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Senate bill targets suppression of voters

February 01, 2007|Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Prompted in part by misleading campaign tactics that marred elections in several states, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) introduced legislation Wednesday that would criminalize lying to or otherwise intentionally misleading voters to keep them away from the polls.

Among the controversial 2006 elections was a U.S. House race in Orange County, in which thousands of Latino citizens received letters wrongly suggesting they could go to jail for voting.

The measure would also stiffen penalties for voter intimidation.

Obama and Schumer framed the need for the proposed legislation within a larger struggle for suffrage and civil rights.

"It's hard to imagine that we even need a bill like this," said Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. "There are people who will stop at nothing to try to deceive voters and keep them away from the polls. What's worse, these practices all too often target and exploit vulnerable populations like minorities, the disabled or the poor."

Under the legislation, anyone who knowingly misleads voters about polling times and places, voter eligibility and registration requirements, candidates' party affiliation or outside endorsements could face fines of up to $100,000 or five years in prison. In addition, the bill would increase the punishment for voter intimidation from one year to five years in prison.

The bill specifically mentions the Orange County letters. About 14,000 Democratic voters with Spanish surnames in the 47th District, which includes parts of Fullerton, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana, received letters before the Nov. 7 election warning that immigrants could face jail time or deportation for voting. In fact, naturalized immigrants have the same voting rights as citizens born in the United States.

The letters were traced to the House campaign of Republican Tan Nguyen, who denied personally sending or authorizing the letters. The incident prompted state and federal investigations into possible voting rights violations. Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, was soundly defeated by incumbent Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana).

Sanchez said she was unaware of the Senate bill before hearing about it from a reporter Wednesday.

"I think it's great," she said. "Maybe I'll introduce it on the House side."

Other deceptive tactics used in the 2006 campaign included calls to voters in Virginia incorrectly telling them they were ineligible to vote, and fliers distributed in African American neighborhoods in Maryland wrongly implying that Republican candidates had been endorsed by black leaders.

Civil rights groups applauded the proposed measure.

"When a community starts to attain power, as the Latino community is now, we see more and more deceptive practices to prevent people from voting," said Peter Zamora of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"Sen. Obama's bill is a very strong bill that has the power to stop voter intimidation."

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adam.schreck@latimes.com

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