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Is The Voter Vigilante Group True The Vote Violating Ohio Law to Intimidate Voters at the Polls?

TrueTheVote’s poll worker training effort may violate Ohio law for interfering in an election.
 
 
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A right-wing voter vigilante group, TrueTheVote, may be pushing their anti-democratic agenda into illegal territory in Ohio by interfering with that state’s official poll worker training regimen one week before the 2012 presidential election.

In recent weeks, the Texas-based group, with many local affiliates drawn from Tea Party ranks, has been urging poll workers in key Ohio counties—primarily Republicans—to supplement their official state training with TrueTheVote materials. These Election Day workers are not the observers chosen by political parties who can watch but not interfere with voting; they are the people who are drawn from both parties and employed by the state to run the voting process.

“A few weeks back it was reported that TrueTheVote had talked about doing trainings,” said Brian Rothenberg, ProgressOhio Executive Director. “It appears that some offshoot of the Tea Party is now training elections workers in Hamilton County and we’re starting to hear that it’s happening in other counties, and that requests are being made for lists of poll workers throughout Ohio—to provide extra training.”

It is a crime in Ohio to interfere with conducting an election. Moreover, after the 2004 presidential election the state signed a federal consent decree that, among other things, established uniform poll worker training. Whether TrueTheVote’s interference with the state’s official trainings violates these legal standards has not been tested in court.

But the possibility that the group might be urging poll workers to use different standards other than what’s prescribed by the state is disturbing, said Dan Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

“I don’t know what TrueTheVote has planned for Election Day. It would troubling be if outside groups were giving training to poll workers that conflicts with their legal obligation,” he said. “They are effectively state officials. Anything they do would be considered state action.”

Requests for comment with the Hamilton County Board of Elections and Ohio Secretary of State office were not returned by press time.

The U.S. has a history of partisans interfering—or trying to interfere—with voting at the polls, Tokaji said. Famously, decades before William Rehnquist became U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, he tried to discourage Latinos from voting in Arizona. In 2008 in Ohio, a GOP effort to obtain statewide voter files to screen for what it said was incorrectly registered voters was blocked in court, preventing so-called voter ‘caging.’

This summer, AlterNet secretly attended a TrueTheVote workshop in Colorado, where attendees were encouraged to police polling places. The organizers spoke of the need to take extra steps to verify voter identity, such as comparing a poll book’s signature to a voter’s ID, as well as asking for more proof of identification. That step would exceed legal standards because when a voter signs a poll book to get a ballot, their signature is an oath under penalty of perjury. The organizers also told people to be wary when an infirm voter seeks assistance—saying that could lead to fraudulent voting.

These paranoid examples underscore the group’s concerns that there is widespread illegal voting. As a strategy, TrueTheVote has tried to align itself with election officials and seek some form of deputized role. In Colorado, they offered to help counties with their voter list purges. In Wisconsin during last June’s gubernatorial recall election, they wanted to help verify recall petition signatures. Those two efforts led nowhere. But now in Ohio, they clearly are pushing the legal line with their poll worker training.

Ohio’s GOP Secretary of State John Husted has a volatile relationship with the group. Last winter, they sued Husted’s office for not purging voter rolls. This summer, he was scheduled to speak at their Ohio summit but cancelled. His office has issued directives—orders to 88 county boards of elections—preventing any voter caging in 2012, which angered TrueTheVote. However, when it comes to interfering with training poll workers, ProgressOhio said Husted appears to be “looking the other way.”

“Clearly there are two problems here,” Rothenberg said. “Yes, the [Election Day] rules are the rules. But it is how you emphasize it and who is invited for the extra training and what angle they are trying to put on the training that matters. It sure seems to me that they are probably pushing more of the Republican poll workers to their extra trainings, and trying to use the poll worker training effort for partisan purposes.”

Ohio election officials should draw a firm line and reject the group’s efforts, he said.

“We are going to call on the Hamilton County Board of Elections and the Ohio Secretary of State to ask anybody who has been hired by counties or by the state in a poll position that they not attend extra trainings, and that the folks that have gone to extra trainings be retrained so that there is uniformity in the way that they are told how to administer elections,” he said.

Regardless of how the poll worker training issue plays out, there is another factor that is troublesome to voting rights advocates. TrueTheVote’s focus on illegal voting tends to focus on communities of color where voters are from lower-income brackets, not the wealthier and whiter suburbs where Republicans are more likely to be found.

At their Colorado summit, organizers—including Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler—told the volunteers to be prepared to be attacked as racist for their so-called election integrity work. That charge is even more volatile in Ohio, where in 2004 many barriers to voting appeared in the state’s African-American urban centers.

ProgressOhio’s Rothenberg was asked if their voting vigilante strategy was racist. 

“Call it what you want. It’s basically trying to game the system in a way that will help the candidates that they prefer,” he said. “In this case, it’s very clear that they have a goal of pursuing an agenda and that agenda doesn’t include an overwhelming amount of people of color and how they’re voting. No one single race votes the same way every single time. Clearly, because of the way that they are approaching this, their actions will have a disproportionate affect on the African-American population… It is what it is.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).