RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The prospect of a very close presidential election heightens the concern about every single vote. People on both sides are becoming even more sensitive than they were to signs of politicians gaming the system.
MONTAGNE: There have been mysterious phone calls in Florida and Virginia telling voters they can vote by phone, which they can't.
INSKEEP: And until this week, there were anonymous billboards in Ohio and Wisconsin warning that voter fraud is a felony, which it is.
MONTAGNE: Thousands of lawyers and volunteers are mobilizing to monitor the polls for signs of voter intimidation.
INSKEEP: And thousands of others will be looking for signs of fraud.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Take a year of intense, partisan fights over photo ID and other voting laws, and mix it with an extremely tight presidential election, and you have the makings for mass confusion at the polls. Chances are it won't occur but some people aren't waiting to find out.
(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING PHONES)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You can go into early voting and register right on site.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Election Protection, good morning
FESSLER: A coalition of civil rights, labor and other progressive groups called Election Protection has been manning a voter hotline in Washington since July. Tens of thousands of people have already called in with their problems and questions.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: All right, the final authority would be to call the voting registrar.
FESSLER: Most questions so far have dealt with registration and early voting. But Eric Marshall, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the project leader, says they're also on the lookout for signs of voter intimidation.
ERIC MARSHALL: We're getting into the silly season of elections, when you see these things that you, kind of, hear and like, that can't be true, that can't happen. Every year we get reports of fliers in neighborhoods saying that voters from one party vote on Wednesday, while others vote on Tuesday.
FESSLER: Or calls telling people that they can vote by phone. Florida officials are warning voters about such calls and also about bogus letters questioning their citizenship and eligibility to vote. The letters began showing up last week and appear to be signed by local election supervisors, which they're not.
Marshall says the best defense for voters is to know their rights. But that's more difficult than usual this year with new election laws around the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: In the next couple of days, you should receive a mailing from your union about your right to vote in Pennsylvania...
FESSLER: Which is why yesterday, the AFL-CIO began calling a hundred thousand union households, to clarify Pennsylvania's new voter ID law.
(SOUNDBITE OF AFL-CIO PHONE CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: If you don't have a photo ID you may still cast a regular ballot, not a provisional ballot.
FESSLER: The union is worried that voters will be confused after months of litigation and won't show up to vote. They're also worried that voters will be intimidated by citizen-led groups that are training poll watchers around the country to look out for voter fraud.
CATHY KELLEHER: Our goal is not to stop people from voting.
FESSLER: Cathy Kelleher is with Election Integrity Maryland, one of dozens of such grassroots organizations.
KELLEHER: Our goal is to make sure that everybody who's eligible to vote has a free and clear path to vote.
FESSLER: She says she's concerned about all the dead people and apparent errors on voter registration rolls, but says her group won't be challenging individual voters on Election Day.
KELLEHER: What we will be doing will be observing how the voting is handled within the polls and making notations of anything that seems to be irregular.
FESSLER: Still, her group is affiliated with True the Vote, a Houston-based Tea Party offshoot that has progressive voting rights groups nervous. Founder Catherine Engelbrecht vowed, earlier this year, to recruit and train a million volunteers to watch the polls. But it appears the group has fallen far short of that goal. For example, Election Integrity Maryland has about 200 recruits. Nevada Clean Up the Vote has 700.
Engelbrecht calls complaints that they'll be intimidating voters outrageous.
CATHERINE ENGELBRECHT: Poll watchers don't engage the voters. They don't talk to voters. They stand quietly and watch the process.
FESSLER: Maybe so, says Eric Marshall of Election Protection. But just in case, his group will have 10,000 lawyers and other volunteers ready to help voters with any problems they encounter on Election Day.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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