March 13, 2013

Voters’ Rights Protection Act passes despite Republican objections on First Amendment grounds

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By Ilana Kowarski
Ilana@MarylandReporter.com

House begins gambling debate

House chamber (file photo)

A bill intended to prevent voter suppression was passed by the House of Delegates 90-46 on Tuesday, after a heated argument between Democrats and Republicans about the impact of the legislation on Marylanders’ civil rights.

HB220, which passed along party lines, would enable the attorney general to go to court and seek injunctive relief in cases where the attorney general believes voter intimidation and ballot fraud has a high probability of influencing the results of an election.

Democrats supporting the bill said that it would provide the state with an additional tool to deter voter suppression, since the attorney general could sue on behalf of disenfranchised voters who did not take legal action. The bill’s advocates also argued that courts need to intervene in cases of voter intimidation and fraud before an election is decided rather than after, as it could influence the results.

Republicans contested those claims, arguing that the bill will set a dangerous precedent that could be used to squelch political dissent. They warned that if the definition of voter intimidation was left up to interpretation, it could be misapplied to legitimate speech, and citizens could be silenced prior to an election.

Legislation calls for attorney general to spot violations

Republicans also accused Attorney General Doug Gansler of being a political partisan who could not be trusted to maintain the integrity of state elections.

“We can all agree that voter intimidation and fraud is the sort of conduct we should not have in an election,”  said Del. Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties.  “The problem is that we are going to have a partisan deciding when to intervene in these cases, and you don’t want politics to be involved in these decisions.”

O’Donnell said that a neutral party should have the final say on whether the state pursued legal action against election law violators and that a political figure is likely to be influenced by partisan feelings.

But Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, said that Republican concerns about partisan enforcement of election laws were unwarranted.

“If this law is passed, the Attorney General can’t get an injunction on his own; he must get it approved by a nonpartisan judge,” Rosenberg said.

Republicans question First Amendment impact

But Republican lawmakers argued that the bill served a darker purpose. Del. Justin Ready, R-Carroll County, argued that the bill could be used to silence the governor’s critics.

“This bill gives the Attorney General the opportunity to stop a mailing from going out that hasn’t gone out yet on the auspices that it intimidates voters,” Ready said.

Del.  Ron George, R-Anne Arundel County, said that the bill was excessively intrusive and punitive.  “The state does not need a tool to punish people for crimes they have not committed yet,” he said.  “These injunctions presume guilt.”

Bill modeled on federal Voting Rights Act

Rosenberg replied to this criticism, arguing that HB 220 was not a radical departure from current state law and that it was modeled after a provision of a federal law, the Voting Rights Act, that was enacted during the 1960s to prevent the suppression of the black vote.

“The conduct addressed in this bill is not protected by either the Constitution or the First Amendment,” Rosenberg said.  “We’re talking about force, fraud, threats, intimidation, and bribery.  None of that is protected speech under the First Amendment.”

Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, also defended the law.

“It protects every Marylander from fraud and intimidation in the election,” Cardin said.

But Del. Mike Smigiel, R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, argued that the bill compromised the American civil rights enshrined in the First Amendment.

“If we are going to vote to limit those rights, we ought to do so with hesitation,” he said.  “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that oath does not wear off.”