Common Cause Urges Passage of Tough Penalties for Voter Intimidation and Deception

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  • Dale Eisman

WASHINGTON — In the wake of attempts in several states to swing elections by intimidating or tricking voters into staying away from the polls, Common Cause urged senators today to write tough punishments for such deceptive practices into federal law.

“Intentional dishonest efforts to undermine the integrity of voting should be against the law. Most Americans are shocked and appalled to hear that these types of campaigns occur – but we know that they do, and cannot stand by and wait for it to get worse,” said Jenny Flanagan, director of voting and elections for Common Cause.

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Flanagan urged quick passage of landmark legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to strengthen penalties for anyone convicted of efforts to suppress the vote by intentionally lying about the time, place or manner or qualifications of voting. The bill (S. 1994) also would permit voters kept away from the polls by illegal trickery or intimidation tactics to file suit to stop the behavior.

“Many states do not currently have statutes that specifically address deceptive practices, do not require corrective action, do not provide a private right of action for aggrieved individuals,” Flanagan said. Prevention should be uniform; “a state-by-state piecemeal approach does not adequately protect voters,” she asserted.

Flanagan’s testimony included a litany of recent attempts to depress voter turnout, including:

– Automated phone calls to 112,000 Maryland households on Election Day in 2010 aimed at persuading Democratic voters to stay home. The recorded voice told residents that “Gov. O’Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back. We’re okay. Relax. Everything’s fine.” A jury later convicted Paul E. Schurick, the campaign manager for former Gov, Bob Ehrlich, O’Malley’s opponent in the election, of violating state laws against such efforts. One document admitted into evidence suggested that the calls were specifically intended to “promote confusion, emotionalism, and frustration among African American Democrats, focused in precincts where high concentrations of AA vote.”

– Emails sent to 35,000 students and staff at George Mason University on Election Day 2008 that falsely stated that the election had been postponed until Wednesday.

– Calls to voters in Pueblo, Colo., on Nov. 3, 2008, the eve of the presidential election, claiming that the polls would remain open an extra day. Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert Ortiz reported that his office was “inundated” by calls from confused and angry voters who wondered how their precinct could suddenly change the night before an election.

– Automated calls to Wisconsin voters during the state’s gubernatorial recall election earlier this month. “If you signed the recall petition, your job is done and you don’t need to vote on Tuesday,” voters were told. The source of the calls remains a mystery.

Flanagan argued that while states including Virginia, Missouri, and Colorado have attempted to crack down on such practices with their own laws, other states have refused to act. “The result has been a patchwork of different state laws that differ in scope and strength,” she told senators.

“Because states haved inadequately provided voters with protection from intimidation and other deceptive practices, Congress should pass legislation to address this nationwide problem,” Flanagan added.