January 31, 2007
Honesty in Elections
On Election Day last fall in Maryland, fliers were handed out in black neighborhoods with the heading “Democratic Sample Ballot” and photos of black Democratic leaders — and boxes checked off beside the names of the Republican candidates for senator and governor. They were a blatant attempt to fool black voters into thinking the Republican candidates were endorsed by black Democrats. In Orange County, Calif., 14,000 Latino voters got letters in Spanish saying it was a crime for immigrants to vote in a federal election. It didn’t say that immigrants who are citizens have the right to vote.
Dirty tricks like these turn up every election season, in large part because they are so rarely punished. But two Democratic senators, Barack Obama of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, are introducing a bill today that would make deceiving or intimidating voters a federal crime with substantial penalties.
The bill aims at some of the most commonly used deceptive political tactics. It makes it a crime to knowingly tell voters the wrong day for an election. There have been numerous reports of organized efforts to use telephones, leaflets or posters to tell voters, especially in minority areas, not to vote on Election Day because voting has been postponed.
The bill would also criminalize making false claims to voters about who has endorsed a candidate, or wrongly telling people — like immigrants who are registered voters in Orange County — that they cannot vote.
Along with defining these crimes and providing penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, the bill would require the Justice Department to counteract deceptive election information that has been put out, and to report to Congress after each election on what deceptive practices occurred and what the Justice Department did about them.
The bill would also allow individuals to go to court to stop deceptive practices while they are happening. That is important, given how uninterested the current Justice Department has proved to be in cracking down on election-season dirty tricks.
The bill is careful to avoid infringing on First Amendment rights, and that is the right course. But in steering clear of regulating speech, it is not clear how effective the measure would be in addressing one of the worst dirty tricks of last fall’s election: a particular kind of deceptive “robocall” that was used against Democratic Congressional candidates. These calls, paid for by the Republicans, sounded as if they had come from the Democrat; when a recipient hung up, the call was repeated over and over. The intent was clearly to annoy the recipients so they would not vote for the Democrat.
While there are already laws that can be used against this sort of deceptive telephone harassment, a more specific bill aimed directly at these calls is needed. But the bill being introduced today is an important step toward making elections more honest and fair. There is no reason it should not be passed by Congress unanimously.