New state-based voting restrictions have been joined by a more dangerous player in the game of voter suppression. There is growing concern that an army of tens of thousands of poll watchers ready to be stationed at voting sites across the country on Election Day could potentially disenfranchise poor and minority voters and swing the outcome of many close races.
While the existence of “poll watchers” — a group that includes everyone from Justice Department observers to local government officials, but mostly partisan campaign volunteers — has been a mainstay in American democracy for decades, the trend has never seen the kind of political might and financial backing put into efforts on behalf of specific candidates and shadowy organizations that many claim have ill intentions borne out of the conservative hysteria over dubious claims of voter “fraud.”
Rather than working to ensure a fair and smooth voting process, new groups and campaign operatives are planning to conduct mass challenges of the legitimacy of voters in poor or high-minority precincts. Also generating anger is the plan of many poll watching groups to lobby for positioning outside of polling places, possibly scaring away voters with rehearsed talking points such as reciting the legal consequences of “voter fraud.”
And with the 2012 presidential election and other important contests nationwide so close in the polls, every potential roadblock to an American being able to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot is likely to have outsized consequences.
In some areas, they are becoming as much a part of elections as voters and precinct workers: poll watchers, the sometimes unofficial monitors who go to polling places with the idea of stopping fraudulent voting.
Poll watchers come in all political stripes – conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, anti-fraud groups, labor unions and even international organizations.
With the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney extremely close, some groups are looking to poll monitors to ensure a fair election on Tuesday.
But some voting-rights advocates and others are questioning whether such monitors could become an intimidating presence that leads some people – namely minorities and the elderly – not to vote, and slows down the voting process for others.
Some of the observers are credentialed by local governments to monitor the election from inside polling sites and will be allowed to challenge the right of people to vote. Some are lawyers representing the presidential campaigns and their parties, looking out for any irregularities that could be cited in a legal challenge of election results.
Many more poll watchers are likely be outside voting precincts – possibly in large numbers – and could scare off some potential voters, civil-rights advocates say.
“You can be just as harmful outside as inside by creating disruptions,” said Eric Marshall, of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law. “We shouldn’t be having bullies creating disruptions or intimidating voters at the polling place.”
Historically, poll watchers not affiliated with local, state or federal government agencies are typically working for specific campaigns. 2012 will be no different, with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney employing a strategy that that his supporters insist is their “secret weapon” to defeat President Obama. The Romney camp has quietly been assembling an unprecedented army of at least 34,000 staffers and volunteers to fan out around the country as poll watchers.
“Project ORCA” is the innocuous name given to this legally questionable program that has drawn intense criticism over the possibility of voter intimidation and allegations that Romney poll watchers have been trained to give false information to voters before they enter polling places.
The campaign pledges to have at least one volunteer to challenge every single voter at every balloting location in key “swing” states like Ohio and Florida. In an Orwellian twist, all Romney “ORCA” participants will be given smartphones on which they only need to hit a large yellow button in order to contact campaign headquarters if they wish to keep a citizen from casting a ballot.
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has been quietly assembling a massive, technologically sophisticated poll monitoring program that staffers believe will be their secret weapon in defeating President Barack Obama.
Project ORCA will rely on 34,000 volunteers in swing states on Election Day, in an effort to keep track of who is voting at key polling places. Romney staffers will use the data to help them target their get-out-the-vote efforts before the polls close, in hopes of gaining an edge over Obama’s grassroots operation.
“There’s nothing that the Obama data team, there’s nothing that the Obama campaign, there’s nothing that President Obama himself can do to even come close to what we are putting together here,” Romney Deputy Political Director Dan Centinello said Wednesday night in a training call for Project ORCA volunteers, which The Huffington Post called into.
On Election Day, the Romney campaign will send one or more volunteers to important swing-state polling places, noting every single person who comes in to vote.
Volunteers will have the Project ORCA web-based app on their smartphone. Once they log in, they will see the names and ages of every eligible voter in that precinct. When someone votes, the volunteer will simply be able to slide a bar and note it. Individuals without smartphones will be able to print a list of voters — provided by the Romney campaign — and check off individuals who come to the polling place, and then call that information into headquarters periodically.
If volunteers run into any problems — such as an incorrect voting list, broken voting machines, fraud or illegal activity — they can press a yellow button on their phone to instantly report them to the Romney campaign legal team, and staffers will be assigned to help volunteers around the country. Volunteers will also be able to send instant messages — similar to a Twitter feed or discussion board — with anecdotes about what they are seeing.
Though the Romney voter challenge operation is on a scale never before seen in election history, their technology-based poll monitoring system is routine compared to the newest threat to Americans and their ability to vote this year and beyond.
Like super-PACs and other outside groups have changed the game of raising cash for campaigns, secretive outside organizations technically unaffiliated with any single campaign are transforming the practice of poll watching into big business. Inspired by the crusade for photo ID and other means of combating “voter fraud” pushed by their ideological counterparts in state legislatures, these conservative groups are about to conduct the largest voter-challenge operation ever sen in the United States.
The most important of these groups is True the Vote, a massive outfit that describes itself as non-partisan but shares little details about where it gets its funding. Critics argue the group is targeting minorities for challenges that could prevent them voting at all or else force them to cast provisional ballots that will likely never be counted.
True the Vote is basically an extension of the raft of sweeping voting restrictions passed by dozens of states in the last couple of years aimed at cracking down on unproven instances of “fraud” committed by Democratic-leaning voters. Conservative volunteer organizations intent on watching the polls are seen as just another firewall in the plan to tackle “fraud,” even though most studies show it doesn’t exist.
True the Vote’s plan is to scrutinize the validity of voter registration rolls and voters who appear at the polls. Among those in their cross hairs: noncitizens who are registered to vote, those without proper identification, others who may be registered twice, and dead people. In Ohio and Indiana, True the Vote recently filed lawsuits to force officials to clean up voter rolls.
Efforts to tighten voter requirements have become a major issue in the presidential election. Over the last few years, many states have passed voter identification laws, and many of those are being challenged in court.
Now, a network of conservative groups is waging an aggressive campaign on the ground. In a report this month, the liberal-leaning organizations Common Cause and Demos cited True the Vote as the central player in this effort, which it called a threat to the fundamental right to vote.
Though the group disputes the notion that it is unfairly targeting minority voters i a bid to help Republican candidates, evidence is mounting that True the Voter and other organizations affiliated with it are guilty of unfounded accusations of fraud against black and Latino voters as well as wholesale intimidation even before citizens reach the polls.
One black voter in Ohio said her entire family received notices that their voting rights were being challenged by a True the Vote subsidiary, leaving them at risk of being thrown off state voter rolls.
Teresa Sharp, a homemaker and grandmother, has lived in Hamilton County, Ohio, for nearly 30 years. A former poll worker and a Democrat, she says she has voted in every election since she was 18.
“Voting to me is, like, sacred, like my children,” she said. “It lets me at least have an opinion about how I want to live in America.”
Sharp is keenly aware that her vote counts. Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, is hotly contested in a swing state that could decide this extraordinarily close presidential race. So naturally, Sharp was surprised when she received a letter in the mail that said, “You are hereby notified that your right to vote has been challenged by a qualified elector under RC 3503.243505.19.”
“Nobody’s ever challenged me, especially my right to vote,” Sharp said. “I’m confused. I’m concerned and pretty darn mad.”
Her husband, Herbert, her sons, Christopher and Herbert Jr., her daughters, Aseneth and Eleanor, and her elderly aunt, all residents at the same family home in Hamilton County, also received a similar letter.
“I thought to myself that there’s somebody out here trying to scare people into not voting,” she said.
The letter came from the county board of elections, and was prompted by an official challenge submitted by a member of The Ohio Voter Integrity Project, a local affiliate of a grassroots organization called True the Vote. The organization believes that voter fraud is a sweeping national epidemic and has enlisted and trained an army of citizen volunteers to challenge voters in the name of what they call “voter integrity.”