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Now, as election time nears, we can expect more talk about voter fraud. Many new groups are monitoring the polls this year looking for fraud, although some of their critics wonder if they're going to intimidate or discourage legitimate voters.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Along with all the other campaign ads we'll hear this week, voters in Minnesota's Twin Cities are being treated to this provocative radio ad.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: Vinnie here with an important message for any of you's thinking about cheating in this November's election. Forget about it. You see, there's this new group called ElectionIntegrityWatch.com...
FESSLER: And, the ad goes on to warn, the group's been 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.
Mr. DAN McGRATH (Executive Director, Minnesota Majority): We're just concerned about the integrity in our election process.
FESSLER: Dan McGrath is executive director of Minnesota Majority, a conservative watchdog group that alleges that past elections in the state have been marred by fraudulent votes.
Mr. McGRATH: We want to know that our vote counts, fairly, and that someone else's ineligible vote isn't diluting it.
FESSLER: So 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.
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.
Ms. WENDY WEISER (New York University Law School): We are seeing trainings cropping up in states across the country of ordinary citizens to challenge voters, to serve as poll watchers.
FESSLER: Wendy Weiser is with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, which is monitoring the efforts.
Ms. WEISER: We're seeing calls for people to 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.
FESSLER: And she 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 flashpoint, especially when elections are tight. And 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.
Ms. WEISER: Then it makes it harder to monitor and to reign in ballot security operations that go awry.
FESSLER: And that's exactly what Democrats say they are trying to do in Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located. They filed a 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.
Mr. CHAD DUNN (General Counsel, Texas Democratic Party): 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. Sometimes misinformation was being provided to voters in terms of how they could vote or where they could vote.
FESSLER: And now the county attorney's office and the U.S. Justice Department are investigating, although 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 is president of the Liberty Institute, a legal group defending the King Street Patriots. He says if there's any intimidating going on, it's against those who are trying to keep elections honest.
Mr. KELLY SHACKELFORD (Liberty Institute): 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. 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.
FESSLER: And he thinks Democrats have an ulterior motive - that they're 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. �
Pam Fessler, NPR News.