“Those are the types of activities the Voting Rights Act was designed to stop,” said Gerald Hebert, the group’s executive director.
The Campaign Legal Center supported the Texas Democratic Party in a lawsuit against King Street Patriots. It argues that the tea party group made an in-kind donation to the Republican Party by training the poll watchers, which would violate Texas campaign finance law. The lawsuit also asks that the tea party group be required to disclose its donors. As a 501(c)(4) corporation, King Street Patriots is not currently required by federal law to do so.
Chad Dunn, a lawyer for the Texas Democratic Party, said voters have a right to know “what big business or corporate interests are funding it.”
Engelbrecht has denied that there is any big donor, insisting that her group raises the bulk of its funds by passing around a cowboy hat at meetings. She added that “True the Vote” is nonpartisan and would train Democrats, even if it hasn’t yet.
Conservative blogs and nonprofits have also rallied around and helped King Street Patriots, whose poll-watching efforts pair well with the larger Republican campaign to promote voter-identification laws.
States such as Indiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas have tightened requirements on voters. Civil rights groups say such laws disproportionately affect poor urban minorities and non-English speakers, who tend to back Democrats at the polls.
Hans von Spakovsky, who studies voting issues for the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the allegations against King Street Patriots “ridiculous.”
“You’re supposed to have poll watchers there to make sure election officials are following the law,” he said.
The two parties recruit flocks of election observers each cycle. In 2004, the Democrats made headlines for having 10,000 lawyers stationed in battleground states, prepared to respond to voting irregularities, in addition to thousands of poll watchers, while Republicans had party lawyers monitoring 30,000 precincts.
Labor unions and liberal groups also have poll watchers present during elections, but they say their efforts are designed to help people vote, not question them.
The largest such program on the left, the Election Protection program, brings together dozens of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Sierra Club, Campaign Legal Center, Advancement Project and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In 2008, the group spent $2.5 million and deployed 10,000 volunteers to help voters cast their ballots. It also sent volunteers to Texas after receiving complaints about the tea party poll watchers.
Eric Marshall, coordinator of the election program, said tea party observers present just one of many challenges for the 2012 elections. The group anticipates misleading flyers and voting machine failures to complicate the process, as they do every cycle.
Such activities only affect a small minority of voters, but the coalition is already preparing its volunteers for them.
“When there are very competitive elections, that’s where gaming the system occurs,” Marshall said.
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