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Maryland GOP's Election Day skulduggery

Monday, November 8, 2010; 8:01 PM

AFTER BEING THRASHED in his effort to regain his old job last week, former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. suggested that his days in politics are over. If so, he'd better hope that he's not remembered for a sleazy Election Day ruse to suppress African American votes in Baltimore city and Prince George's County.

It's unclear whether Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, signed off on some 50,000 robocalls late last Tuesday afternoon while the polls were still open. The calls went mostly or exclusively to black Democrats, telling them to "relax" because Gov. Martin O'Malley had the election in the bag. "The only thing left is to watch TV tonight," said the voice on the automated calls. In other words: Don't bother to vote.

The Ehrlich campaign paid almost $100,000 this year to companies controlled by the man who generated the calls, Julius Henson, a political operative notorious for past dirty tricks on behalf of Democratic and Republican candidates. As Mr. Henson told the Baltimore Sun, "I'm on the Bob Ehrlich team, and we thought a call like that would help, and we made the [decision]." He added that Mr. Ehrlich "probably" wasn't privy to the decision to make calls.

Mr. Henson's attempts to justify the calls are inventive. On the one hand, he argued that they would somehow encourage Ehrlich voters to get to the polls. (He's cloudy on how that would have worked, given that the calls targeted O'Malley supporters.) He further argued that the calls couldn't have been intended to suppress votes, since, well, they didn't work.

State law requires such calls to identify their sponsor; these did not. Another statute forbids any attempt to dissuade potential voters from going to the polls. As leaders of both state parties have said, the calls were a disgrace. Now it's up to state and federal authorities to investigate. Who knew what inside the Ehrlich campaign should be part of any probe.

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