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Democrats Want Law Against Voter Deception

Congressional Democrats want to make it a federal crime to intentionally deceive voters to prevent them from casting a ballot.

The move comes in response to recent elections, in which voters were told to go to the wrong polling place, or to vote on the wrong day.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the issue, as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) talked about a flier that was handed out to Milwaukee, Wis., voters in 2004.


"It states that you can only vote once a year, and if you're found guilty of anything, even a traffic ticket, that you cannot vote in a presidential election. And that if you violate any of these laws, you can get 10 years in prison and your children can be taken away from you."

The flier was distributed by a phony group called the Milwaukee Black Voters League.

Committee members were also shown other fliers and letters, some of which looked official. A Pennsylvania flier was printed on government letterhead stationary. It said voter turnout was expected to be so high that Republicans should vote on Tuesday and Democrats were to vote on Wednesday. The letter even apologized for any inconvenience.

Cardin noted another letter sent to Hispanics in Orange County, Calif., last year. It warned immigrants that it is a crime for them to vote — even though naturalized citizens are permitted to vote.

"Now, what's in common with all seven of these exhibits is that they were targeted [at] minority communities in an effort to suppress the minority vote," said Cardin.


Senators complained about a deceptive flier in November, and that is when Justice Department lawyers told them there are no clear-cut laws to prevent some of these practices.

In that instance, a Republican flier that was distributed in Prince George's County, Md., implied that the county's black, Democratic leaders supported the Republican candidates for the Senate and governor.

The county's executive, Jack Johnson, said he had to spend all day trying to convince people that the flier — which had his picture on it — was a hoax.

"Phone calls came early and often that Election Day — angry citizens wanting to know why I was a turncoat and why I had abandoned the Democratic Party. This was a falsehood, and I do not believe at all that it is free speech protected by the First Amendment," he told the committee.

Election law attorney Bill Canfield said he's worried about the unintended consequences of a law that makes deceptive practices a federal crime. He noted that savvy campaign managers could use allegations of criminal activity to harm an opponent in the hectic days before an election.

"To empower federal agents to have some sort of role in making determinations as to whether certain announcements are fraudulent or intended to suppress the vote tends, I think, to give a role to the federal government I don't think is appropriate," Canfield said.

Sponsors of the legislation said that's why they have tried to limit the prohibition. It would only apply to those who knowingly provide false information about the time, place or manner of voting, a person's eligibility to vote, or a candidate's endorsements.

The statements also have to be made within 60 days of the election and with the clear intention of suppressing the vote.

Violators could get up to five years in jail.

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