Not only are Americans divided over the presidential candidates, they appear to be divided over how people should vote for those candidates.
Texas tea partyers have launched an election-monitoring effort designed to weed out voter fraud. Civil rights groups call it an elaborate intimidation scheme targeting minority voters.
“They’re trying to put in place a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, adding that voter fraud is uncommon.
Still, the tea party poll watchers point to errors in voter-registration rolls as proof that the system is broken. By monitoring the elections, they seek to prevent double voting, voter impersonation and ballots cast by illegal residents.
“Our goal is to bring focus to a national call for election integrity,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the King Street Patriots, the group behind the poll-watching effort.
The group has raised $140,000 and has already provided election-monitoring training to tea party groups in 30 states through its “True the Vote” project. Engelbrecht said she has a lofty goal to train 1 million people by next year’s elections.
During last year’s midterm elections, King Street Patriots trained 1,000 people who worked at polls or monitored them in Harris County, which is home to the group’s Houston headquarters.
Poll watchers must represent a political party, candidate or issue in Texas, and all of those trained by the tea party group picked Republican positions. Many of them served as presiding judges for the Republican Party in areas with large ethnic minorities that lean Democratic.
Engelbrecht said the volunteers reported 800 “polling place incidents,” some of which she said were certain voter fraud. The complaints were filed with the county, which investigated some of them but did not pursue legal action.
The poll watchers also had complaints filed against them. The county attorney warned leaders of both parties to keep an eye on poll watchers after receiving 55 complaints that observers were hovering over voters, asking for voters’ party affiliations and arguing with election officers.
“People have been here for over 20 years and they had never seen anything like this,” said Douglas Ray, a senior assistant to the Harris County Attorney.
His office asked the Department of Justice to monitor the election after the problems emerged. Ray also visited King Street Patriots on the eve of Election Day to go over what poll watchers may do.
Some of the complaints against the election monitors were for activities that are allowed under Texas law. Poll watchers can ensure voters provide proper identification and review the ballots of individuals seeking translation services.
Hector de Leon, a spokesman for the Harris County Clerk’s office, which received some of the voter complaints, downplayed them.
“People were just uncomfortable with [poll watchers]. We understand that. However, the law provides that that can happen,” he said.
At least some of the activity was illegal, according to the Campaign Legal Center, which documented poll watchers telling voters they must vote in English. Monitors are not allowed to speak to voters.
“Those are the types of activities the Voting Rights Act was designed to stop,” said Gerald Hebert, the group’s executive director.