By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006
A recently distributed guide for Republican poll watchers in Maryland spells out how to aggressively challenge the credentials of voters and urges these volunteers to tell election judges they could face jail time if a challenge is ignored.
Democrats said yesterday they consider the handbook, obtained by The Washington Post, evidence of a Republican effort to block people from voting Tuesday.
"The tenor of the material is that they are asking folks, if not directing them, to challenge voters," said Bruce L. Marcus, an attorney for the state Democratic Party. "It's really tantamount to a suppression effort."
Advocacy groups including the National Campaign for Fair Elections, Common Cause and the NAACP, as well as a George Washington University professor who is an expert on voter suppression, agreed with that assessment.
Barbara Burt of Common Cause said the technique, last seen in Ohio in the 2004 presidential election, is an "insidious voter intimidation tactic."
Republicans rebutted that charge, saying they merely are guarding against fraud. "I don't think that's borderline suppression," said state Republican Party Chairman John Kane. "It's making sure that people who have earned the right to vote are voting. We've had people die in wars to protect those rights."
No one disputes the legality of having poll watchers set up folding chairs and monitor the election on behalf of their party. Typically, though, poll watchers are present to help ensure that their party's supporters get to vote, not the other way around.
Democrats, for instance, have distributed advice to their poll watchers to "make sure that voters are not being turned away."
"The key is the perspective each party brings to the process," Marcus said. "Our philosophy is, if we have a qualified voter, we're going to turn things inside out and upside down to get them to be able to vote."
The GOP poll-watcher program, outlined in a 13-page document, states: "Your most important duty as a poll worker is to challenge people who present themselves to vote but who are not authorized to vote."
It cautions, "Undoubtedly, the challenge process will be awkward and may cause consternation on the part of the challenged voter as well as the judges." It advises, "If there is cause to make a challenge, you should not hesitate to do so merely because it upsets the challenged voter or the election judges."
It adds, "If the election judge should try to ignore your challenge, point out that they would be committing a criminal offense punishable by not less than 30 days in jail."
Jonah H. Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, said the program "raises serious concerns."
"When you have a political party telling people their Number 1 responsibility is to challenge voters, our ears certainly perk up," Goldman said. "This could either be intended to challenge voters in a discriminatory way or in a disruptive way. A lot of times, they just try to cause chaos and long lines."
The manual provides a range of scenarios in which the volunteer should phone complaints to the party's legal headquarters or fill out "incident reports." The scenarios include voters who can't readily supply their full name, address or date of birth -- or who are assisted by election judges.
"People raising questions about the poll-watcher program may be looking at it from the wrong perspective," said Dirk Haire, the legal counsel for the state GOP. "I wonder if they are concerned that efforts we take could uncover fraud."
Democratic National Committee counsel Joseph E. Sandler said he believes one goal is to create a record for the GOP to use to challenge a close election's outcome in court.
Kane disputed this: "I think what we're doing is protecting ourselves. The Democrats are going to have 500 roving lawyers out there looking for every possible legal challenge."
Sandler said the legal team organized by his party will "be there to help deter the Republicans from effectively carrying this out. So people's votes are safe and secure."
The poll-watcher programs also underscore how tense both parties are about turnout -- particularly among black voters -- in the final days of the contests for Maryland governor and a U.S. Senate seat.
Various polls have shown that the outcome changes dramatically depending on how many black voters cast ballots.
A recent Washington Post poll that measured black turnout at 25 percent showed Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) with a lead of 10 percentage points over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). A poll published yesterday by the Baltimore Sun that assumed black turnout at 19 percent showed the race as a statistical dead heat.
Spencer A. Overton, the GWU professor, said a program designed to encourage Election Day challenges has the potential to disenfranchise black voters. "Parties target particular communities, and they don't apply the rules uniformly to all voters in all areas," Overton said.
Kane, however, said the program is in no way intended to bar black voters. Ehrlich said he would not tolerate such an effort, adding that his plan has been to woo black voters, not turn them away. "I think our message has really struck a chord."