With polls showing a close race between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a relative handful of votes either way in a battleground state like Florida or Ohio could make all the difference. The potential for disruptive crowds of observers at some precincts has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or harassed or have their eligibility to vote challenged directly.One group that has drawn considerable negative attention on this score is True the Vote. Its leaders say they will have a million monitors on precinct-watching and voter-challening duty on election day. That's a bold claim for an organization that has raised less than $200,000. It also makes claims to non-partisanship. But it associates with Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Bros.-funded advocacy group that had a tremendous impact on the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. It also has strong ties to various tea party operations in several states.
The concern is particularly intense among African-American and Hispanic voters, who historically have suffered discrimination and were targeted anew in more recent elections, civil rights leaders say.
"People have suffered and bled for our right to vote," said the Rev. Victor T. Curry, pastor of New Birth Baptist Church in Dania Beach, north of Miami. "We will have monitors who will monitor the monitors."
In Houston, where it is based, True the Vote in 2010 went after supposed voter fraud in the 18th congressional district represented by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, an African American. Two-thirds of her constituents are black or Latino, and the median income is 60 percent of the national average. The district was chosen because it has thousands of addresses where six or more people are registered to vote. That is evidence of possible fraud, according to True the Vote. This conveniently ignores the fact that financial circumstances and cultural traditions encourage "doubling up" and the practice of extended families living under one roof. Out of 3,800 supposedly suspicious situations, True the Vote ultimately settled on 500, most of which did not pan out when officials reviewed them. In one case, they found eight to 10 persons registered at a vacant lot. Aha! Turned out that the building had been bulldozed and the inhabitants had moved.
From its base in Houston to Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and other states. True the Vote has been implicated in several efforts to intimidate voters, particularly college students, minorities and immigrants or people perceived to be immigrants. The research and policy group Demos and "good-government" advocacy organization Common Cause took issue with a number of True the Vote's alleged actions in its report, Bullies at the Ballot Box.
The report noted that True the Vote's leaders seem to have a special affinity for the work of Matthew Vadum. He wrote an op-ed last year titled, Registering the Poor is unAmerican. “[H]ow else can you justify a law that mandates that welfare recipients be given — be encouraged — to vote when they’re there in the cheese line picking up their check?...You shouldn’t be encouraging people to destroy the country, you shouldn’t be encouraging people to vote themselves benefits from the government.”
Is there an echo in here? Does that sound a little bit like Mitt Romney speaking to donors when he thought he was unplugged?
Demos and Common Cause found the True the Vote crowd just as bad:
True the Vote’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, has said “we see again with this administration ... it’s just stunning the assault on our elections that we’re watching gain steam with every passing day, so we found ourselves to be unwittinglyRep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, wrote Engelbrecht to say that many of the groups voter challenges that many of the challenges appear to have no legitimate basis and "could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights."
on the front lines of an issue that I think will be the inflection point for this election.”
A reporter attending True the Vote’s Colorado State Summit described how one speaker told the crowd that “they should enjoy bullying liberals because they were doing God’s work. ‘Your opposition are cartoon characters. They are. They are fun to beat up. They are fun to humiliate,’ he intoned. ‘You are on the side of the angels. And these people are just frauds, charlatans and liars.’”
It won't just be True the Vote monitoring the polls. There is nothing wrong with doing so. In fact, it's a good thing as long as the goal is to facilitate fairness and lubricate the participation of all citizens who want to vote. It's the intimidation factor that is at issue. For minority voters, blacks, Latinos and American Indians especially, that intimidation has ugly roots. For this reason, every state should adopt Nevada's rules for poll monitors. Before anyone is allowed to observe the conduct of the voting, s/he must sign a form stating s/he:
• may not talk to voters within the polling place;It will take more than a few rules, of course, to keep the dark forces from trying to suppress the vote at the polls. As we have seen for decades, and in a heightened form this clear, clearing obstacles from citizens' right to cast a ballot free from harassment and worse is forever a work in progress. Whether in the courts, the legislatures or head-to-head with the intimidators right at the polls, liberals must remain in the forefront of a struggle that has cost the lives of more than a few Americans whose sole reason for being victimized was their belief that they and everyone else had a constitutionally guaranteed right to choose their representatives.
• may not use a mobile phone or computer within the polling place;
• may not advocate for or against a candidate, political party or ballot question;
• may not argue for or against or challenge any decisions made by county election personnel;
• may not interfere with the conduct of voting; and
• may be removed from the polling place by the county clerk for violating the election laws or any of the above.