Democrats fear GOP unit targets black voters

October 29, 1994|By Robert Timberg and Thomas W. Waldron | Robert Timberg and Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Douglas Birch and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

The Maryland Democratic Party has asked city, state and federal prosecutors to look into a group headed by Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont, a Republican political gadfly and perennial candidate, saying it may have been formed to suppress the black vote on Election Day.

Dr. Pierpont says the objective of his organization, called the Knights and Dames of Freedom Political Action Committee, is to ensure that the vote is "honest and correct" by discouraging fraud at the polls.

In an interview yesterday, he said the group is raising funds to hire security personnel to serve in various capacities, including as poll watchers on Election Day in Baltimore's inner city and possibly elsewhere.

Asked if his group hoped to hold down the black vote, which regularly supports Democratic candidates by large margins, Dr. Pierpont said, "If it's crooked, yes. If it isn't crooked, no."

He added, "If they're honest, there's no reason a black voter should worry any more than a white voter. If they're dishonest, they should worry. . . .

"We want to be sure that the actual votes cast are from legal voters who came in personally and cast those votes. Without monitoring a precinct, you can't tell if that's true or not."

Dr. Pierpont, a retired surgeon, said that he acted on his own in forming the group and that he has not coordinated his activities with the state Republican Party or any candidate, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Mrs. Sauerbrey said last night that Dr. Pierpont told her he was forming the group with the goal of helping Republican candidates and that she knew nothing of its Election Day plans.

She added, however, that she did not disapprove of its plans as described to her by a reporter.

No cause for concern

"I wouldn't think anyone would have any reason to be concerned if they are a legitimate voter," Mrs. Sauerbrey said last night. "If you have no reason to be intimidated because you're on the books, what would make anyone stay at home?"

But Emily Smith, campaign manager for Parris N. Glendening, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said, "This is outright voter intimidation through the ugliest kind of strong-arm tactics. . . . This is Maryland in 1994, not Alabama in the 1930s."

Dr. Pierpont's group registered as a political action committee (PAC) with the state election board Oct. 6, describing its purpose in filing papers as promoting "freedom for Marylanders and integrity of the ballot box." Its latest spending report, filed Thursday, showed total contributions of $1,950.

But Dr. Pierpont said that the group has only begun fund-raising and that he hopes to raise $15,000 to $20,000.

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, the new state Democratic Party chairman, sent letters earlier this week to the three top law enforcement officials, warning: "The concept of ballot security is generally recognized in political circles to be a euphemism for the suppression and hindering of African Americans and other minority voters as they attempt to exercise their franchise on Election Day."

Mr. Hughes sent letters to Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland; Stephen Montanarelli, the state prosecutor; and Stuart O. Simms, the Baltimore state's attorney.

'Ballot security'

Other Democratic Party officials said "ballot security" measures have been used repeatedly to hold down the minority vote in close elections.

In 1988, for example, Republican officials in Orange County, Calif., hired uniformed security guards to monitor the vote, a tactic that Democrats said was designed to intimidate Hispanic voters in a state legislative race.

In the 1990 senatorial election in North Carolina, the state Republican Party mailed more than 120,000 postcards to registered voters in mostly black areas.

"Voter Registration Bulletins" warned voters that they would be asked to tell election judges how long they had lived in their precincts and falsely stated that anybody who had not lived in the precinct more than 30 days would be prohibited from voting.

The bulletins also included a warning stating that it was a federal crime, punishable by a five-year jail sentence, for a voter to give false information about his residence.

A lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee was settled when the North Carolina Republican Party agreed not to practice ballot security measures that targeted racial minorities.

Some challenges permitted

Under Maryland law, candidates or political parties can send observers inside polling places to monitor the vote. If they have a reason to suspect a voter is using a bogus identity, they can challenge his or her right to vote, according to Gene M. Raynor, state elections administrator.

But the observer has no right to force voters to produce identification, state officials said.

"They don't have an entitlement to ask every voter to identify himself or herself," said Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general.

Election judges can have police remove an observer who is interfering with the voting process by mounting unwarranted challenges, Mr. Raynor said.

Mr. Schwartz said it would probably be improper for poll observers to wear security uniforms.

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