Voter Suppression: The Real Problem with Election Fraud

As Marylanders headed to the polls to choose their governor last November, computers were dialing up 112,000 of them with an unusual message: Don't bother to vote.

The calls went to households in mostly African-American precincts. A recorded voice suggested that voters "relax" and stay home because Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate, already had won.

It's unclear how many people took the advice -- O'Malley ended up with a comfortable margin over the Republican candidate, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich -- but these kinds of Election Day "dirty tricks" are all too common. Consider:

• In 2004, fliers distributed in minority neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wis. Told voters that "If you've already voted in any election this year, you can't vote in the presidential election; If anybody in your family has ever been found guilty of anything, you can't vote in the presidential election; If you violate any of these laws, you can get ten years in prison and your children will get taken away from you."

• That same year in Pennsylvania, a letter bearing a township's official seal falsely informed voters that, to cut down on long lines, Republicans would vote on November 2 and Democrats on November 3 -- the day after the election.

• In 2006, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, reported that in one county, "robo-calls warned voters to bring photo ID to the polls or they would not be allowed to vote." Meanwhile in Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico voters reported receiving calls before the election claiming that their registrations had been cancelled and that they would be arrested if they tried to vote.

These tactics are popular in part because the perpetrators almost never get caught or prosecuted. That may be about to change. A grand jury in Baltimore last week handed down criminal indictments against two aides to Ehrlich, accusing them of orchestrating the Election Day voter suppression robo-calls.

An indictment isn't a conviction of course, but the Maryland State Prosecutor's pursuit of the case should spur election officials around the country to redouble their efforts to stop voter suppression. It may also make campaigns stop and think before undertaking efforts to deceive voters in and depress turnout.

Sadly, most state legislatures these days seem more concerned about voter identification, which has proven to be a phantom problem, than voter suppression.

Voter ID bills are being introduced all across the country. The sponsors claim they're necessary to keep non-citizens and convicts from voting and stop some voters, particularly college students, from casting multiple ballots. But evidence of fraudulent voting is almost non-existant and the measures undertaken to stop it end up blocking legitimate voters -- most often students, the elderly and minorities -- from casting their ballots. It's probably no coincidence that the voter ID bills most often are sponsored by Republicans and that the voters most impacted by voter ID requirements are heavily Democratic.

Voter participation is the life blood of a democracy. The rest of the country should follow Maryland's lead and go after real fraud, not ginned-up claims that ineligible voters are somehow conspiring to vote illegally.

Bob Edgar is president and CEO of Common Cause.