There are always concerns about voter fraud on Election Day, but this year many new groups are popping up to keep an eye on the polls. That, in turn, has some people worried that legitimate voters will be intimidated and discouraged from voting.
Along with all the other campaign ads they will hear this week, voters in Minnesota's Twin Cities are being treated to a provocative radio ad.
The ad warns that the group is training thousands of citizens to set up surveillance teams outside polling places to look for voter fraud. It's even offering a $500 reward for information leading to convictions.
"We're just the people concerned about the integrity in our election process," says Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, a conservative watchdog group that alleges that past elections in the state have been marred by fraudulent votes. "We go to vote. We want to know that our vote counts, fairly, and that someone else's ineligible vote isn't diluting it."
His group has teamed up with several others, including the North Star Tea Party Patriots, to launch the poll-watching campaign. And it's not the only effort of its kind this year. Dozens of billboards have gone up in the Milwaukee area showing people behind bars and warning that voter fraud is a felony.
Meanwhile in Houston, a group called the King Street Patriots has launched a ballot-integrity campaign called True the Vote, which has already led to allegations of intimidation during early voting.
"We are seeing trainings cropping up in states across the country of ordinary citizens to challenge voters, to serve as poll watchers," says Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which is monitoring the efforts. "We're seeing calls for people to mobilize and go to the polls and look out for voter fraud, and we're seeing it to a degree that we haven't seen in years."
Weiser says the campaigns appear to be based on fears that most election experts think are overblown — that, in fact, there are few cases of illegitimate voters who cast ballots. Still, the issue has become a political flash point, especially in tight elections.
Weiser says she's concerned that many of this year's efforts are led by ad hoc citizens groups that might be unfamiliar with laws intended to protect legitimate voters.
"It makes it harder to monitor and to rein in ballot security operations that go awry," she says.
That's exactly what Democrats say they are trying to do in Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located. They have filed suit against the King Street Patriots, alleging that theirs is really a Republican-backed effort to suppress the Democratic vote.
Chad Dunn, general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, says the most aggressive poll watching in early voting has been at African-American and Latino precincts, which lean Democratic.
"These poll watchers would follow a voter after they were checked in, hover behind them, try to look over their shoulder as they're voting," Dunn says. "Sometimes misinformation was being provided to voters in terms of how they could vote or where they could vote."
The county attorney's office and the U.S. Justice Department are now investigating, though no charges have been filed. Still, tensions are high, and the county attorney is recommending that election officials put tape on the floor to separate poll watchers and voters.
Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Institute, a legal group defending the King Street Patriots, says if there's any intimidating going on, it's against those who are trying to keep elections honest.
"These are citizens who just wanted to get involved, and things like poll watching and turning in information on voter registration rolls should be fairly unremarkable," Shackelford says. "I think the thing that is remarkable is that they're coming under attack because some people don't like that they're actually getting involved."
He says he thinks Democrats have an ulterior motive — that they are using the threat of intimidation to rile up the base and boost turnout.
Shackelford says True the Vote has no intention of violating the law. Weiser, of the Brennan Center, says her group and others will be watching the poll watchers closely just to be sure.