'Don’t Be Scurred': Avoiding Problems At The Polls On Election Day
Election protection volunteers mobilize to ensure voters get to exercise their rights
Let’s be honest – warnings about scary Tea Party watchdogs cornering black and Latino voters in battleground states and challenging their right to cast ballots at the polls are probably a bit overexaggerated.
But that doesn’t mean that anyone should let his or her guard down. Attorneys with civil rights organizations and voter protection groups have fanned out to swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin to put weary voters at ease.
In a year when the Obama administration and groups in the legal community have had to put intense pressure on states where Republican-controlled legislatures passed voter ID laws and used other suppression tactics found to disproportionately affect minority voters, people have a right to be on alert, says Jennifer Farmer, deputy communications director for the Advancement Project.
“People are not on their own,” Farmer said in a phone interview from Columbus, Ohio, where she is stationed to assist with the project’s voter protection efforts. “We should not let the threat of Election Day bullies deter us from voting.”
The Advancement Project, along with liberal groups like the NAACP and the National Urban League, has stepped up to provide support to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law hotline, which was created to assist people who feel they are being intimidated or their vote is being unlawfully challenged before or on Election Day. The group has already made tens of thousands of calls to correct bad information, the Associated Press reported. (The number for the hotline is 1-866-OUR-VOTE.)
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“There are some people that are trying to challenge votes in predominantly black and Latino areas,” Farmer said. “But I don’t want to perpetuate the notion that as soon as you walk up to the polls there is going to be a challenge.”
It’s important, she added, to know your individual state’s laws on voter challenges. While there are 39 states that allow private citizens to challenge voter eligibility, and 24 states that allow these on-the-spot challenges without any proof, the process doesn’t often favor the challenger. In some cases, a challenger from outside of your voting precinct isn’t allowed to challenge you at all. And there are states that do not allow any challenges on Election Day. (For information of state-by-state laws, click here.)
That’s exactly what voting rights activists are concerned about this year. True The Vote, a national conservative “voting integrity” group, pledged to dispatch 1 million volunteers at polling stations in 31 states to monitor the election. In Ohio, a longtime African American voter told ABC’s "Nightline" that she’d received a letter from a True The Vote affiliated group notifying her that her vote was being challenged because it believed the address on her registration was a vacant lot. Elections officials deemed the challenge invalid, but the voter saw herself as a target because she lives in a predominantly minority neighborhood.
True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht told "Nightline" she was outraged that people have conflated her legally allowed, grassroots voter integrity initiative with attempts to discriminate against Democratic and minority voters.
"It has been a continued shock and disappointment, frankly, to hear these allegations that continue to be leveled at us. It's unfortunate that there are those that have tried to take this and twist it into something that it's not," Engelbrecht told "Nightline."
Loop 21 did not receive a response to multiple requests Monday for clarification of True the Vote’s policies and volunteer training methods. The U.S. Justice Department also will have 780 observers at critical polling places in 23 states and will look into allegations of voter fraud.
Engelbrecht’s associates in Ohio aren’t the only source of confusion and panic at polling stations around the country.
Members of the NAACP, apparently acting as poll watchers, were accused by True the Vote activists in Houston of “taking over” a polling place where people were voting early and were advocating for Barack Obama, the right-wing blog Breitbart.com reported Saturday.
Houston NAACP chapter President Rev. Reginald Liley told local TV news station KHOU his group did not believe they were breaking any rules. It’s against the law in Texas and many other states for unofficial poll watchers to be within a certain distance of polling stations. It was not clear if the incident had been reported to elections officials. A True the Vote activist told Breitbart.com that she had.
Confusion about voting and ballot completion was spreading in other ways. Voters across the country have reported receiving text messages, emails and Facebook wall posts warning them about voting technology.
“PLEASE PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION TO THIS,” the message beings. “In the event that you are planning to vote democrat on Nov. 6, when you go into the voting booths, DO NOT SELECT THE BUTTON ‘all democrats’ first, because Barack Obama will be excluded from the vote.”
The South Carolina branch of the NAACP debunked the message, and urged those who had received or forwarded the information to pass the word that it is a hoax. Most states do not even allow "straight-ticket voting" as an option to vote for all candidates in the same party all at once, but in the few states that do, NAACP officials expressed concern that confused voters might end up casting ballots twice -- and invalidating their vote entirely.
In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where activists failed to get the state to extend early voting, a chaotic scene developed Sunday after election offices closed, opened and then closed again to voters turning in last-minute absentee ballots. The problems were reportedly resolved on Monday, when people returned to submit more absentee ballots.
Farmer said the early reports of confusion are precisely why she and others urge voters to come to the polls armed with basic information about their state’s laws.
“People should go to their county board of election website,” Farmer advised. “That prevents any confusion or any misinformation. They are getting the information directly from the source.”
Farmer also suggested voters visit the Advancement Project's voter protection website, which features an interactive map for state-by-state guidelines, at www.apvote.org.