PHOENIX -- As Election Day approaches, voter fraud is a high-priority issue. Tuesday, a Pennsylvania judge blocked that state's voter ID law. Last week, the national Republican Party fired an Arizona company that organized get-out-the-vote drives in swing states over suspicious registration forms. In the second of two stories, we look at who's trying to stop voter fraud and how they're doing it.
For a long time, the Republican National Committee engaged in election fraud prevention; until 1982, when the RNC was sued by the Democratic Party for targeting minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The RNC signed an agreement -- that a federal judge has upheld through 2017 -- curbing its fraud prevention efforts. The absence of an official party apparatus has given rise in the last few years to independent Republican groups.
Verify the Vote is one such group. Its co-chairs repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story, but a 20 minute video on their website lays out their goals. Brad Zinn -- a tea partier, comedy magician, and reporter for the conservative news site Western Free Press -- is co-chair of Verify the Vote, along with Jennifer Wright, a lawyer and former Tea Party candidate for Phoenix mayor.
"In the last four years, we've all been made aware that there are forces at work to steal power from the people by manipulating the vote," Wright said in the video. She never said what those forces are, but Verify the Vote outlines a few approaches to stop them. They want volunteers to review voter rolls and registrations, to monitor early ballot counts, and they encourage like-minded voter fraud hawks to get hired as poll workers.
But by far, their biggest push is to train and deploy 5,000 poll observers across the state. In Arizona, political parties are entitled to one observer each at every polling place. Wright said while 80 percent of poll watchers will have a long, boring day, "upwards [of] twenty percent are going to find issues that absent their presence, could have resulted in a fraudulent vote being cast."
It's not clear how she calculated that number. But issues around election fraud are often raised -- on both sides of the aisle -- without concrete evidence.
"That's the crux of the whole issue. It's a bunch of what-ifs," said Natasha Khan, an Arizona State University grad student who is covered voting rights for the News21 project. She reported from the 2012 summit of True the Vote, a national voter fraud prevention group that inspired Verify the Vote and other offshoots in 32 states.
"Nobody ever actually said that they had ever seen in person somebody committing election fraud, that I spoke with," Khan said. "It was just a lot of anecdotal -- like, 'Well, I know in my county, there are illegal immigrants voting.' Okay, how do you know that?"
Stories about busloads of ineligible voters have circulated widely. Though reports of fraud often go unconfirmed, fraud prevention activists say poll watchers are essential.
Brad Zinn from Verify the Vote said it's impossible to prove a negative, "so we can't tell you what won't happen if you are there, or what you might have prevented from happening if you're there."
"However, we can pretty much assure you that if you're not there, those that wish to unfairly influence the election by fraud or deceit will be doing their best to steal power through the ballot box."
Meanwhile, fraud prevention groups are providing motivation for Democrats, including Joaquin Rios, Research Director for the Arizona Democratic Party.
"I'm not sure exactly what this organization is planning to do or whether they're planning on challenging the eligibility of voters on a widespread scale," Rios said. "We have seen that in other parts of the country in the past. If they do that, then we're going to be prepared."
Rios wants to make sure voters know they can't be turned away from a polling place, and that they can cast a provisional ballot if their name doesn’t show up on the list.
"We're going to be recruiting attorneys from all across Arizona who are going to be on call on Election Day to deal with any incidents of voter intimidation or any efforts by any individuals to try and discourage voter turnout or to try and suppress the vote."
But Verify the Vote doesn't think it's suppressing any legitimate voters. They see poll-watchers as upholding the founding principles of the United States.
"One day, when your children or grandchildren ask you, 'Where were you when America needed you?', you'll be able to answer them, 'I was there. I answered the call of liberty on Election Day 2012,'" Zinn said in the video's conclusion.
But in this fight, liberty is in the eye of the beholder.