Poll Watching Efforts Draw Scrutiny

SAUKVILLE, WI - NOVEMBER 4: Cayden Andrews, 3, peaks out from the voting booth as his father Josh Andrews casts his vote at the Town Hall November 4, 2008 in Saukville, Wisconsin. This years voter turn out is expected to be higher then normal due to the heated race between presidential candidates, Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Republican nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Ask the Texas-based King Street Patriots, and they'll tell you their "True the Vote" campaign is simply about making sure voters are cast in accordance with the law.

But ask Texas Democrats, and they'll tell you that "True the Vote" is actually a GOP-backed effort to suppress Democratic votes.

Spurred in part by dire warnings of Democratic voter fraud in the conservative media - driven partly by the New Black Panther intimidation imbroglio - conservative groups around the country are training volunteers to be deployed at polling stations on (and in some cases before) Election Day in what they say is an effort to ensure every vote is counted correctly.

Republicans are saying they are already facing problems at the polls. The conservative Drudge Report today is linking to a pair of stories alleging that voting machines are not accepting Republican votes and instead registering support for Democrats. Conservatives say they simply want to do everything they can to help ensure the election is not stolen.

"These are citizens who just wanted to get involved, and things like poll watching and turning in information on voter registration rolls should be fairly unremarkable," the Liberty Institute's Kelly Shackelford told NPR. I think the thing that is remarkable is that they're coming under attack because some people don't like that they're actually getting involved."

Shackelford's group is defending King Street Patriots after Texas Democrats sued the group, charging that poll watchers have been hovering over voters, following them around and distributing misinformation in early voting. They say the most aggressive poll watching efforts have been in black and Latino districts where a majority of voters have in the past voted for Democrats.The suit has prompted a Justice Department investigation.

The same fight is going on in New Mexico, where Democratic Party of New Mexico Executive Director Scott Forrester wrote in an email to supporters that "tea partiers are being trained by [the New Mexico GOP] in their offices to disrupt the election," as the Albuquerque Journal reports.

"You and I both know what's going on here -- the tea party is trying to sabotage this election and are hoping Democrats don't get out and vote," Forrester continued. "They know if we do, they lose the election."

Albuquerque Tea Party acting secretary Debbie Weisman countered to the Journal that "We're certainly not being trained to disrupt the election. We just want what most New Mexicans want, which is a fair election."

As the New York Times notes, conservatives made claims about a pattern of fraudulent votes being cast in the 2006 election, though their claims were proven mostly false.

In Minnesota, a group called Election Integrity Watch is running a radio ad in which a man who calls himself "Vinnie" says the group is training thousands of people "on what to look for at the polls." (listen at left.)

"Why there's even going to be surveillance teams outside of the polls," he adds, before saying that anyone involved in voter fraud "could do some hard time." An announcer than says $500 rewards are being offered for those who uncover fraud.

Election Integrity Watch is a project of a group of conservative organziations, including Minnesota Majority and the Northstar Tea Party Patriots. It's site features a video showing a sign for the community group ACORN and the claim that "dishonest people are defrauding our elections [and] robbing honest Americans of their legitimate votes."

One potential pitfall to the deployment of volunteer poll watchers, even those with the best of intentions, is that they are not sufficiently knowledgeable on what is and is not appropriate. In Florida, an early voter told TPMMuckraker that "a Republican poll watcher improperly used a cell phone to take pictures and record information."

Kristen Clarke, Co-Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Political Participation Group, said in an interview with Hotsheet that "there doesn't seem to be a color blind approach to many of these so called ballot integrity efforts and poll watching initiatives that are underway."

"The reports that we are hearing about are very troubling," she said, suggesting that poll watchers are being "largely assigned to monitor African American and Latino voters."


Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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