Gutter politics

Our view: Calls urging voters to stay home Election Day were pure voter suppression

November 09, 2010

Hours before the polls closed on Election Day last week, about 50,000 Marylanders received pre-recorded telephone messages suggesting that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley had won re-election and urging them to "relax" — by staying home and watching the results on TV rather than going out to vote. Democrats promptly denounced the messages and called for an investigation. But this goes beyond the usual in dirty politics, and it demands more than the usual post-election investigation. This was an attempt at voter suppression, as cynical as it was ineffective. Somebody should go to jail for this, and if there isn't a law that makes that possible, there should be.

In the hurly-burly of hotly contested races, political dirty tricks aren't unknown in Maryland, though usually the perpetrators manage to hide their identity. But in this case the calls were quickly traced to the campaign of Mr. O'Malley's Republican opponent in the face, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — and specifically to political consultant Julius Henson, a longtime Baltimore operative who normally works for Democrats but this year received tens of thousands of dollars from the Ehrlich campaign.

Mr. Henson's bare-knuckled approach to political advocacy has left him no stranger to controversy. In 1998, he tried to paint GOP candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey as a racist in that year's governor's race, and in 2002 he called Mr. Ehrlich a "Nazi" while working for the campaign of Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. He disrupted a key endorsement of Mr. O'Malley's first mayoral campaign in 1999 and derailed defense attorney Warren Brown's bid for the Baltimore state's attorney's office by digging into embarrassing details of his personal life.

The Ehrlich campaign has declined to comment on Mr. Henson's role in the incident, which is especially unfortunate since this isn't the first time the former governor has been accused of unethical practices aimed at deceiving voters. In 2006 Mr. Ehrlich was accused of busing homeless men from Philadelphia to Prince George's County to distribute brochures falsely suggesting he had the backing of several notable Democratic black leaders who in fact opposed his candidacy.

But while Mr. Ehrlich himself has ducked questions about the latest charges, Mr. Henson has been happy to take credit for the calls, calling them an effort to rally Republicans rather than an attempt to keep Democrats away from the polls — a particularly nonsensical excuse. How could it possibly help Mr. Ehrlich to tell his Republican supporters that their candidate had already lost? The fact remains that those calls could only have been aimed at lulling Democrats into thinking there was no reason for them to go to the polls.

A 2005 Maryland law makes it unlawful for any person to "willfully and knowingly influence or attempt to influence a voter's decision whether to go to the polls to cast a vote through the use of force, fraud, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward, or offer of reward," and last week Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler announced his office was opening an investigation into whether the Henson calls violated the statute. Unfortunately, the law allows for criminal penalties (up to five years in jail) only if the perpetrator can be shown to have known about the law; otherwise, it's a slap on the wrist. The state may still be able to press charges involving the fraudulent use of telephone communications to sway an election, but that too is a civil matter.

Whatever the attorney general's findings, this is a shameful episode in gutter politics that Maryland politicians should have long ago abandoned. If such tactics aren't outright illegal under current law, they certainly are unethical and should be banned. Attempts to strengthen the laws related to fraudulent campaigning after the 2006 incident in Prince George's County failed, but this should give lawmakers cause to try again. And despite Mr. Ehrlich effort to play hide-sand-seek with the controversy — during an appearance on his wife's radio call-in show over the weekend he scrupulously avoided the subject — ultimately he is the one responsible for his campaign. At the very least, he should take responsibility for it and apologize.

And finally, any politician who continues to hire Mr. Henson after this incident should be publicly shamed. Mr. Henson has shrugged off his bad-boy image in the past by saying he was effective, particularly in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Voters owe it to themselves to make sure he can never make that claim again.

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