Sen. Barack Obama, a former lecturer on constitutional law turned presidential candidate, argued Thursday for passage of a federal law that would target voter intimidation.
The Illinois Democrat, the legislation's chief sponsor, said his proposal was designed to send a message to would-be intimidators.
"Some of this is prophylactic," Obama testified at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing. "If people know the law takes this seriously, they won't do it."
Under the measure, an offender could face up to five years in prison for knowingly deceiving people about the time, place or manner of conducting a federal election, or the qualifications for or restrictions on voter eligibility.
Its goal is to eliminate practices such as distributing misleading leaflets like one once handed out in Franklin County, Ohio, that told Republican voters they should vote Tuesday while Democrats should vote Wednesday "because [of] the confusion caused by unexpected heavy voter registration."
Obama's bill has a House version sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and is supported by a variety of groups, from Common Cause to the NAACP.
The measure is sponsored by 15 Democrats, including rival presidential candidate New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, and party members dominated the hearing chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Cardin said most intimidation is based on the premise that suppressing minority voter turnout can affect the outcome of an election.
Cardin told the hearing that when he ran last year against then Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, homeless people from Philadelphia were paid $100 each by Republicans, he said, to distribute leaflets falsely implying prominent Maryland blacks were backing Steele, a fellow black.
Obama, who is bidding to become the first black president, said minorities, senior citizens and the disabled were among the groups expected to be helped by his bill.
Blacks typically vote overwhelmingly for Democrats and many campaign strategists say minorities' support for Obama could be crucial in advancing his candidacy. But the hearing also focused on how Republicans have reason to support the legislation.
"There's no room for politics in this debate," Obama said.
Others testifying included Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, along with state and local officeholders from Maryland.