The emotional debate over voter fraud and voter intimidation has intensified this year, fueled by tea party anger and a surge in so-called ballot security programs to challenge individual voters at the polls.
With the help of the GOP and egged on by conservative activists fomenting voter fraud fears, tea party organizers in more than half a dozen states are training hundreds of volunteers to act as "poll watchers." Volunteers are instructed to look for suspicious activity, make sure polls close on time, and challenge questionable voters.
This has alarmed voting rights activists, who say such programs can intimidate eligible voters, create long lines, and violate laws. In Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin, ballot security controversies have led to charges of racism, legal action, and calls for state and federal investigations.
There's a grain of truth to voter fraud fears, but little evidence of fraudulent votes.
The trend presents "a new and ongoing risk of actions that could amount to voter intimidation and voter suppression," said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, at a press conference last week to spotlight voting challenges this fall.
The fight between conservatives up in arms about voter fraud and liberals warning of disenfranchisement is hardly new, but it's erupted with fresh vitriol in a contentious midterm that features a slew of very close races.
In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk (R), who is running for President Obama's old Senate seat, has denied allegations of racism following the release of a private conversation in which he pledged that "lawyers and other people" would help him implement the state's largest "voter integrity program" in 15 years, targeting four largely African-American precincts.
Kirk's Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, said in a statement that he is "very concerned" and has asked his campaign lawyers "to look into ways to address this voter suppression effort by Congressman Kirk and his party."
In Texas, a Harris County tea party offshoot dubbed True the Vote triggered multiple lawsuits when it alleged that a local voter registration group, Houston Votes, was engaged in fraud. Houston Votes has now sued True the Vote for libel and defamation. And the Texas Democratic Party has sued the state's voter registrar, a Republican, for releasing voting records to True the Vote, allegedly in violation of a 2008 settlement agreement stemming from a previous registration dispute.
In Wisconsin, a liberal watchdog group has asked state and federal officials to investigate after it unearthed another surreptitiously recorded tape, this one featuring a state tea party activist describing an elaborate plan to mail out thousands of postcards to targeted voters and challenge the registrations of those returned as undeliverable.
On the tape, state tea party organizer Tim Dake described plans to work with the state GOP and the Wisconsin branch of Americans for Prosperity, a secretive conservative group underwritten in part by Koch Industries. Americans for Prosperity organizers in Washington and Wisconsin did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment. Wisconsin GOP communications director Andrew Welhouse said that "this kind of voter suppression initiative has never been part of our plans."
Citizen and state party groups have a legal right to watch over polling operations and even challenge individual voters, election lawyers acknowledge. Some even argue that the more people monitoring polls the better, given that cash-strapped election administrators are perennially short of resources and poll workers -- a problem exacerbated by state budget crises amid the recession.
But challenges based on race or accompanied by intimidation are illegal, voting rights advocates say. "We expect to see serious problems because of widespread confusion and misapplication of the law," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Project, last week.
The Brennan Center has documented tea party and GOP training for poll watchers and challengers in more than half a dozen states, including one Arizona tea party meeting that encouraged attendees to serve as "pitbull watchdogs" to stop illegal immigrants from voting.
A Minnesota group calling itself Election Integrity Watch is organizing tea party and conservative activists into "surveillance teams" to "photograph and videotape" suspected irregularities and in some cases "follow buses that take voters to the polls," according to the Woodbury Bulletin, a community newspaper.
There's a grain of truth to rampant voter fraud fears. The rolls are, indeed, riddled with names of dead people, cartoon characters, duplicate entries, and obsolete addresses -- but there's little evidence that those errors lead to much in the way of fraudulent votes. A five-year investigation by the Bush Justice Department, for one, turned up virtually no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
It's been close to 30 years since the Republican National Committee faced a civil lawsuit for sending armed off-duty police officers to patrol minority voting precincts in New Jersey. Under a resulting 1982 consent decree, the RNC agreed to allow a federal court to pre-clear any "ballot security" programs. The RNC has tried to get out from under that decree more than once, but has been turned back by the courts.
In explaining why, a federal appeals court in 2004 summed it up nicely: "The use of a race targeted challenge list by partisan poll watchers" imposes a "threat of voter intimidation that is inconsistent with a free election."