NPR logo Maryland Robocall Trial Gives Rare Glimpse Behind Slimy, Election-Day Tactic

Maryland Robocall Trial Gives Rare Glimpse Behind Slimy, Election-Day Tactic

An interesting political trial got under way Tuesday in Baltimore. It involves robocalls made during the 2010 rematch between former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, and the Democratic incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The calls were made Election Day afternoon by consultants working for the Ehrlich campaign and went to about 110,000 Democratic voters. The voters were told to "relax," that "O'Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back."

The caller, never identified, went on to say that "the only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight."

Ehrlich's campaign manager Paul Schurick faces two counts of conspiracy for violating state election law, which prohibits trying to influence a voter's decision to go to the polls through the use of fraud.

Prosecutors say the robocalls were a clear attempt to suppress the African American vote, which the Ehrlich campaign knew would back O'Malley. But Schurick's attorneys say it was just the opposite, that the calls were an effort to use reverse psychology and spur potential Ehrlich supporters to go to the polls to avoid defeat.

The case is interesting because it's rare to find out who's behind such misleading campaign tactics — which pop up in just about every election.

It's even rarer to see them brought to trial. State laws are all over the map on what is and isn't an illegal campaign tactic. And such cases are especially difficult to prosecute because of first amendment concerns — where's the line between an illegal effort to suppress the vote and protected free speech?

The irony is that there's little evidence such voter suppression tactics work. In fact, one witness, Peter Vandermeer, a Baltimore Democrat, testified that he was so angry when he heard the robocall, that he immediately went out to vote.

He said he considered the call a "trick" to try to discourage him from doing just that. The trial is expected to wind up next week.