PHOENIX — Democrats and voting rights advocates say they have lawyers and volunteers ready to respond to poll watchers mobilized by Verify the Vote, an Arizona offshoot of a tea party-backed group dedicated to preventing voter fraud.
“We are concerned about voter intimidation,” said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network Foundation.
Wercinski said his group will have 300 trained poll watchers around the state to ensure that people can cast votes without interference. He said his group also has a team of pro-bono lawyers on hand.
While groups watching for fraud and those watching them are expected in states that are key to the presidential election, both sides are going to be active in Arizona because of potentially close races for U.S. Senate and two U.S. House seats.
“We know the areas in which they’re targeting,” said state Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. “They’re not trying to verify the vote in Scottsdale or Paradise Valley. They’re trying to verify the votes in south Phoenix and west Phoenix where you have a high concentration of Latinos.”
Jennifer Wright, one of Verify the Vote’s founders, said allegations that the group is out to intimidate or harass of voters are false.
“Verify the Vote is absolutely, positively against any sort of voter intimidation, vote suppression or anything that will get in the way of somebody’s right to vote,” Wright said.
What’s playing out in Arizona is a microcosm of what’s happening nationally. Thousands of lawyers from both major presidential campaigns and advocacy groups are mobilizing, primarily in swing states, to watch each other at the polls, with both sides accusing the other of trying to manipulate the election.
Doug Chapin, a University of Minnesota professor and elections expert, said while poll watchers and partisan lawyers are nothing new, the ramp-up from both sides ahead of this year’s election could be unprecedented.
“If all these people show, this will be on a much bigger scale than we’ve ever seen,” Chapin said.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Friday that it will deploy more than 780 federal observers across jurisdictions in 23 states, including Maricopa and Pima counties in Arizona.
The department regularly sends out monitors to ensure that states comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bars election procedures that have racist or discriminatory effects.
Chapin said the potential for problems with poll watchers from any group comes down to how they go about their business.
“In the current partisan environment any flame-up could make things really difficult at the polling place,” Chapin said. “The danger is not so much people won’t follow the rules, it’s that they’ll be so aggressive at the polls that it will cause problems in the polling place.”
Under Arizona law, poll watchers must be appointed by the chair of one of the political parties in the counties where they’ll serve. A poll watcher can only interact with the highest-ranking official at a polling place and never talk to voters.
“As a poll observer I cannot influence anyone at the polls,” said Mark Del Maestro, who is hosting a Verify the Vote training session Saturday in Phoenix. “I’m not there to enforce their vote. I’m there to make sure that only who are eligible to vote are voting.”
Wright said Verify the Vote has no control over where poll watchers end up.
“We do not have any on-the-ground efforts beyond providing the training and then releasing them to the party chairmen,” Wright said.
Much of the concern about Verify the Vote expressed by advocates and Democrats is based on the group’s association with True the Vote, a Houston-based, tea party-backed group that announced plans to train 1 million poll watchers to guard against voter fraud.
Critics argue that True the Vote, which bills itself as nonpartisan, is little more than a front group for conservative causes, most notably the national voter-ID movement and efforts to purge voter rolls in places like Florida.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., launched an investigation into the group in early October, demanding documents that detail how it trains poll watchers and examines voter rolls. True the Vote responded earlier this week by demanding that Cummings retract what it called “false statements.”
True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht has repeatedly denied that her poll watchers harass or intimidate voters.
In Arizona, Verify the Vote’s training consists of showing volunteers an instructional video about what poll watchers are allowed to do. Volunteers then must answer 20 out of 25 questions correct on a test, Wright said. Those who pass are given certificates they can present to their county parties in order to be assigned as poll watchers.
“The poll watcher training is very specific,” said Diana Arendt, chairwoman of the Coconino County Republican Party.
Arendt said she is hosting 18 people Saturday for a Verify the Vote training session at the county’s Republican headquarters.
“We do it to make sure we have an honest and fair election and make sure we see what goes on,” she said. “We want to make sure the appropriate people vote.”
Comments like those concern Ann Wallack, chairwoman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party.
“They have publicized their concerns, so that makes people upset,” Wallack said. “And I don’t want to see any kind of heated arguments or unwanted conversation at the polling place, inside or out.”
Joaquin Rios, research director and elections protection director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said he’s worried that overzealous poll watchers and a large number of first-time voters will be a bad mix.
“The combination of confusion and dissuasion, the ultimate net effect will be to depress the vote in the precincts they choose to show up in,” he said.
Rios said the state Democratic Party would have lawyers at polling places, though he wasn’t certain as of Thursday how many there would be.
It also wasn’t clear where poll watchers trained by Verify the Vote will be Tuesday or how many there will be.
Wright said earlier this month that she wasn’t sure how many people Verify the Vote would end up training, but county Republican parties across the state have said they are coordinating with the group to provide poll watcher training.
Verify the Vote has been coordinating with the Maricopa County Republican Party, according to Diana Duran, the GOP’s West Valley manager.
“They’re all over town,” Duran said of the Verify the Vote training sessions.
Yvonne Reed, spokeswoman for Maricopa County Elections Department, said Verify the Vote co-founder Brad Zinn toured the county’s operations center and spent several hours meeting with Elections Director Karen Osborne several months ago. There hasn’t been any contact since, she said.
Johnathan Roes, elections director in Navajo County, said someone from Verify the Vote contacted him recently asking about placing poll watchers with letters signed by the county’s Republican chairman.
That’s the legal process under state law, but in Navajo County there’s a deadline of a week prior to election day to notify county election officials of who will be there, Roes said. The deadline offers election officials a chance to make sure poll watchers are familiar with county regulations.
“They didn’t make the deadline,” Roes said. “They’re not going to be allowed in our polling places.”