Even in a campaign season defined by unconventional candidates, unpredictable outside groups and an unexpectedly large playing field, there is still plenty of opportunity for Election Day drama.
The tea party movement is dispatching thousands of political novices to monitor voting places today, Connecticut wrestling fans may be forced to shed branded clothing to vote, Alaska will feature the most important spelling bee in state history and widespread accusations of voter intimidation and voting fraud are likely.
“In some respects this reminds me of 2006, when there was just a lot of weird stuff going on,” said Jon Greenbaum, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The group is among the many “election protection” organizations that will pay particular attention to tea party spin-offs that have offered cash rewards for proof of voter fraud. Group members are also concerned about reported plans to photograph voters in some cases and an effort to push Minnesota poll workers to check voters’ identification even though state law has no such requirement.
“We’re sort of seeing the wildcard effect,” Greenbaum said of tea party activists. “You’ve got this different element, a new element in the political process. Sometimes they don’t know what the rules are. And sometimes, even when they do, they’re more willing to disregard them.”
Many tea party organizations have aggressive plans for election monitoring.
“We want them to be as active and influential as the law allows,” said Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express, which has encouraged thousands of supporters to attend voting places.
The Tea Party Express leadership will also celebrate election returns in the same Las Vegas hotel as the group’s top target, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D).
“It’s going to be a little untraditional to say the least,” Russell said of sharing space with the Senator. “We’re going to have the Tea Party Express bus parked right out front.”
In Harris County, Texas, a group called King Street Patriots has made national headlines already by unearthing multiple examples of possible voter fraud during early voting.
“We have trained enough volunteers to fill 1,000 volunteer spots in the general election” in Harris County, said President Catherine Engelbrecht, who owns a local machine shop with her husband. “We feel like the training that they’ve received through the county has put them in good stead with the letter of the law, and we look forward to the election.”
She said the group has detected “repeated instances of poll workers who suggest that voters vote a straight Democratic ticket. ... It’s resulted in hundreds of incident reports being filed,” she said.
The King Street Patriots have also helped train roughly 600 tea party leaders in 45 other states, according to Engelbrecht.
Those include volunteers in Alaska, where tea party favorite Joe Miller is fighting back an aggressive write-in campaign from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whom he defeated in the GOP primary.
State officials have announced that perfect spelling of the write-in candidate’s name will not be required. The focus instead will be on voter intent. Of course, that’s open to interpretation, and it’s unclear whether a declaration of just “Lisa” or “Lisa M.” would be sufficient on a ballot, especially given that a person named Lisa M. Lackey qualified as a write-in candidate last week.
“I fully expect that there will be people on the ground monitoring that one closely,” said Randy Lewis of the Tea Party Patriots, which has coordinated poll watching shifts across the country but hasn’t offered specific training.
“Some organizations are far more developed than others,” Lewis said of the local tea party affiliates. “Many are sophisticated. In other places, they’re going to be a little less sophisticated.”
In Connecticut, it’s not the tea party but rather wrestling fans who might make headlines today.
The state’s high-profile Senate race pits state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) against Linda McMahon (R), the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Amid swirling criticism, the Connecticut secretary of state issued guidelines late last week that could prohibit voters from wearing certain WWE clothing items within 75 feet of any polling place.
The WWE has become a central campaign issue in the race. The organization, led by McMahon’s husband, launched an aggressive public relations campaign in recent weeks to combat Blumenthal’s allegations of steroid use by wrestlers and employee mistreatment by the organization.
There’s no blanket ban on WWE T-shirts or hats, according to the secretary of state’s office. But each polling moderator will have the discretion to assess whether clothing actually “solicits” for or against one of the candidates.
“Even when an individual is found to be wearing campaign material in violation of the 75 foot restrictions, they should never be told to leave the polls,” a statement from the secretary of state’s office reads. “They should be simply asked to remove or cover the item or apparel in question.”
There have been several incidents of violence among opposing protesters in the weeks leading up to Election Day, and local law enforcement agencies are prepared to boost security at the polls if needed.
Passions have run high in Nevada, but a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety reports that elections officials have not requested a greater police presence. There are contingency plans in place, however, should they be necessary.
“We’re ready if they need us,” Gail Powell said.