News Column

Who Watches the Poll Watchers?

Nov. 6, 2012

Julian Walker

young voter

When you go to the polls Tuesday, it's a safe bet that people who have the ability to challenge your fitness to vote will be watching you.

Those observers, known as poll watchers, include political party designees authorized to be at a polling location to watch as voters check in.

Training to be a political poll monitor is often conducted by outside groups, and Friday a coalition of voter advocates lodged a formal complaint about the guidance one group has offered.

That group, Texas-based True the Vote, has a Virginia-specific training manual that critics say is filled with misleading information about state election law.

In a written complaint to the State Board of Elections, Virginia's attorney general and the U.S. attorneys assigned to the state, they highlight several passages in the 44-page booklet they say contains "numerous and serious errors" about voting procedures.

Those complaining include the left-leaning ProgressVA and Virginia New Majority, as well as Virginia Common Cause, the Advancement Project and the Fair Elections Legal Network.

One they pinpoint is a section on when polls close - they're open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day - advising that people who vote after polls close should cast a provisional ballot that's kept separate from other votes. The manual also notes that Virginia law allows anyone in line by the time polls close to vote.

That's a conflicting message that could cause problems at the polls, according to some who signed the letter.

Another complaint is that the wording in the manual on voter identification laws is imprecise, given changes Virginia made to its law this year.

"Our concern with the guide is if it's not made explicitly clear what the law is in Virginia, it could hold up lines on Election Day and lead to voter confusion" and disruption, said Courtney Mills, a staff attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network.

Mills and other letter signatories are requesting that state election officials remind poll workers that observers who don't follow state law can be ejected from polling places.

They also want political parties to remind their monitors that they must obey the law, and ask that True the Vote be told to immediately get corrected training materials to observers it trained.

In a statement, True the Vote president Catherine Engelbrecht called the complaint a "last ditch" effort to keep citizens from exercising their rights as election observers.

She dismissed the complaints as trifles over graphic design and layout, saying those with concerns about the training materials would do better to communicate directly with True the Vote.

The group bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, but critics say it is a Tea Party offshoot. It's the subject of a pending ethics complaint filed by Texans for Public Justice, which some critics say is a left-wing organization. The group asserts that True the Vote improperly made political contributions to Republican causes and candidates.

Now, said TPJ research director Andrew Wheat, the group has branched out beyond the Lone Star State.

"I suspect a lot of their activities are concentrated in swing states," he said.

Under Virginia law, a voter can be challenged on the basis of age, citizenship, residency issues and eligibility.

The challenger must sign an official statement, and the challenged person may also sign a form asserting that he or she is eligible to vote.

Monitors do not directly stop election fraud; they record what they see.

Source: (C) 2012 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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