This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look at deception, caging and intimidation techniques that threaten to disenfranchise voters as reported in a new study of 10 swing states. But first, we have a very strange example from the city Fresh Air is based in, Philadelphia.

My guest, Zack Stalberg, is the president of the city's election watchdog group, The Committee of Seventy. He's former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He's brought with him a flyer that urges some voters not to vote, for their own protection. Zack Stalberg, welcome to Fresh Air. Tell us about this flyer that you've been keeping track of.

Mr. ZACK STALBERG (President, Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia; Former Editor, Philadelphia Daily News): An anonymous flyer started to show up in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia and around some colleges, really aimed at keeping people from coming to the polls on Election Days, with bad information.

GROSS: And what's the gist of it?

Mr. STALBERG: The gist of it is that if you have outstanding warrants, if you had once been a felon, if you have outstanding traffic tickets, that you could be - this is a trap. Voting is a trap.

GROSS: And it's written as if it were an anonymous letter. Would you read the opening paragraph for us?

Mr. STALBERG: Sure. Recently at school, an Obama supporter approached me during a Rock the Vote assembly. He informed me that on the day of the election, there will be undercover officers to execute warrants on those who come to vote, based on the anticipated turnout.

He advised me that if I had any outstanding warrants or traffic offenses, I should clear them up prior to voting. They assume this to be an opportunity for those who normally go by fake names and addresses, to give their real names and ID's, allowing them to place name and face together and voila, got you. Arrested on the spot. So, if you have one or the other, take care of it.

GROSS: And one of the amazing things about this flyer is that in another paragraph, this anonymous writer makes it seem as if it's coming from Obama.

Mr. STALBERG: Yes. Well, it's very cleverly done. I should say that I have had Republicans suggest that this was written by Democrats in a way to cast a bad light on Republicans. So, we shouldn't automatically assume that it came from the Republican side. But it is as these kinds of things go, this is very cleverly done.

GROSS: How have you been tracking where this flyer has been disseminated, how it's been posted?

Mr. STALBERG: This flyer has mostly appeared on telephone polls and the like, in around college campuses and low-income neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, in places where people might have had outstanding traffic tickets, or some sort of a criminal record that was disposed of, but this might scare them away from the polls.

GROSS: What are your fears about how this flyer is going to actually affect the vote?

Mr. STALBERG: In this case, I would say that it's - there's plenty of time to discourage it. It's the stuff that comes out a day, or two, or three days before the election. It really has the opportunity to scare people away.

Another fact here is that these young voters and new voters have the tendency to register, feel they have done their work, and not necessarily show up to vote on Election Day. So, this is one more thing that helps keep them away.

GROSS: Do you have any evidence that people believe this? Have you heard on the streets, any place, somebody saying to you, did you know that you'd get arrested if you - if there was a warrant out for you, and you went to a voting place?

Mr. STALBERG: Yes, at community meetings, on college campuses. I've talked to a lot of people who believe information like this, and who don't want to get nailed. It can be as simple as outstanding traffic tickets. But if you owe a fair amount of money, and you don't have it, and your commitment to voting isn't that deep in the first place, then it can certainly have an effect.

GROSS: So you think there's more to come of flyers like these, disseminating false information to discourage people from voting?

Mr. STALBERG: There's no question in my mind. It's the biggest election in anybody's memory. A lot of it will hang on the new voters, and the - those who haven't voted before. And I think it'll come from both sides frankly. Voter suppression has become a science in this country, and it's an ugly, mean science, but it's part of the election process.

GROSS: Zack Stalberg, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. STALBERG: Thank you.

GROSS: Zach Stalberg is the president of the Philadelphia election watchdog group, The Committee of Seventy.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from