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Watchdog Groups Prep For Voter Intimidation, Fraud

A sign directing voters to a polling place is seen during the first day of early voting on Monday in Washington, D.C.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
A sign directing voters to a polling place is seen during the first day of early voting on Monday in Washington, D.C.

Concerns about problems at the polls appear to be greater and coming earlier than usual this election year. Already, mysterious phone calls in Florida and Virginia have told voters they can vote by phone — which they cannot do.

And until this week, there were anonymous billboards in Ohio and Wisconsin warning that voter fraud is a felony — which it is.

Thousands of lawyers and other volunteers are mobilizing to monitor the polls for signs of voter intimidation. Thousands of other volunteers will look for signs of voter fraud.

A coalition of civil rights, labor and other progressive groups — called Election Protection — has manned a nonpartisan voter hotline in Washington, D.C., since July. Tens of thousands of people have called with their problems and questions.

Prepared For Trouble

Most questions so far have dealt with registration rules and early voting. But Eric Marshall of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, the project's leader, is bracing for other problems as Election Day nears.

"We're getting into the silly season of elections when you see these things that you kind of hear it, and you're like, that can't be true, that can't happen," he says. "Every year we get reports of fliers in neighborhoods saying that voters from one party vote on Wednesday, while others vote on Tuesday."

They have already received complaints about calls telling people that they can vote by phone. Florida officials are warning voters about such calls, and also about bogus letters questioning their citizenship and eligibility to vote. The letters began showing up last week, and appear to be signed by local election supervisors — which they are not.

Marshall says the best defense for voters is to know their rights. But that's more difficult than usual this year because there are many new election laws around the country.

Those laws have prompted the AFL-CIO to make robo calls to 100,000 union households in Pennsylvania, to clarify that state's new voter ID law. The calls explain that voters don't need a photo ID to vote this year, even though they will be asked to show one at the polls. That's the result of a court ruling earlier this month.

The union is worried that voters will be confused after months of litigation and won't show up to vote.

Fears Of Voter Fraud

The union is also worried that people will be intimidated from voting by citizen-led groups that are training poll-watchers around the country to look out for voter fraud.

"Our goal is not to stop people from voting," says Cathy Kelleher, who is with Election Integrity Maryland, one of dozens of such grass-roots organizations. "Our goal is to make sure that everybody who's eligible to vote has a free and clear path to vote."

Kelleher says she's concerned by all of the dead people and apparent errors on state voter registration rolls. But she says her group has no plans to challenge individual voters on Election Day.

"What we will be doing will be observing how the voting is handled within the polls and making notations of anything that seems to be irregular," she says.

Still, her group is affiliated with True the Vote, a Houston-based Tea Party offshoot that has progressive voting rights groups nervous. The group's founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, vowed earlier this year to recruit and train a million volunteers to watch the polls.

But it appears the group has fallen far short of that goal. For example, Election Integrity Maryland has only about 200 recruits. Nevada Clean Up the Vote has about 700. Engelbrecht calls complaints that they plan to intimidate voters "outrageous."

"Poll watchers don't engage the voters," she says. "They don't talk to voters. They stand quietly and watch the process."

Maybe so, says Marshall, but just in case, Election Protection has about 10,000 lawyers and other volunteers lined up to help voters with any problems they encounter on Election Day.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.