At Polling Places, Some Fear Monitors Will Challenge Some Legitimate Voters, Intimidate Others

October 11, 2012 | | Associated Press |

Kimberly Kelley of Tampa has provided Florida elections officials with thousands of names of people she thinks may be ineligible to vote and should be removed from the rolls. On Election Day, she’ll join thousands more — people of all political stripes — to monitor balloting.

“I believe there is fraud both ways. I don’t think it’s a specific group,” said Kelley, a registered Republican whose group is called Tampa Vote Fair. “We’re just there to observe. We’re not going to intimidate anyone.”

Poll watchers from unions, immigration groups and other organizations favoring greater voter access will also be on hand. Gihan Perera of the group Florida New Majority said training sessions are being held for observers and communications lines set up to respond to problems.

“We’ll be aware and vigilant so that all of the rules and processes are honored and that our people are able to vote with ease,” he said.

With polls showing a close race between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a relative handful of votes either way in a battleground state like Florida or Ohio could make all the difference. The potential for disruptive crowds of observers at some precincts has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or harassed or have their eligibility to vote challenged directly.

The concern is particularly intense among African-American and Hispanic voters, who historically have suffered discrimination and were targeted anew in more recent elections, civil rights leaders say.

“People have suffered and bled for our right to vote,” said the Rev. Victor T. Curry, pastor of New Birth Baptist Church in Dania Beach, north of Miami. “We will have monitors who will monitor the monitors.”

Groups such as True the Vote, a Houston-based organization with links to the tea party, refer to their activities as “election integrity.” For those fearing suppression attempts, it’s all about “voter protection.” Both sides are organizing people around the country to be their poll watchers.

True the Vote has said it hopes to recruit 1 million people nationwide to be monitors. Its founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, said that her group is nonpartisan and that its goal is “renewing faith in our election system” through its growing national coalition.

“Every eligible American voter deserves the opportunity to participate in a fair and legal election process, even those Democrats and left-leaning organizations who continually cast false aspersions about our efforts,” Engelbrecht said in an email. “We support lawful election processes.”

Recent studies by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and by the research and advocacy organization Demos show that voter intimidation and challenges are not relics from the past:

—In a 2011 state legislative election in Massachusetts, dozens of challenges were filed by poll monitors affiliated with tea party groups against Latino voters in Southbridge. Several voters said they felt intimidated in a vote that wound up in a court-ordered tie. Justice Department officials were on hand to observe the second vote, which was settled by just 56 votes.

—In 2010, a coalition of Minnesota conservative groups called Election Integrity Watch offered $500 to anyone who provided tips about fraud and encouraged volunteers to take photos and videotape voters at the polls, according to Demos research. It’s unclear if these tactics were widely deployed or whether they deterred voters from casting ballots.