Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Clean, Fair Fight

A Clean, Fair Fight

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If recent history is any guide, this fall's presidential election will be marred by vote suppression and cynical dirty tricks. Congress still has time to stop some of the worst offenses. The Senate is considering two bills, one to outlaw so-called vote caging and another to rein in duplicitous robo-calls. Congress should pass both bills well before Election Day.

Vote caging is a little-known but pernicious technique. Political operatives mail letters to voters, targeting areas where the opposing party is strong. If a letter is returned as undeliverable, the voter's name is put on a list to be challenged at the polls. The challengers try to persuade election officials not to let the person vote, or only to let them cast a provisional ballot. Some voters end up disenfranchised. No matter how the challenges turn out, they often create confusion and long lines, reducing turnout in the targeted precincts.

Minority voters have been especially victimized. In an infamous case in Louisiana, a Republican political operative boasted that a vote-caging program "could keep the black vote down considerably." Vote caging is sometimes defended as a way of removing ineligible voters from the rolls. But there are many reasons letters are returned, including errors in names and addresses, which are common on direct-mail lists.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, has sponsored a good bill that would require operatives to present better evidence when they challenge a voter's eligibility, such as verifiable proof that a prospective voter has moved or died. The bill would not deter legitimate efforts to keep ineligible people from voting, but it should greatly reduce the use of voter challenges as an Election Day dirty trick.

Political robo-calls are another tactic desperately in need of regulation. In the 2006 election, voters described being harassed by automated telephone calls - which called back as many as eight times after the recipient hung up. In some cases, the recordings began by saying that they included important information about one candidate, although they were really placed by the other side. The caller would then blame the wrong candidate.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has introduced legislation that would restrict political robo-calls in the run-up to an election, limiting an organization to no more than two such calls to the same phone in a single day. It would also require the call to begin with a clear disclosure of the group that was placing it.

Almost invariably on Election Day, there are reports of skulduggery followed by cries for reform. Once the election is over, however, the damage has been done. This year, Congress should take strong action to prevent the dirty tricks before they occur.

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