A swarm of right-wing loyalists with intimidation on their minds can be expected to descend on polling places in minority neighborhoods this November, two public interest groups warned government officials Monday.

In a new report titled, “Bullies at the Ballot Box,” Demos and Common Cause describe campaigns by conservative groups—particularly the tea party-affiliated True the Vote—to train and deploy as many as 1 million persons to police the polls.

Demos, based in New York City, and Common Cause, based in Washington, D.C., are public interest groups that have targeted right-wing voter law revision and monitoring efforts.

“As we approach the 2012 elections, every indication is that we will see an unprecedented use of voter challenges,” the report stated, adding concern of “a real danger that voters will face overzealous volunteers who take the law into their own hands to target voters they deem suspect. But there is no place for bullies at the ballot box.”

Singling out True the Vote, the report quoted Bill Ouren, the group’s national elections coordinator, as telling volunteers during a training seminar that they should make certain voters feel “like driving and seeing the police following you.” The group has been a chief advocate of restrictive voter ID laws, and its volunteers have become known for harassing voters, as in the case of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election.

The organization explained that its aim was to protect against election fraud. “Unfortunately, Americans have lost faith in the integrity of our nation’s election results and fraud and law-breaking has become all too common in our electoral system,” according to the organization’s mission statement. “We are helping stop corruption where it can start – at the polls.”

But critics say the initiative does nothing but bar eligible voters from the ballot box.

“We’re concerned about this well-organized, well-funded effort to suppress the vote by challenging voters in the run-up to the elections and on Elections Day, and fostering a climate of intimidation,” Stephen Spaulding, a co-author of the study, told the AFRO.

Spaulding, Common Cause’s staff counsel, said volunteers in these campaigns are being taught to use questionable techniques as the basis for their challenges, such as comparing voter data to information found on Facebook.

“We’re concerned that these techniques are being targeted at voters of color, students and the poor specifically, for partisan reasons,” he said.

The expected rise in overly aggressive voter challenge tactics on Election Day is the last step in a protracted campaign by right-wing parties to limit the voting strength of traditionally Democratic voting blocs.

More than 30 states have passed new voter ID laws. Early and weekend voting—which traditionally have been utilized by minority voters—have been abbreviated. Questionable redistricting plans that limit the voting power of minorities have been proffered. Voting rolls have been purged.

“This is definitely continuing the narrative of suppressing the vote,” said Tanya Clay House, public policy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

House also dismissed Republican claims that these vote-stifling policies are meant to protect the integrity of elections.

“The claim that they’re trying to protect against voter fraud has been proven false,” she said. “These efforts are not going to protect the ballot….They’re going to protect a particular candidate’s ability to stay in office.”

And those candidates are furthering their interests by targeting legitimate voters.

“No one wants voter fraud,” Common Cause’s Spaulding said. “The issue is their techniques are just throwing up barriers to eligible Americans, who just want to cast their ballot.”

Officials at Election Protection, a coalition of civil rights groups—including the Lawyers’ Committee—that works to protect voting rights—say they’ve already received hundreds of calls on their hotline from voters whose right to vote has been “thwarted by the new restrictive laws” or who are confused by the changes in election procedures.

And, House said, they expect to receive many more calls on their hotline come Election Day. “We know there are going to be many more challenges so we’re training our lawyers to not only be there (on the ground) to assist voters but to let them know they can call for help,” House said.

In the report, Spaulding said they assessed the laws that dictate poll watching, including those that protect against voter intimidation in 10 states to determine their efficacy.

“The intimidation laws are strong, they just need to be enforced,” he said. And there are additional steps government officials should be taking to protect voters against this looming menace, he added.

“They should be aware of this threat, be prepared to train poll workers in the laws and proper procedures, and take a hard look at whether these rules are still working today or whether they can be exploited to turn a free and fair elections on its head.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO