ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Dozens of citizens groups are preparing for the general election after the big party conventions this summer. These groups say that they are scouring voter registration lists and training people to monitor the polls. Leaders of this new effort spawned by the Tea Party movement say they want to make sure that elections are free from fraud. Critics say it's all part of a campaign to suppress the votes of minorities, students and others who tend to vote for Democrats.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Cathy Kelleher and Cathy Trauernicht call themselves concerned citizens, and they're clearly committed.
CATHY KELLEHER: All right. So the name comes up, this person. There's his voter registration number. We know it's a male.
FESSLER: Kelleher uses Trauernict's home computer to show me how they and dozens of volunteers have been meticulously combing through the registration rolls in Montgomery County, Maryland.
KELLEHER: I'm going to show you how we do this.
FESSLER: They match each publicly available voter record against databases, like property tax information, for signs of irregularities. Kelleher can see that the address where this man is registered is a nursing home. She also sees that he was born in 1931. That's a red flag.
KELLEHER: It's 50-50 that he'd still be living.
FESSLER: So she goes to a website called tributes.com and finds an obituary from last April for a man with the same name, address and birth date.
KELLEHER: So here he is. I've marked that and I put that we're challenging it as an individual.
FESSLER: Kelleher says out of 7,000 records reviewed by her group, called Election Integrity Maryland, they've reported 5,400 problems to election officials. Those officials say the number is way overblown and that most of the inconsistencies can be explained. Still, it's no secret that the nation's voter registration lists are a mess. A recent report by the Pew Center on the States found almost 2 million dead people on the rolls.
Trauernicht says it's hard to trust the system.
CATHY TRAUERNICHT: Anyone I would talk to here in Maryland would say, oh, we don't have voter fraud here. And I was thinking, well, who's to say we don't have voter fraud if nobody's really looked into it.
KELLEHER: Hopefully, we'll get done with all of this in about two hours.
FESSLER: Election Integrity Maryland is also training people to be poll watchers, the eyes and ears of citizens at the polls. On a recent Saturday, Kelleher, a realtor by profession, explained the do's and don'ts to a half-dozen trainees.
KELLEHER: You have a very narrow window to identify that somebody should not be allowed to vote, get the attention of the chief judge and take care of it.
FESSLER: These efforts are not taking place in isolation. They're part of a campaign involving groups in at least 30 states. They're fueled in part by a belief that voter fraud is rampant, even though there's little evidence to back that up. Volunteer Reagan George recently formed the Virginia Voters Alliance to monitor voting in his state.
REAGAN GEORGE: As I look at it, my bank has never been robbed, but I certainly expect my bank to have procedures and items in place that make it either hard to rob or make it easy to identify the people that robbed it.
FESSLER: If he, Kelleher and Trauernicht are the foot soldiers in this campaign, Catherine Engelbrecht is the general. She heads True the Vote, started by a Tea Party group in Houston. True the Vote trains the state activists and gives them the software and databases to check the registration rolls. Engelbrecht optimistically predicts a million volunteers by Election Day.
CATHERINE ENGELBRECHT: And our goal is not to have True the Vote cottage industries all over the nation, but rather to just help support and stand alongside fellow citizens in other states and encourage a national call for election integrity on all sides of the aisle.
FESSLER: But critics say these efforts are far from nonpartisan. They note that True the Vote is aligned with conservatives and Republicans who are behind a wave of new voter ID laws, which opponents say will block legitimate voters. Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project. She says her voter advocacy group and others are closely watching what she calls the voter suppression posse.
JUDITH BROWNE DIANIS: The concern is that this organization that says that they're about the integrity of elections is actually about undermining democracy.
RICK HASEN: One person's election integrity is another person's voter suppression.
FESSLER: Rick Hasen says there's hyperbole on both sides of this debate. He's an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, and author of a forthcoming book called "The Voting Wars." Hasen doubts that millions of voters will be intimidated, as some have claimed, but he also says voter fraud is almost nonexistent. He's worried about the impact of all the charges and countercharges.
HASEN: This causes people to lose confidence in the process and to fight further, and that leads to a further undermining of confidence in the process, where people tend to believe that elections are not being decided fairly under the rules that are established beforehand. And it just creates a lack of legitimacy.
FESSLER: Instead of real efforts to reform the system, he says, like giving election officials enough money so they can clean up the voter rolls. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.