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Ifill reports: "Those who are still confused about why Republicans spend so much energy making it harder for people to vote should pay some attention to a case that concluded this week in a courtroom in Baltimore. There, the campaign manager for 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate, and former Maryland governor, Robert Ehrlich was tried and found guilty of election fraud based on an attempt to suppress the African-American vote by authorizing the use of misleading robocalls."

Voters line up to vote, 06/06/11. (photo: Reuters)
Voters line up to vote, 06/06/11. (photo: Reuters)

Black Voters Told, 'Relax, Don't Vote'

By Sherrilyn A. Ifill, The Root

08 December 11


Republican is convicted for authorizing misleading "robocalls" - just one tactic being used to deter voters.

Those who are still confused about why Republicans spend so much energy making it harder for people to vote should pay some attention to a case that concluded this week in a courtroom in Baltimore. There, the campaign manager for 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate, and former Maryland governor, Robert Ehrlich was tried and found guilty of election fraud based on an attempt to suppress the African-American vote by authorizing the use of misleading robocalls.

The 23-second calls (listen to one here), targeted at 110,000 homes in Baltimore City and Prince George's County three hours before polls closed on election night in 2010, told voters that they could stay home. Incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Obama, the voice on the phone explained, had been "successful." The caller encouraged voters to just "watch the returns on TV."

Knowing a couple of important points may help those outside Maryland understand the Republican candidate's effort. First, the calls were all targeted at Baltimore City and Prince George's County - the two largest majority-black jurisdictions in the state. Second, President Obama wasn't even on the ballot in 2010. So ubiquitous were the calls in African-American homes in Baltimore that at least one of the calls went to the home of the (African-American) judge presiding over the case.

This case was a slam dunk. Paul Schurick, the campaign manager, admitted that he had authorized the consulting firm run by notorious Baltimore election guru Julius Henson to allow the phone calls. Henson, who is black, has been known for campaign tactics that skate close to the line. He has worked for both Democrats and Republicans.

His robocall plan appears to have been advanced in response to the now routine concern of Republicans seeking office in states with a large black voting bloc: how to avoid high black-voter turnout on Election Day. The question the campaign's political director sent in an email to Schurick on Election Day stated the concern succinctly: "What does [Henson] need to make [Baltimore] city turnout stay low?" The answer was provided by Henson and approved by Schurick, who read the text of the proposed call before authorizing it.

Earlier in the year, the campaign had rejected a proposal by Henson to use robocalls statewide. According to Schurick, the campaign had originally hoped to "woo" crossover black voters. But on Election Day, when it became clear that the plan had failed, Schurick authorized the calls.

For black voters in Maryland, this was not the first run-in with Ehrlich's racial manipulations on Election Day. In 2006 the campaign of then-Gov. Ehrlich hired a busload of homeless men (mostly black) from Philadelphia to hand out Ehrlich flyers at voting precincts in Baltimore. The governor's wife, Kendall, reportedly gave the "volunteers" - most of whom had no idea they'd walked into the middle of a racially charged election campaign - a pep talk when they arrived and served doughnuts.

Flyers and sample ballots handed out at polls that day by the campaigns of Ehrlich and his then-lieutenant governor, Michael Steele (now an MSNBC commentator and a contributing editor for The Root, and the former embattled chair of the Republican National Committee), featured a red, black and green kente cloth design and falsely suggested that black leaders such as former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and other black Maryland officials were endorsing Ehrlich and Steele. In fact, the African-American leaders featured on the flyer had endorsed Ehrlich's opponent.

The plan backfired when the black leaders went to the press on Election Day denouncing the misleading use of their names and images on the sample ballots. As this incident demonstrates, confusing black voters is a good deal more complicated than just keeping them away from the polls. And perhaps this inspired the robocall approval.

Campaign cognoscenti have long regarded keeping black-voter turnout low as a key to Republican electoral success, though one needn't offend racial sensibilities and invite obvious legal challenges by talking about it openly. Everyone remembers how Republican über-consultant Ed Rollins got in trouble for allegedly bragging about giving "walking-around money" to black preachers in Newark, N.J., who were expected to abandon their normal exhortations to congregants that they should vote in the 1993 New Jersey governor's race.

Whether the claim was true was less important than Rollins' confirmation that keeping black turnout low was a Republican strategy. Now Republican campaign strategists simply refer to "city voters," or the "urban electorate," when describing how to address the thorny problem of black voters.

Robocalls, which have reportedly been used in previous elections in Maryland and elsewhere, are just one, and not even the most pernicious, form of voter suppression. All across this country, Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted a series of laws that make it harder for people to vote.

Voter-ID laws, which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, now require voters in some states to proffer a government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or passport, in order to vote. Fifteen states require voters to show a government-issued photo identification at the polls. In eight of the those states, voters without a photo ID can vote only by provisional ballot and must return to the election administration within days of the election with a photo ID if they want their vote to count.

No problem if you are middle class and white and have ready access to transportation. But for elderly, disabled, rural or poor voters, obtaining and paying for such identification, or returning to the election administration office with such identification after Election Day, constitutes a considerable barrier to voting. It's an irony that almost 40 years after the Supreme Court abolished the poll tax, voters must now shell out money for a government-issued ID in order to vote.

In other states, Republicans are leading efforts to eliminate early voting and make it harder for college students to cast their ballots in the jurisdictions where they make their home for four years. Campaigns of disinformation suggesting that individuals whose homes are in foreclosure cannot vote, or that Latino voters will need to prove that no undocumented immigrants live in their home, are designed to scare off voters with the specter of challenge and humiliation at the polls.

But in a democracy, our efforts - whatever our political affiliation - should be focused on maximizing political participation. A healthy democracy is one in which all citizens regard themselves as partners and participants in the political process. We have to begin to take very seriously the threat to our democracy if the success of one of our two major political parties is partially premised on ensuring that the most marginalized people in the society don't show up on Election Day.

The barriers to registration that marginalized groups overcame with the passage of the Voting Rights Act as well as the 24th and 26th amendments to the Constitution have now moved to Election Day. It may require that kind of concerted and long-term effort, both in the courts and on the streets, to push back against these latest efforts to undo the work so hard fought for by earlier generations.

Schurick's attorney has called the robocalls a "faux pas" and a "political mistake." He's mistaken. Misleading robocalls, voter-ID laws and other voter-suppression efforts are smart political moves for Republicans. The only mistake they see is getting caught.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore and the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century. your social media marketing partner


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+22 # Daisy 2011-12-08 19:49
Maybe somebody needs to start a drive to fund voter IDs for those needing same in those states which require burdensome proof. BTW, how does one "prove" that there are no undocumented aliens in their household? The voters don't deserve those challenges from people at the election booth. All this is just to restrict voter fraud that so rarely happens, but is aimed at specific groups so that Republican chances of winning are increased. Pitiful.
+18 # Tippitc 2011-12-08 20:08
WOW - how low can regugs stoop?!?! Next they will be on their hands and knees unplugging voting machines.
+21 # MainStreetMentor 2011-12-08 22:57
This information MUST be distributed as widely and frequently as possible, in every medium. No American citizen can be denied the right to vote - it's guaranteed by our Constitution. This practice MUST be stopped - and the time to do it is NOW. The NAACP has taken the lead and every American must help that effort reach success.
+11 # RLF 2011-12-09 06:36
This is just another article about the low levels that American ethics have dropped. If you can do it then long as you get ahead, it is all right...winning at any cost is the right thing. This is sports ethics. Keep a child molester safe if it keeps you winning games. Welcome to the new America folks!
+8 # tswhiskers 2011-12-09 08:26
This is solid proof that the Republicans are fundamentally undemocratic a la John Dean's book Conservatives without conscience. During the Bush 2 admin. Tom Delay and others made it clear that their goal was to make the Republican Party the permanent majority party. Now with the huge number of voter suppression actions in the various states, this has become hardcore party strategy and policy. Throughout the Bush Admin. in PA, FL, OH and other states Party operatives did their best by removing voting machines from black districts, installing fraudulent voting machines that in a close election would reverse the vote (e.g. if the difference between the candidates was a few percentage points, the machine reversed them giving the Rep. the higher percent) and "purging" voter rolls of black and other likely Dem. voters. The Republicans are blatantly dishonest. A few reporters (Greg Palast comes to mind) have made this point but the mainstream media have been their usual gutless selves so unless you go to a few online sites or pick up Palast's books you'll never know that the Reps. are truly capable of doing anything to win an election short of murder. The Dems are innocent lambs by comparison.
-4 # Phlippinout 2011-12-09 08:53
When you run on hope and change and give more of the same people tend to not rush out to vote any way. While the republicans are shameless pigs at the trough, Obama has made many of his own supporters very sick and tired of his double speak and has won him the name GW Obama. Once again Americans are forced to choose between greedy liars and corporate whores. Yipeee, what a waste of time it seems for those who have larger hopes for mankind . When your home has been taken, your job no longer exists and you fear getting sick or injured because you have no health care you do not really see Obama in a different light than the rest. Face it, there are only a handful of elected officials that arent in it to line their slimy pockets.
+4 # wrodwell 2011-12-09 09:25
American politics have long been plagued by fraud and other nefarious manipulations, but it's only in the modern era that such strategies have become enhanced and much more sophisticated. The older style of corruption is exemplified by JFK's father buying election votes in Chicago while another example was Richard Nixon's infamous Watergate break-in. While both political parties are no strangers to dirty tricks, the Republicans have made political trick-or-treati ng into an industry thanks to the likes of Robespierre Rove, our very own Goebbels.
+4 # RMDC 2011-12-09 10:20
Republicans have always done everything they can to suppress black vote. They do this because they are at heart the party of racism. Remember Nixion's "southern strategy" -- i.e., prove to white voters that the republicans were the racist party.

But what can be the democratic party and Obama's reason. He and democrats give African Americans and white progressives nothing to vote for.

Sometimes outright republican evil is better than democratic hypocrity. At least people can learn from the evil. Hypocrisy - more precisely a democratic doing the corporate/milit ary/republican work -- is just confusing. People still hope but they are not sure why Obama takes such destructive positions as lowering the payroll tax and hastening the day when social security runs a deficit.
+5 # opinionaire 2011-12-09 11:11
During the last Presidential election, I went to the polling place I have gone to for EVERY primary and election for the last 20 years, a predominantly Republican region in which I frequently (but not always) vote for Democrats. I was told I was not on the rolls, and would not be permitted to vote unless provisionally. Far from being embarrassed by it, I continued to raise the level of dispute, including discussing it with fellow voters waiting, and calling democratic headquarters, until I was permitted to vote in a regular machine with the other voters. I continue to have suspicions about my name's sudden disappearance from the official records. There are no limits to the depths to which some of our systems will sink. It is incumbent on voters to fight back. In this state, we still have no paper print out demonstrating for each voter that his/her vote was registered as entered, either, and the machines used here have been demonstrated as eminently hackable.

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