RALEIGH — Republican poll observers who say they're trying to root out fraud have aggressively approached voters and elections officials inside early voting sites, questioned established voting law and drawn at least two dozen complaints from voters, Wake elections officials said.
Election officials and campaign watchdog groups said the observers' actions could intimidate voters and suppress turnout. State Board of Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett said he had been informed about the problems in Wake. It is against the law for observers to talk to voters and argue with poll workers.
"They are there to observe, make notes," Bartlett said. "They're not supposed to impede the process at all."
Improper behavior can get an observer removed from a polling place for the election, Bartlett said.
The poll workers, whose names were forwarded to the elections board by the county GOP, have told elections officials they are working for U.S. House District 13 candidate Bill Randall, a Republican who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat. But Randall said he had not heard about polling place problems and hadn't told poll observers to challenge voters and officials.
"I don't even communicate with the poll observers," he said. "I'm not aware of anyone doing that. I would not condone such action."
Wake County Board of Elections officials say they've had to deal with multiple complaints from voters and polling place staff about observers who hover near as voters go through the process, taking down names and addresses. The general activity is allowed under state law, but observers cannot, for instance, challenge someone's right to vote without identification, a practice that is legal but has caused controversy.
GOP says it's Randall
A Wake County Republican Party official and county elections staff identify the workers who have drawn complaints as affiliated with Randall. Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, disavowed any tactics that intimidated voters or violated state law.
Elaine Cobb, who was identified by other Republican observers as the coordinator for the Randall poll watchers, referred questions to the county Republican Party.
"The problems that have been occurring have been with the Bill Randall observers," said Jan Wilson, second vice chair of the Wake County Republican Party. "We didn't have any [other] poll observers for the early voting sites."
Only a few Democratic poll watchers have started observing the early vote for the Nov. 2 general election, party officials said. The role is something of a holdover from the days before computers.
The political parties receive a daily computer download of names of early-voting participants. The parties use the lists to keep up on who has voted and who might need prodding.
"As we tell people, if you vote early, we stop calling," Wilson said.
The lists are also available to the public from the State Board of Elections, so poll observers really aren't necessary at one-stop sites, if all the monitors want to know is who is voting.
The real purpose of aggressive observers is voter intimidation, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a left-leaning campaign watchdog group.
"It's a way to intimidate people - to make people feel like they're being shadowed as though there is something going wrong around them," Hall said. "It's very diabolical and un-American, and they should be ashamed."
A distraction for officials
Election supervisors have spent a lot of time dealing with poll watchers when they should have been focused on getting people through the voting process, said Gary Sims, deputy director of the Wake elections board.
"Instead, they've had to spend a lot of time explaining the law," Sims said. "We stop it when it happens; it's just a lot of effort for our supervisors."
The local parties submit lists of observers to the county boards for approval. Claude Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County GOP, said many people volunteered for jobs this election season, and he doesn't know all of them or which candidates they back.
"A lot of volunteers work for multiple campaigns," Pope said. "We never know where folks come from."
The observers focused on uncovering fraud are citing the same goals as other organizations locally and nationally.
Don Rosenberg, a registered Republican in Charlotte who said he doesn't like either major party, has sent media organizations a cautionary e-mail message about voter fraud, recommending that citizens check their own records for inaccuracies.
"I'm very concerned about all the fraud because of all this early voting," said Rosenberg, whose missive was posted on the teaparty.org site Tuesday. "Dead people continue to vote."
The erring training video
A training video for poll observers prepared by a Republican Pamlico County elections board member created a controversy that the State Board of Elections staff stepped in to help correct.
Errors the state staff found in the video led the N.C. State GOP County Chairman's Association to agree not to use it, according to a memo from Bartlett. As replacements, the elections staff gave the chairman's association Republican Party observer training materials prepared this year and in 2008.
State GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer sent association members a letter asking them to stop using the Pamlico video. A spokesman for the state party said the GOP could not know how many people used it for training because the party did not sponsor or produce it.
Johnnie McLean, state elections deputy director, said people on hyper-alert for voter fraud seem concerned with 'voter assistance' practices, when voters says they cannot fill out a ballot on their own and need help.
"We have always indicated, if there is any question, you err on the side of the voter," she said. "We don't want to be placed in the position of appearing we are trying to disenfranchise any qualified voter."
Nationally, the Fox News television network solicited instances of voter fraud from viewers for a recent "special update." David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, told the conservative news site Newsmax on Monday that voter fraud is an epidemic.
"It's laughable that the left calls voter fraud nonexistent," said Norcross, a Washington, D.C., attorney. "It's very much existent."
And conservative media figure Michelle Malkin headlined a Web column Monday: "Voter fraud watch: They're at it again." The column alleged vote fraud by left-leaning groups and unions in states including Arizona, Washington, Florida and Texas, with praise for the Houston poll-monitoring group True the Vote. That group responded to criticisms of its actions with a statement that read in part:
"True the Vote has never, and will never, condone or promote voter intimidation at a polling place," the statement said.
"Any alleged actions that may have occurred of that nature were purely individual actions, and not in any way representative of, or connected to, True the Vote."
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