A group of Maryland's leading Democrats criticized Republicans yesterday over what they assailed as the GOP's "secret playbook" to suppress voter turnout on Election Day.
Democrats referred to the Maryland Republican Party's 13-page poll watcher handbook, which includes step-by-step details on how to challenge those who may be casting fraudulent votes. The handbook insists that watchers warn election judges of the risk of jail time for failure to report the challenges.
"This is a conscious, premeditated plan of voter intimidation and vote suppression on Election Day," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, during a news conference in Baltimore, where he was flanked by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran; the Democratic nominee for attorney general, Douglas F. Gansler; and others.
"This is not Mississippi in the 1950s, this is Maryland in 2006," Gansler said.
Democrats distributed copies of the GOP guide, reports of which first appeared in The Washington Post. They also offered copies of the Republicans' 10-page manual on absentee and provisional ballot canvassing.
"Your most important duty as poll watcher is to challenge people who present themselves to vote but who are not authorized to vote," the handbook states, followed by guidelines on how to make such challenges.
The state Republican Party dismissed the Democrats' accusations yesterday, saying the guide is authorized under Maryland law.
"The program has been used in previous elections by both parties without controversy," Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane said in a statement.
The GOP shot back with a 2004 Democrat National Committee document they said reveals a Democratic strategy to invoke the issue of intimidation - even if none exists.
"What they are doing is crying voter suppression as a pre-emptive strike as described to them in this national Democratic Party manual," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. "It's their last-ditch, desperate, four-days-out-from-the-election attempt to energize their voters, who are more and more supporting Bob Ehrlich and Michael Steele."
The allegations come amid a vigorous effort on behalf of both parties to prepare for legal challenges on Election Day. Democrats have enlisted an army of lawyers to fight what they call GOP intimidation efforts, while Republicans have lined up their own attorneys to fight fraud and other irregularities.
Problems during the Sept. 12 primary, in which absent election judges and human error led to extended poll hours in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, prompted new concerns about the integrity of the state's electronic voting system.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and others have expressed a lack of confidence in the system and called on voters to cast absentee ballots. A record number of voters -188,354 - have requested absentee ballots.
While casting an absentee ballot at the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections in Glen Burnie yesterday, Ehrlich declined to comment on the Democrats' allegations of voter intimidation saying, "I don't know anything about it."
The campaign for Democratic rival Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley attacked Ehrlich on the issue.
"Bob Ehrlich may not want to answer questions about his voter-suppression efforts now, but he'll have to answer for them on Nov. 7th" said Hari Sevugan, communications director for the O'Malley campaign.
The O'Malley campaign has also charged that Ehrlich' s absentee ballot push is an effort to erode confidence in the voting system and keep people away from the polls. Ehrlich dismissed that assertion yesterday, noting that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat. also suggested absentee voting.
"He has obviously lost a lot of ground," Ehrlich said of O'Malley.
Ehrlich said yesterday that absentee ballots should be an option for people who do not feel comfortable with the state's voting system.
"We've urged people to do it, only if they feel more comfortable doing so," he said.
The Democrats' attack also comes on the heels of concerns expressed by Republicans about election judges. The attorney general recently advised that precincts open on time, even if there are not enough poll workers to meet requirements.
Dirk Haire, an attorney for the state Republican Party, responded to that advice recently with a letter to the attorney general's office reiterating that state law requires an equal number of election judges from the majority and minority parties at each precinct.
Meanwhile, a mistake in a Baltimore City Board of Elections database resulted in erroneous phone calls to a handful of election judges this week, city election officials said yesterday, apologizing for the confusion.
About 10 election judges complained to the board Wednesday that their precincts had been switched, but when city election officials checked their records, no switch had been made.
Unable to track the source of the call, Jones and others suspected the calls were a prank. Later, however, city officials learned that the call center at the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center, which is reminding election judges of their assignments, was the source of the phone calls.
Sun reporters Melissa Harris and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.