Black Voters Told, 'Relax, Don't Vote'

Illustration for article titled Black Voters Told, 'Relax, Don't Vote'

Those who are still confused about why Republicans spend so much energy making it harder for people to vote should pay some attention to a case that concluded this week in a courtroom in Baltimore. There, the campaign manager for 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate, and former Maryland governor, Robert Ehrlich was tried and found guilty of election fraud based on an attempt to suppress the African-American vote by authorizing the use of misleading robocalls.


The 23-second calls (listen to one here), targeted at 110,000 homes in Baltimore City and Prince George's County three hours before polls closed on election night in 2010, told voters that they could stay home. Incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Obama, the voice on the phone explained, had been "successful." The caller encouraged voters to just "watch the returns on TV."

Knowing a couple of important points may help those outside Maryland understand the Republican candidate's effort. First, the calls were all targeted at Baltimore City and Prince George's County — the two largest majority-black jurisdictions in the state. Second, President Obama wasn't even on the ballot in 2010. 

This case was a slam dunk. Paul Schurick, the campaign manager, admitted that he had authorized the consulting firm run by notorious Baltimore election guru Julius Henson to allow the phone calls. Henson, who is black, has been known for campaign tactics that skate close to the line. He has worked for both Democrats and Republicans.

His robocall plan appears to have been advanced in response to the now routine concern of Republicans seeking office in states with a large black voting bloc: how to avoid high black-voter turnout on Election Day. The question the campaign's political director sent in an email to Schurick on Election Day stated the concern succinctly: "What does [Henson] need to make [Baltimore] city turnout stay low?" The answer was provided by Henson and approved by Schurick, who read the text of the proposed call before authorizing it.

Earlier in the year, the campaign had rejected a proposal by Henson to use robocalls statewide. According to Schurick, the campaign had originally hoped to "woo" crossover black voters. But on Election Day, when it became clear that the plan had failed, Schurick authorized the calls.

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.

Voter-ID laws, which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, now require voters in some states to proffer a government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or passport, in order to vote. Fifteen states require voters to show a government-issued photo identification at the polls. In eight of the those states, voters without a photo ID can vote only by provisional ballot and must return to the election administration within days of the election with a photo ID if they want their vote to count.


No problem if you are middle class and white and have ready access to transportation. But for elderly, disabled, rural or poor voters, obtaining and paying for such identification, or returning to the election administration office with such identification after Election Day, constitutes a considerable barrier to voting. It's an irony that almost 40 years after the Supreme Court abolished the poll tax, voters must now shell out money for a government-issued ID in order to vote.

In other states, Republicans are leading efforts to eliminate early voting and make it harder for college students to cast their ballots in the jurisdictions where they make their home for four years. Campaigns of disinformation suggesting that individuals whose homes are in foreclosure cannot vote, or that Latino voters will need to prove that no undocumented immigrants live in their home, are designed to scare off voters with the specter of challenge and humiliation at the polls.


But in a democracy, our efforts — whatever our political affiliation — should be focused on maximizing political participation. A healthy democracy is one in which all citizens regard themselves as partners and participants in the political process. We have to begin to take very seriously the threat to our democracy if the success of one of our two major political parties is partially premised on ensuring that the most marginalized people in the society don't show up on Election Day.

The barriers to registration that marginalized groups overcame with the passage of the Voting Rights Act as well as the 24th and 26th amendments to the Constitution have now moved to Election Day. It may require that kind of concerted and long-term effort, both in the courts and on the streets, to push back against these latest efforts to undo the work so hard fought for by earlier generations.


Schurick's attorney has called the robocalls a "faux pas" and a "political mistake." He's mistaken. Misleading robocalls, voter-ID laws and other voter-suppression efforts are smart political moves for Republicans. The only mistake they see is getting caught.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the judge presiding over the case is African American.


Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore and the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.