Sauerbrey Suit Won't Be Last

January 01, 1995|By RICHARD O'MARA

Ellen R. Sauerbrey's challenge to the outcome of November's gubernatorial election is not a common political gambit in these times. Nor is it usually a successful one.

But that is not to say it won't be in her case. And it is probable that whether she wins or loses there will be more of this in the years to come.

Similar challenges to electoral outcomes could proliferate, if only because of the deterioration of political civility nationally and the rise in the ideological content of many electoral contests. Which is to say, the nastiness quotient is ascending.

"There is a greater sense of political warfare between Democrats and Republicans right now than at any time before," said Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Democratic pollsters in Washington.

"American politics were never thought of as a life-and-death battle," he added. "But more and more the combatants are dealing with it in those terms. The rules of combat have dissolved."

Among the factors driving this is the increase in the cost of mounting political campaigns. Defeat, always a disappointment, these days can be a financial catastrophe. Negative campaigning often stimulates a genuine personal hatred between candidates. The closeness of elections is also often a factor. It is in the Sauerbrey case.

"This [challenge] is a reflection of Ellen Sauerbrey's person and character," said Mr. Garin. "This is a person who beat the odds to become the candidate and was only an inch away" from victory in the general election.

The gubernatorial election Nov. 8 was close, with Mrs. Sauerbrey only 5,993 votes behind Parris N. Glendening. But it was not the closest race in our history. Since 1838, when the state first began choosing its chief executives by popular vote, nine gubernatorial elections have ended with fewer votes separating the candidates.

Walter Dean Burnham, an expert on electoral politics and political scientist at the University of Texas, said: "These kinds of challenges are not frequent. It is one of those arrangements, along with the Huffington thing [the allegations of fraud by defeated Republican Senate candidate Michael R. Huffington in California] that suggests a high level of ideology."

Intense, unforgiving ideological polarization has not characterized politics in America in recent decades, certainly not to the degree it did in the last century. Baltimore, during the heyday of the Know-Nothing Party, offered the nation a template for electoral fraud.

Bloodier than Palo Alto

In 1856, for instance, Baltimore's mayoralty election was stolen, and a year later a gubernatorial candidate was put into office through voter fraud, intimidation and violence. The mayoralty election is described in J. Thomas Scharf's "History of Maryland" as "an event wholly unprecedented in the annals of this or any other American city," complete with gunbattles around the Lexington Market, artillery brought to bear, and "more men killed than fell on the American side on the field of Palo Alto" in the Mexican War.

Professor Burnham does not foresee a return to those yeastier times, but he is certain the ideological levels of campaigns will rise.

"No doubt about it. We can expect more of it," he said.

Thus, Mrs. Sauerbrey may turn out to be a disagreeable bellwether on the nation's political landscape.

To Professor Burnham and other professional observers of American politics, the most common source of the problems that cause candidates and voters to question the integrity of elections is simple incompetence.

"We have the world's sloppiest electoral systems," said Professor Burnham. "You can find bureaucracies administering elections so poor that if we ran our Defense Department like this we couldn't defeat the army of Luxembourg."

'Run by human beings'

Dave Mason, a political analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said: "It usually boils down to the fact that [the electoral machinery] is run by human beings, often part-timers. They're not perfectly trained. Also, in a state like Maryland, where you have one-party control of the electoral apparatus, this usually causes questions and claims to be raised."

But he added: "They are infrequently successful."

Deliberate electoral fraud does not characterize American politics today. Curtis B. Gans, who heads the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (a nonpartisan research organization that tries "to determine what causes people not to vote"), ran a study on the incidence of reported voter fraud throughout the country in the decade 1978-1988:

"We looked at the major newspapers in the different states for any claims of fraud, for people paid to vote, juggled figures, dead people voting, people who moved, last-minute fraudulent registrations.

"Over a 10-year period there were only about 91 instances. Which is not a hell of a lot of instances."

In most cases, no action was taken.

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