When Phyllis Cleveland first saw the billboard on East 35th Street warning of prison time and a $10,000 fine for voter fraud, the city councilwoman concluded it had one purpose: to intimidate the constituents of her predominantly low-income ward in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It just hit me in the gut when I saw it,” said Cleveland, who helped capture the attention of a coalition of civil rights groups that pressured Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings (CCO) Inc. to remove the billboards this week.
After two years of debates in state legislatures and the courts over new balloting laws, the fight over access to the voting booth has moved to the street level in such states as Ohio, Florida and Virginia, where polls show that a small number of votes might tip the balance between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Millions of dollars are being spent to mobilize thousands of lawyers and volunteers to pinpoint and counter mischief.
“There is a get-out-the-lawyer effort that both sides put together well before the election, trying to have attorneys in place in key precincts all over the battleground states,” Nathan L. Gonzales, the deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said in an interview. “On Election Day, there are really only two guarantees: Someone will win and someone will sue.”
It’s a final clash in the election cycle that has become a ritual after the 2000 Florida recount that ended with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that put George W. Bush in the White House. Both sides fine-tuned their operations in the 2004 and 2008 elections and that will result this year in the mobilization of thousands of lawyers to precincts identified through computer models as potential hot spots for disputes between prospective voters and partisan monitors.
Between now and then, both sides are tracking complaints or reports of any mischief, dirty tricks, and illegal actions aimed at either blocking or discouraging a legal voter from the polls or encouraging fraudulent balloting.
Three U.S. House Democrats from Virginia this week asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to open a voter-fraud investigation into a consulting firm that received more than $400,000 last month from the Republican National Committee to register voters. The RNC has severed ties with the firm.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing fraudulent letters, written on official-looking election office letterhead, that were sent to people in as many as 23 Florida counties questioning their citizenship and voting eligibility, said David Couvertier, a spokesman for the FBI in Tampa.
The letters were mailed from Seattle and have targeted Republicans, said Mike Grissom, executive director of the state party. Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry and John Rood, former ambassador to the Bahamas and co-chairman of Romney’s Florida finance team, have received the letters saying they’ll be removed from the voter rolls unless they provide paperwork to their county election office, Grissom said.
In Virginia, Patrick Moran, the son of U.S. Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat, and a field director for his re-election campaign, resigned yesterday after he was recorded on hidden camera appearing to advise an individual on how someone could commit voter fraud. The video was produced by Project Veritas, a group run by activist James O’Keefe, who has become known for hidden-camera investigations into organizations including Planned Parenthood and NPR. Police in Arlington, Virginia, said in a statement today that they’re investigating.
Patrick Moran said in a statement that the person who approached him appeared “unstable and joking” and that he didn’t take it seriously. Moran said he has never endorsed illegal behavior.
State officials in Virginia, Indiana and Florida are investigating reports of phone calls to voters in which the callers identify themselves as election officials. The voters, whose personal data is known to the caller, then are told they are in such good standing, they can vote by phone and avoid lines on Election Day. There isn’t such an option under the law.
The Justice Department’s civil rights and criminal divisions, in coordination with the FBI and the 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices, are monitoring reports of fraud and intimidation. Assistant U.S. attorneys have been assigned as district election officers and they are expected to lead the reviews of any filed complaints.
The Bush administration’s Justice Department made cracking down on voter fraud a top priority under then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Failure to investigate and bring fraud cases after the 2004 election played a role in the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, one of nine U.S. attorneys dismissed in 2006 by the Bush administration, according to a report from the department’s inspector general and ethics office on the firings.
“Every election cycle, there are reports of these things,” Richard L. Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California Irvine Law School.
The reports, which are tough to track and difficult to quantify, often encourage voting, said Hasen, who chronicled election battles since 2000 in his book “The Voting Wars.” Cleveland, the Ohio councilwoman, said her city council decided to counter the billboards warning about voter fraud by putting up their own stating: “Voting is a Right, Not a Crime!”
The Democratic National Committee, using data pulled from past election days, has identified polling places in the battleground states that are most susceptible to threatening voter rights, said a person familiar with the operation who requested anonymity and wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
In addition to the lawyers who fan out on Election Day, Democrats will have a separate team of lawyers on call should litigation become necessary. Millions have been spent on their recruiting, staffing, education and technology efforts.
The Republican National Lawyers Association, a group that responds to requests from the Republican Party and its candidates for legal assistance, has more than 4,500 members, many of whom are available on Election Day. Lawyers from more than 30 states have received training from the group, said Michael Thielen, the group’s executive director.
The group, which participated in the push for voter identification laws and is active in searching for fraud, includes former leaders from the Republican Party.
The party-paid attorneys will be joined by volunteers recruited by outside groups, including civil rights organizations, unions and voter-fraud opponents with ties to the anti-tax Tea Party movement. Those recruits are receiving training through workshops and seminars, with hotlines and mobile phone applications at the ready.
The Ohio billboards were among the first signals that the voter-access battle had begun. Thirty billboards went up in Cleveland, while another 30 showed up in Columbus, Ohio. Dozens more appeared in lower-income sections Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All were financed by an anonymous donor.
Cleveland, the city councilwoman, heard about them from a constituent who lives a block away from one of the signs. The councilwoman posted a picture of the billboard on her Twitter and Facebook accounts, which went viral. It was only a matter of time before the news reached the Election Protection coalition, more than 100 local and national groups aimed at protecting voting rights, said Barbara Arnwine, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
It took less than three weeks for the coalition and its partners to gather more than 100,000 signatures on a petition demanding the removal of the billboards. Clear Channel Outdoor removed the advertisements at each of the 145 locations it owned in Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee.
“We reviewed the situation, and in light of the fact that these billboards violate our policy of not accepting anonymous political ads, we asked the client how they would prefer to work with us to bring the boards into conformance with our policy,” said Jim Cullinan, a company spokesman. “The client thought the best solution was to take the boards down. So we are in the process of removing them.”
The legal coalition spent the past year filing or joining legal challenges to rules requiring picture identification and other election measures pushed through Republican-led state legislatures.
After the legal challenges, many of which were successful, the coalition has moved to a voter-education effort, complete with seminars, training for their volunteers and even a mobile phone application that can be downloaded from Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iTunes.
The coalition now is recruiting an estimated 8,000 legal and grassroots volunteers and has a 2012 budget of $2.5 million -- not including estimates of pro-bono work from law firms, which totaled $31 million in 2008.
They’ll have company.
Catherine Engelbrecht, the head of the Republican-aligned True the Vote, a Houston-based organization that trains and deploys volunteers to monitor elections and pursue voter fraud, has pledged to send a million people to oversee voting throughout the country.
Workshops and training sessions have drawn thousands of volunteers slated to head to the polls, Engelbrecht said in a statement. Their purpose is simple, supporters of the group say, to prevent voter fraud. Citing a Pew Center on the States report released earlier this year showing that one in eight active registrations is invalid or inaccurate, although not necessarily fraudulent, Engelbrecht said the need for vigilance is necessary.
Engelbrecht’s organization, founded in 2009, grew out of the King Street Patriots, a Texas-based Tea Party organization. The group’s work in Texas during the 2010 election and in the 2011-12 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall drew scrutiny from Democrats in both states.
Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has opened an investigation into the group’s activities in advance of Election Day.
Cummings, in an Oct. 18 letter to Engelbrecht, requested documents outlining the group’s activities, as well as its numbers of volunteers trained and the polling places the group plans to attend on Election Day. Cummings, of Maryland, said that if the group’s efforts lead to intimidation and are “intentional, politically-motivated, and widespread across multiple states, they could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their Constitutional rights.”
Engelbrecht responded to the first letter Cummings sent by saying his accusations demonstrated “a second-hand knowledge or poor staff-researched understanding of our organization’s activities.” She has not yet responded to the latest Cummings request.
The Democratic-led probes have done little to slow down the organization.
“True the Vote is working around the clock to train the influx of new volunteers to observe elections,” Engelbrecht said in the statement. “Further, True the Vote’s Voto Honesto Initiative is empowering bilingual poll watchers and translators to ensure a free and fair election for all.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Phil Mattingly in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org