Black Voters Told, ‘Relax, Don’t Vote’

A Republican is convicted for authorizing misleading "robocalls" -- just one tactic being used to deter voters.

For black voters in Maryland, this was not the first run-in with Ehrlich’s racial manipulations on Election Day. In 2006 the campaign of then-Gov. Ehrlich hired a busload of homeless men (mostly black) from Philadelphia to hand out Ehrlich flyers at voting precincts in Baltimore. The governor’s wife, Kendall, reportedly gave the “volunteers” — most of whom had no idea they’d walked into the middle of a racially charged election campaign — a pep talk when they arrived and served doughnuts.

Flyers and sample ballots handed out at polls that day by the campaigns of Ehrlich and his then-lieutenant governor, Michael Steele (now an MSNBC commentator and a contributing editor for The Root, and the former embattled chair of the Republican National Committee), featured a red, black and green kente cloth design and falsely suggested that black leaders such as former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and other black Maryland officials were endorsing Ehrlich and Steele. In fact, the African-American leaders featured on the flyer had endorsed Ehrlich’s opponent.

The plan backfired when the black leaders went to the press on Election Day denouncing the misleading use of their names and images on the sample ballots. As this incident demonstrates, confusing black voters is a good deal more complicated than just keeping them away from the polls. And perhaps this inspired the robocall approval.

Campaign cognoscenti have long regarded keeping black-voter turnout low as a key to Republican electoral success, though one needn’t offend racial sensibilities and invite obvious legal challenges by talking about it openly. Everyone remembers how Republican über-consultant Ed Rollins got in trouble for allegedly bragging about giving “walking-around money” to black preachers in Newark, N.J., who were expected to abandon their normal exhortations to congregants that they should vote in the 1993 New Jersey governor’s race.

Whether the claim was true was less important than Rollins’ confirmation that keeping black turnout low was a Republican strategy. Now Republican campaign strategists simply refer to “city voters,” or the “urban electorate,” when describing how to address the thorny problem of black voters.

Robocalls, which have reportedly been used in previous elections in Maryland and elsewhere, are just one, and not even the most pernicious, form of voter suppression. All across this country, Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted a series of laws that make it harder for people to vote.