The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday began discussing a bill that would make it a federal crime to knowingly mislead voters as to the time and place of a public election — an effort Democrats say will help crack down on voter intimidation and disenfranchisement due to dirty political tricks.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who introduced the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act in December, said the bill would help to prevent deliberately misleading mailers and phone calls in the run-up to an election, which Schumer called part of “a larger strategy to keep certain voters away from the polls.”
If it becomes law, individuals found to have deliberately misled voters would face a prison term of up to five years. State attorneys general would also be empowered to quickly respond with accurate information in cases where populations have been targeted with misleading claims. It would also amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit paying people to stay home on election day.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) set up Republican opposition by claiming the bill would infringe upon free speech rights. He added that it could create a system where allegations of dirty tricks days before an election force campaigns to spend money on lawyers instead of voter outreach.
Grassley also asked why the bill doesn’t attempt to “criminalize intentionally deceptive statements made by candidates themselves, such as whether or not they are Native Americans” — an apparent jab at Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D), who actually does have Native American heritage.
Witnesses and Democratic members of the committee pushed back against claims that it would violate the freedom of speech by highlighting a portion of the bill that narrowly defines the offense of misleading a voter, limiting that potential charge to individuals who do so deliberately.
Instances of deliberate voter intimidation and deception crop up in nearly every federal election. During the 2010 elections, Kansas voters received automated calls telling them they could not vote without their voter registration card and proof of home-ownership — which was false. In Maryland the same year, voters received automated calls that claimed the Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley won the gubernatorial election hours before the polls had closed and advised them to “relax.”
Tanya Clay House, director of public policy at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, added that these sorts of dirty tricks have disenfranchised “millions” of voters. “For too long, Congress had not taken affirmative action to deter deceptive voting practices,” she told the committee. “The current political climate of deception and intimidation has kept us from reaching our goal of voting equality.”
The bill was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), but it has so far languished in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has not yet brought it up for discussion. It’s not likely to get a hearing there, either.
An earlier version of the bill was passed in 2007 by a voice vote in the House. Despite enjoying the support of then-Senator Barack Obama, it did not clear the Senate.
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With prior reporting by Eric W. Dolan.