrlich and Steele were backed by, among others, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, and Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, both black Democrats, when they actually supported Cardin.

Such practices would be punishable under the new bill. Deceptive practices are outlined as knowingly providing false information about the time or place of elections, eligibility or registration rules, party affiliation and/or endorsements.

The House bill aims to raise penalties from one year in jail to five, and impose an undefined fine. The Senate bill echoes the jail time, but specifies a fine of up to $100,000.

The bills also provide for an individual right of action. An individual, political organization, or any other group, would no longer have to wait on the Department of Justice to deal with the claims.

Some opponents, including the Maryland Republican Party, say the measures would inhibit First Amendment rights of free speech.

Cardin acknowledges this danger, but said the bill clearly states that an offense is only made when "one knows of false content and has the intent to intimidate voters."

"This can be difficult to establish," he said, but Congress can protect voters and preserve the Constitution at the same time.

The following excerpts are from Sen. Cardin’s prepared testimony:

· “After having served in elective office in Annapolis for 20 years and in Washington for 20 years, I understand that campaigns are a rough and tumble business. I expect that candidates will question and criticize my record and judgment, and voters ultimately have a right to choose their candidate. What goes beyond the pale is when a campaign uses deceptive tactics to deliberately marginalize minority voters.

· “Sadly, the tactics we saw in Maryland are not new, and in previous years deceptive practices in Baltimore City, the State of Maryland, and throughout the United States involved handing out false and deceptive literature in African-American neighborhoods. In previous elections we have seen deceptive literature distributed which gave the wrong date for the election, the wrong times when polling places were open, and even suggested that people could be arrested if they had unpaid parking tickets or taxes and tried to vote. My colleagues on the panel, I am sure, will discuss other such tactics designed to suppress minority turnout.

· “I reject that this is the way we do business in 2006 in Maryland and in the United States of America. To me this is clearly an organized pattern and practice of attempting to confuse minority voters and to suppress minority turnout.

· “It has been 137 years since Congress and the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, which states that ‘the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race [or] color…’ The Amendment also gave Congress power to enforce the article by ‘appropriate legislation.’ African-Americans suffered through nearly another 100 years of discrimination at the hands of Jim Crow laws and regulations, designed to make it difficult if not impossible for African-Americans to register to vote due to literacy tests, poll taxes, and outright harassment and violence. It took Congress and the states nearly another century until we adopted the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in 1964, which prohibited poll taxes or any tax on the right to vote. In 1965 Congress finally enacted the Voting Rights Act, which once and for all was supposed to prohibit discrimination against voters on the basis of race or color.

· “It is time for Congress to once again take action to stop the latest reprehensible tactics that are being used against African-American voters to interfere with (a) their right to vote or (b) their right to vote for the candidate of their choice, as protected in the Voting Rights Act. These tactics undermine and corrode our very democracy and threaten the very integrity of our electoral process.

· “Today we have the obligation and duty to fulfill the promises made by Congress and the states nearly 140 years after the end of the Civil War, and over 40 years after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. I urge you to pass this legislation that would stop the use of false and deceptive practices designed to disenfranchise and suppress minority voter turnout. Let us make it crystal clear that it is illegal to use these types of campaign tactics to deliberately try to suppress and intimidate minority voters from casting their hard-won and precious right to vote in an election.”

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