By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006 4:18 PM
Inaccurate sample ballots describing Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate candidate Michael S. Steele as Democrats were handed out to voters in at least four polling sites in Prince George's County this morning.
The ballots were distributed by people who said they arrived by buses this morning from Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Erik Markle, one of the people handing out literature for Ehrlich, who is seeking reelection, and Steele, the current lieutenant governor who is campaigning to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D), said he was recruited at a homeless shelter in Philadelphia.
After a two-hour bus ride to Maryland, Markle said the workers were greeted early this morning by first lady Kendel Ehrlich, who thanked them as they were outfitted in T-shirts and hats with the logo for Ehrlich's reelection campaign. Nearly all of those recruited, Markle said, are poor and black. Workers traveled to Maryland in at least seven large buses.
Ehrlich said he wasn't aware of the hiring of workers from out-of-town.
"If folks are here from out of town that's fine with me. That's what the Democrats have always done. It's legal and it's what the Democrats have done forever. This is a story?
"If we've finally caught up with the Democrats that's fine," he added. "People asked me about ballots and other stuff. That's not my job. I've got other things to do."
Calls to Steele's campaign were not immediately returned.
The Ehrlich and Steele campaigns yesterday acknowledged sending out an election-eve flier, sporting pictures of Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, his predecessor Wayne K. Curry and former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. The mailer, declaring itself an "official voter guide" and criticized by Democrats, suggested the three Democrats backed Ehrlich and Steele. Curry has endorsed Steele; none has endorsed Ehrlich.
Democrats were quick to criticize the distribution today of the inaccurate sample ballots.
"I think it's pretty low that Ehrlich and Steele would print up a fake ballot and bus in unemployed people and exploit them," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate for governor, said this morning as he greeted voters as a polling site in Greenbelt. "It doesn't get much lower than that."
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), who is running against Steele, called the fliers "fraudulent" and said he believed they might work in Democrats' favor by angering voters and encouraging more to get to the polls. "I think it speaks to a lack of integrity of the people who would put out something like this to try to mislead voters," said Cardin. "It has the Ehrlich-Steele authority. If they put this out, they should be ashamed of themselves."
In addition to Ehrlich and Steele, the ballots also list Republicans John A. Giannetti Jr., Ron Miller, Kenneth Brown and Antoinette Jarboe-Duley, all candidates for the state legislature.
Markle, a Democrat, said if he had known they would be campaigning and passing out literature for Republicans, he would have declined the offer. "I know what's going on in Pennsylvania, but not Maryland," he said in a telephone interview from the polling place at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Suitland.
Markle was told he would be paid $100, plus two meals for the day. He also passed out the fliers inaccurately reporting the prominent Democrats' endorsement of Ehrlich and Steele.
Johnson, who held a news conference today, said he received numerous calls to his campaign headquarters asking if he had switched parties after some confused residents received the flier.
Johnson said he was also outraged that poor people from Philadelphia were hauled into Prince George's County, most unaware of what they were doing or who they were doing it for.
"I understand that people need jobs," Johnson said. "But put people in training, not just bus them from out of state and pay them less than minimum wage."
Jonathan Keel, another worker from Philadelphia handing out the sample ballot, said he and other recruits were tricked by the campaigns.
"We were hoodwinked," said Keel, who added that he was unemployed. He was stationed at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. "We were just hired to do a job," he said. "We're broke. We're in a terrible situation. There's no way out of here."
Del. Melony Griffith (D-Prince George's), who was outside the polling place in Suitland when she met Markle, denounced the tactics.
"It's a very sad day in Prince George's when politicians have to stoop to misleading, race-baiting and hate campaigning," she said.
Voters and other officials also decried the sample ballot.
"It's an absolute lie and it's very offensive," said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's), who saw the ballot at a polling place in Hyattsville. "They put them in with the rest of us as though we've endorsed them. It's too late for us to do anything except tell people."
Voter Ruth Clopp, who got one of the sample ballots in Hyattsville this morning, said most voters got a "good laugh" out of them while they waited in line.
"I would like to think they've underestimated the intelligence of voters," she said. "But obviously they feel there's enough voters out there who would fall for these."
One of two workers passing out the fliers at Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Mitchellville said he knew there were elections in Pennsylvania today but "I guess I sold my vote to buy a coat," referring to the $100 he was told they would be paid for the day.
Kevin Baker, 40, who lives in a homeless shelter in North Philadelphia, said he felt duped.
Baker said he was one of about 300 people who boarded buses at Broad and Oxford Streets in Philadelphia, bound for Prince George's County. The bus was supposed to leave at 3:30, but didn't pull out until about 5 a.m.
"I feel like I was brought here under false pretenses," Baker said.
Salim Abdu-Haqq, 36, agreed. He said someone came to their shelter about a week ago, asking if they wanted to make some money. "They promised three meals and $100," he said.
Abdu-Haqq said about 85 percent of the workers were from homeless shelters. The rest were from the neighborhood.
Dennis Johnson, 55, who said he is a salesman from Claymont, Del., passed out the fliers to arriving voters while wearing a Steele T-shirt and an Ehrlich cap. He said he was being paid to pass out the fliers. Asked who was paying him, Johnson said, "Ehrlich and Steele -- that's where we went to get this [flier] and shirt and hat."
Asked about the accuracy of the flier, Johnson said, "I had no idea about it. I'm a hired hand."
Terry Lierman, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he has spoken with "a couple lawyers" about the legality of the fliers.
"We're going to iron that out after the election -- to see what can and can't be done," Lierman said Tuesday morning outside the polling station at Leisure World in Silver Spring. Lierman said he's going to speak with Maryland's attorney general after the election.
"Obviously, it's too late for this election," Lierman said, "but I want to see what rules and laws we can establish for the next election." He called the fliers "incredibly deceitful."
"Every election they find new lows," he said of the Republicans. "We have to say enough is enough."
Staff writers Ann E. Marimow, Dan Morse, Matthew Mosk, Katherine Shaver, John Wagner and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this story.