Premature Flier Stirs Debate On Intent

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A campaign flier for state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis urging voters to "Vote Today" was distributed over the weekend in scattered neighborhoods across central Fairfax County, drawing accusations that she was intentionally seeking to confuse voters.

Devolites Davis (R) said that the flier had been intended for distribution next week and was hung on the doorknobs by mistake. A similar door hanger was distributed elsewhere in the district, urging voters to the polls next Tuesday, which is Election Day.

"We had door hangers for this weekend and door hangers for Nov. 6," Devolites Davis said. "The volunteers accidentally picked up the wrong ones. Once we discovered it, the campaign sent people out to take them all off and replace them."

But in a campaign that has become one of the most closely watched and hotly contested of all 140 legislative races this year, challenger J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D) is calling for an investigation into whether the Devolites Davis campaign intentionally tried to suppress the Democratic vote. Petersen's campaign manager, Joe Abbey, said several campaign volunteers reported Sunday that the "Vote Today" door hanger was seen in portions of Vienna, Fairfax City and Mantua that have slightly higher concentrations of Democratic voters than other precincts in the 34th Senate District.

"It's not like these neighborhoods are next to each other," Abbey said. "It's not like Mantua precinct is next to the town of Vienna. If this is true, then that looks less like, 'Oh, oops, we just opened up the wrong box and sent it out with the volunteers.' "

Petersen said the campaign is probing the incident and seeking legal advice from the state Democratic Party. Intentionally misleading voters about voting dates, times or locations violates state and federal law.

Jesselyn McCurdy, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said deceptive electioneering practices typically involve telling voters to turn out on a date after the election, so that by the time they realize when they were supposed to vote, it's too late. That makes her wonder whether Devolites Davis's intent was to deceive voters.

"Usually, they're calling you on Monday and telling you to vote on Wednesday," she said. "They normally don't give you enough time to correct the information."

Added U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Devolites Davis's husband: "When was the last time we ever had an election in Virginia on a Sunday?"

Devolites Davis said the door hangers were intended for her "favorable" households in the district.

Devolites Davis and Petersen are locked in one of the most competitive races of the season. The 34th District is the most Democrat-leaning legislative seat held by a Republican in Virginia, meaning that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) won by larger margins in the 34th than any other GOP district.

Devolites Davis has outraised and outspent Petersen, but both have broken ground by buying advertising time on network television, unprecedented for state legislative races in the expensive D.C. area market.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company