In the current era of extreme nastiness in politics, the behavior of a Maryland Republican political operative seems almost quaint. In what prosecutors said was an effort to suppress the black vote and defeat Democrat Martin O'Malley, Paul Schurick, the campaign manager for former GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich authorized an Election Day robocall to voters in heavily African-American districts that said the following:
Hello. I'm calling to let everybody know that Governor O'Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you.
It was misleading, to say the least, and arguably sleazy. And, as a Baltimore jury determined this week, it was criminal. Schurick (who is appealing the verdict) was convicted on four counts of charges involving using fraud to influence voters.
But the case raises difficult questions about what can and cannot be allowed in campaigns—and what the value is of prosecuting people after the elections have been held. O'Malley was re-elected, taking away some of the sting of Schurick's behavior. And one wonders how effective the tactic was, anyway. The overkill of telling voters repeatedly not to worry, that despite the fact that the polls were still open, it was really all over—how many people bought that? How many of us routinely hang up an any robocall four or five words into the spiel, assuming someone is trying to sell us something?
Had O'Malley lost, the state of democracy would be a much bigger issue. What is fraud, and what is merely electioneering and pressure tactics? Of course, what the speaker on the robocall said was a lie, but what about all the other lies candidates tell on the campaign trail to get elected? Is the robocall worse, because there was no opportunity for the statements to be exposed and vetted in the press or by the sponsoring campaign's opponent?
Schurick's conviction indeed sends an important message to campaigns, especially since he faces jail time. A fine—even a hefty one—merely sends the signal that fraudulently influencing voters is a tactic for the wealthy. But a conviction and jail time in any case like this is by definition after the fact. What if O'Malley had lost narrowly, and voter patterns showed that the difference had been made in the counties where the robocalls occurred? It's not as though the results of the election would have been reversed. The conviction, hopefully, will make campaign operatives across the political spectrum think twice before employing such dirty tricks. But it won't stop people from lying in politics.