Senior Regional Correspondent

At a recent Washington dinner party of mostly liberal, media and political types, conversation turned quickly (and unsurprisingly) to President Obama’s prospects for reelection.

A longtime Democratic fundraiser at the table opined: “I think he has a decent chance. My main fear is that the Republicans will steal it from us.”

Provocative words, to be sure. But was it just partisan paranoia?

Ordinarily, I am skeptical of conspiracy theories. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Neither the CIA nor Israel was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

In this instance, however, we have persuasive, recent evidence in our region of a deliberate, high-level GOP effort to use an illegal Election Day ruse to trick Democrats into not voting.

Moreover, the case was just an extreme example of a national Republican strategy designed to make it harder for people to vote — and especially people who happen to be Democrats.

Last week, a Baltimore jury needed only five hours to convict the man who managed the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich last year.

The defendant, Paul Schurick, was convicted on four counts of approving a fraudulent Election Day robocall. It targeted people in Prince George’s County and other predominantly Democratic, African American districts and was, the prosecution argued, designed to fool them into staying home rather than go to the polls.

The robocall went to 112,000 voters late on Election Day. It didn’t say who authorized the call but was written to sound as though it came from the Democrats.

“Relax,” the robocall said. The Democrats have been “successful,” so “the only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight.”

The hoax didn’t work, but the attempt by itself was disturbing. It also wasn’t the first time it’s happened in Maryland. The conviction came under a state statute enacted in response to a remarkably similar ploy in 2002.

The earlier trick was apparently also cooked up by Ehrlich supporters when he ran successfully for governor. It used misleading fliers in Democratic districts to try to deceive people into not voting.

The fliers said it was “urgent” to go to the polls Nov. 6, which happened to be the day after the election. They also suggested (inaccurately) that voters had to pay outstanding parking tickets and overdue rent to cast a ballot.

It’s gratifying that the judicial system succeeded in cracking down on the latest example of such swindles. They’re hard to prosecute, partly because campaign operatives, including Democrats, typically carry them out anonymously. However, as is often the case in politics, the larger problem arises not from practices that break the law but from entirely legal ones that still corrode democracy.

More than a dozen states have tightened voting restrictions this year, almost entirely in states where Republicans control the legislatures. Civil rights groups and other liberal-oriented organizations have offered abundant evidence that the measures’ overall effect will be to reduce voting by blacks, the poor and other traditionally Democratic constituencies.

“These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election,” said a report this autumn by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Democratic leaders are raising the alarm. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a major speech Tuesday in Texas, said ensuring voting rights for eligible people “must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative.”

Of the new restrictions, the most common one is requiring government-issued photo IDs to vote. That weighs more heavily on minorities, according to the Brennan Center, because 25 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Latinos do not possess valid photo IDs. The figure for whites is just 8 percent.

The GOP argues that this is necessary to prevent voter fraud. But Democrats make a strong argument that instances of election fraud are rare and isolated, whereas cases of disenfranchisement of minorities are numerous.

After reviewing piles of material submitted by both parties in a 2009 case in New Jersey, U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise wrote in an opinion: “From the evidence before the Court, it appears that in-person fraud . . . is extremely rare.”

So, returning to the original, dinner-party question: Given the slow economy and Obama’s lagging poll numbers, the GOP might not need to steal the 2012 election. But there’s reason to believe it might try.

I will discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).