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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.
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.