On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act (HR 1281) in a bi-partisan voice vote. The bill would make it a federal crime to knowingly provide false information with the intent to disenfranchise another person in a federal election. Violators would be subject to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
The bill would have limited the time frame for infraction to 60 days preceding a federal election. A committee amendment offered by ranking member Lamar Smith (R-TX) made deceptive practices punishable year-round. Under the bill, the Attorney General would be required to establish a Voting Integrity Task Force within the Justice Department to “undertake all effective measures necessary to provide correct information to voters” and refer matters to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for prosecution.
The legislation was initially introduced in the Senate in the last session by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), who has a similar bill pending in this session. The Senate bill, unlike the House version has a provision that would allow private parties, rather than just the Justice Department, to bring lawsuits in order to block deceptive practices during an election campaign.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, (D-IL)., who sponsored the bill was quoted in an Associated Press article "this reform will put an end to campaign practices that disenfranchise thousands of American voters and will give citizens the right to cast a ballot free from intimidation and misinformation".
Several members of Congress and voting advocates issued press releases praising the House action. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) noted "in recent elections, voter suppression tactics using misinformation and deception targeted at minority voters have persisted. Disenfranchising voters through deception about time, place, or eligibility for voting must be illegal.”
"Every American deserves the right to cast a ballot without fear of intimidation or becoming the victim of misinformation," said Congresswoman Shea-Porter (D-NH). "Right now, there is no law against election year dirty tricks designed to mislead or deceive voters in order to keep them away from the polls. This bill will change that."
This is a tremendous first step in the campaign to reform our elections from top to bottom,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. “We’ve seen too many egregious tactics in recent elections. Middle-of-the-night robo calls that purport to be made by a candidate, but are really meant to annoy and mislead voters. Attempts to send voters to the wrong polling place, or threaten them with arrest if they haven’t paid a parking ticket. Flyers with false information about candidate endorsements. Passage of this bill puts real momentum behind the movement to clean up these shameful tactics once and for all. I applaud Representatives Rahm Emanuel and John Conyers for their leadership on this bill.”
Proponents of the legislation pointed to numerous recent Examples of Voter Intimidation and Deception that would be addressed by Rep. Conyers’ bill, including:
• In the 2006 election, examples of voter deception or intimidation were numerous. In several cases, voters witnessed dirty tricks like flyers with the wrong date to vote posted in minority communities.
• Letters in Spanish were sent to voters in Orange County, California stating that it was a crime for an immigrant to vote. In fact, legal immigrants who are naturalized citizens have the right to vote just as any other American citizen can.
• In Virginia, voters received calls from a so-called "Virginia Elections Commission" informing them falsely that they were ineligible to vote.
• In Maryland, flyers were handed out on Election Day in minority communities that gave the impression that Republican candidates for office were Democratic candidates.
• In 2002, flyers were distributed in public housing complexes in Louisiana, telling people that they could cast their votes three days after Election Day if the weather was bad.
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