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Getting Out the Vote

WHAT has campaign consultant Ed Rollins wrought?

The man who served as campaign manager to Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman (R) of New Jersey has clouded her narrow victory over incumbent Jim Florio (D) in elections earlier this month, sparked federal and state investigations into the Whitman campaign's practices, angered many of the state's black leaders, and sent a political torpedo speeding toward his own waterline.

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This week, the state Democratic Party in New Jersey won a court order requiring Mr. Rollins to answer their questions, under oath, as part of a lawsuit seeking a new gubernatorial election. The effort stems from comments Rollins made last week in Washington at a Monitor breakfast meeting with reporters: that the Whitman campaign used some of its $500,000 in ``walking-around money'' to suppress voter turnout among Democrats. The alleged suppression techniques ranged from paying Democratic campaign workers not to take part in their party's get-out-the-vote effort to offers of donations to charities favored by black ministers in exchange for silence from the pulpit as to whom their congregations should vote for.

The tactic of suppressing turnout isn't new. Nor is the use of walking-around money, a longstanding practice of both parties to offset expenses incurred by local campaign workers, particularly in urban areas, as they try to turn out the vote.

These reside in an ethical and legal gray area of political battle. But it doesn't take much to cross the line. Increasing voter turnout often meant vote fraud in the machine politics of the past. Suppressing turnout too could take a similarly illegal and distorting turn, all the more onerous because its effect is to keep voters from exercising their franchise. Hence the need for the investigations undertaken by the US Justice Department and the New Jersey state attorney general's office.

In New Jersey's case, whatever suppression efforts the Republicans may have made contributed little or nothing to the outcome, as a story on Page 1 in today's edition suggests. Yet Americans are rightly demanding a higher standard of their politicians and politics, even if that that demand is inconsistently met. Rollins's biggest service, however inadvertent, may be in shining a light on yet another dusty area of political campaigning that needs sweeping.

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