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Voter fraud fears become the latest partisan issue

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 10:11 PM

On Election Day, voters standing in line to cast their ballots in Harris County, Tex., will be treated to a cool drink courtesy of a group called "the lemonade brigade." But the group has another motive: curbing voter fraud.

It is one of several Republican and tea-party-affiliated groups across the country that are taking their citizen activism to the polls this year to stop what they think will be rampant abuse of the nation's error-prone election system. In Minnesota, for example,conservative groups are running radio ads and offering $500 rewards to those who turn in anyone successfully prosecuted for voter fraud.

In Wisconsin, someone recently erected billboards depicting people behind bars because they illegally voted. And in Illinois, Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kirk (R) has come under fire for being caught on tapesaying he wanted to dispatch "voter integrity" teams to "vulnerable" districts, which critics have noted include some heavily black neighborhoods.

But the conservative alarms have drawn the attention of liberal and voting rights groups, who say the concerns are overblown and the surveillance borders on intimidation. Black and Latino advocacy groups plan to step up their own presence at the polls to make sure legitimate voters won't be deterred from casting ballots.

The Justice Department will have monitors at the polls in 18 states this year. Although it is customary for the agency to keep an eye out for intimidation and fraud across the country on Election Day, it is targeting some of the areas where the issue has already bubbled up, including Harris County, which surrounds Houston; Arizona's Maricopa County, which surrounds Phoenix; and Philadelphia.

The partisanship surrounding the issue caps an election season that has gnawed at racial divides and exposed raw emotions on the part of American voters, who will cast ballots Tuesday in a series of close congressional and gubernatorial races. Fears and accusations of election misconduct are nothing new, and stringent laws have been on the books for decades that restrict how close observers can get to voters, or how many of them can be there at all.

But the conservatives' warning that they will be watching, combined with a year of increasingly rancorous public debate, has some election experts on guard for increased hostilities Tuesday.

The "lemonade brigade" has hired security because, said its organizer, people have been yelling at their poll watchers and threatening their lives during early voting in Texas.

"These are elections. They are highly emotional and, of course, politically charged," said Wendy R. Weiser, deputy director of the democracy program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "There is a concern that having a lot of untrained citizens acting in a policing capacity or trying to ferret out voter fraud might unintentionally lead to voter intimidation and interfere with the voting process."

Conservatives have been especially wary since the 2008 presidential election, when the community organizing group ACORN announced it had registered 1.3 million voters, only to have one-third of those tossed out for various reasons, including fraudulent submissions.

Arrests for voter fraud are few, however, and convictions are even rarer.

Although the Bush administration began a stepped-up program in 2002 to crack down on people who cast ballots fraudulently, fewer than 100 people were convicted in the first 4 1/2 years of the program. And according to an analysis by Weiser's center, most cases of alleged fraud in recent years have turned out to be mistakes in the voter rolls that do not result in actual faulty votes cast.

A more real threat, Weiser said, are the efforts to discourage minorities and others from showing up at the polls. In 2008, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund successfully challenged a Republican group in Indiana that sought to use foreclosure records to assist in purging voter roles. A federal judge in New Jersey, in ruling on a case involving the major political parties, last year wrote that "voter intimidation presents an ongoing threat to the participation of minority individuals in the political process." And in a case that galvanized conservatives, a member of a fringe group of black nationalists was filmed slapping a nightstick outside a Philadelphia polling place.

But groups concerned about widespread voter fraud, including the one behind the "lemonade brigades" in Houston, argue that even a handful of errant votes can swing a close election. And they say the voter rolls are plagued with mistakes that leave the door open to fraud. Through a massive volunteer effort that involved poring over voter databases and even visiting suspicious addresses, group leaders say they found thousands of errors that shook their faith in the electoral system.

They presented their evidence to Harris County election officials.

"We started out like so many Americans across the nation by asking the question, what can we do Where do we insert ourselves into the process to make a difference?"said Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the King Street Patriots and its True the Vote project. Though the group is affiliated with the tea party and has the blessing of the local Republican establishment, it is nonpartisan, she said.

She described the group as a collection of average citizens who were seeking a way to participate constructively in the democratic process. Their actions have so rattled the political establishment that they are the subject of two lawsuits, from the Democratic Party of Texas and from a nonprofit group that registers Hispanic voters.

Democrats nationally have sought to use the controversies to their advantage. In an e-mail to backers this week, Democratic strategist Paul Begala asked for contributions to fight back against such efforts as the one in Illinois, which Republicans have said is not racially motivated.

Minority advocacy groups say they will be keeping a close eye on the proceedings, especially in Arizona, where a federal appeals court judge on Tuesday overturned a state law requiring voters to produce identification when registering to vote. Though the change will not take effect until the next election, advocacy groups are bracing for a backlash from local tea party groups, and plan to step up their presence at polling places to protect voters who may be targeted.

"We anticipate that there will be a tea party presence. I check on their Web site every day," said Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, whose group registered more than 23,000 new Hispanic voters this year.

If the court-ordered change had taken effect earlier, she estimated that she could have registered more than double that number. She doubted many illegal immigrants would try to vote, partly because it is a felony that carries with it the risk of being barred from ever qualifying for citizenship.

"There are so many people who have this firm conviction that people are risking their lives, crossing the desert, so they can help us decide who our secretary of state should be," she added. "If that were true, there would be a ton of evidence of it. There is not."

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