Democrats Press GOP to Ease Off Game Plan for Voter Challenges

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

Democrats and independent voting rights groups yesterday called on Maryland Republicans to repudiate their Election Day handbook that advises GOP poll watchers to aggressively challenge the credentials of voters.

The president of Common Cause in Washington wrote a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) urging him to "use his considerable influence" with party leaders to persuade them to publicly disavow the 13-page guide.

"I don't know anything about what you're talking about," Ehrlich told reporters yesterday, "so you'll have to talk to the state party."

A riled state Republican Party chairman defended the guidebook, saying the Democrats' complaints amounted to a cheap preemptive strike to "cry foul before the game even starts."

"If you're entitled to vote, we're going to do anything we can to let you vote," GOP chief John Kane said. "If you're not, we're going to stand in front of you and play hardball."

The furor over the guidebook comes as the two parties are gearing up for Tuesday's statewide election, in which several key races could hinge on the number of voters -- African American voters, in particular -- who go to the polls.

A recent Washington Post poll that measured likely black voters at 25 percent showed Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) with a lead of 10 percentage points over Ehrlich in the governor's race. A poll published Wednesday by the Baltimore Sun that assumed black turnout at 19 percent showed the race as a statistical dead heat.

Democrats' concerns stem from a series of passages in the poll-watcher memo that fall under the heading "Challenging Voters."

"Your most important duty as a poll watcher is to challenge people who present themselves to vote but who are not authorized to vote," it states.

After that are guidelines for determining whether a voter might be lying about his or her identity and intervening at the check-in table if the voter can't smoothly recite a home address or date of birth.

Advocacy groups including the National Campaign for Fair Elections, Common Cause, the ACLU and the NAACP, as well as a George Washington University professor who is an expert on voter suppression, reviewed the manual and concluded that it raises concerns.

Several of the state's top Democrats joined them yesterday in front of Baltimore City Hall to denounce what they called a systematic voter-intimidation effort.

"This is not Mississippi in the 1950s. This is Maryland in 2006," said Douglas F. Gansler (D), an attorney general candidate.

At a separate event, Democratic Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin denounced the tactics as discriminatory and designed to create havoc and long lines in heavily Democratic jurisdictions.

"I don't think they're going to be challenging voters in areas that are traditional strongholds for the Republican Party," he said. "I think they're going to be in Prince George's County, aggressively trying to intimidate the vote in this county. We've got to make sure that doesn't happen."

O'Malley was elsewhere campaigning but called voter challenges evidence of "a fundamental difference between our parties."

"We're trying to encourage people to vote, while they're trying to discourage people," O'Malley said.

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Michael L. Steele (R), who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat, did not respond to an e-mail asking about the manual yesterday.

Staff writers Mary Otto, Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company