WASHINGTON – Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., returned to the House Wednesday, telling his erstwhile colleagues of the deceptive election tactics that marred his Senate race last year and backing a bill to prevent voter intimidation.
“We will not tolerate practices by campaigns to intimidate voters,” Cardin, who spent 20 years in the House before winning election to the Senate in November, told the House Judiciary Committee.
The hearing focused on House Bill 1281, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007, which was introduced by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., on March 1 with Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, as co-sponsors.
The bill closely resembles Sen. Barack Obama’s, D-Ill., Senate Bill 453 that was introduced Jan. 31 and co-sponsored by Cardin. That bill has yet to reach the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Obama, who sat beside Cardin at the hearing, was the only other senator to testify.
The act “makes voter intimidation and deception punishable by law, and it contains strong penalties so that people who commit these crimes suffer more than just a slap on the wrist,” Obama said.
No penalties were issued during Cardin’s 2006 U.S. Senate race after a so-called “Democratic Sample Ballot” was distributed to voters, that implied former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, running for re-election, and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, running for Senate against Cardin, were Democrats, although they are Republicans.
The same pamphlet suggested Ehrlich and Steele were backed by, among others, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, and Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, both black Democrats, when they actually supported Cardin.
Such practices would be punishable under the new bill. Deceptive practices are outlined as knowingly providing false information about the time or place of elections, eligibility or registration rules, party affiliation and/or endorsements.
The House bill aims to raise penalties from one year in jail to five, and impose an undefined fine. The Senate bill echoes the jail time, but specifies a fine of up to $100,000.
The bills also provide for an individual right of action. An individual, political organization, or any other group, would no longer have to wait on the Department of Justice to deal with the claims.
Some opponents, including the Maryland Republican Party, say the measures would inhibit First Amendment rights of free speech.
Cardin acknowledges this danger, but said the bill clearly states that an offense is only made when “one knows of false content and has the intent to intimidate voters.”
“This can be difficult to establish,” he said, but Congress can protect voters and preserve the Constitution at the same time.