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Groups Worried About Ballot Access Monitor Polls on Election Day

As she stood handing out sample ballots to voters streaming into Bailey’s Community Center in Falls Church, Va., today, Democratic volunteer Jill Patrick said she knew she was being closely watched.

“Let me tell you, every precinct in every battleground state has poll watchers from both sides,” said Patrick, a volunteer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Patrick was one of hundreds of volunteers on both sides of the ballot access wars who descended on polling places throughout Virginia today. Whether motivated by fear of voter fraud or voter intimidation, they captured the vigilant mood at polling places in battleground states.

At the Thomas A. Edison High School in Alexandria, Va., there were more volunteers on hand to trouble shoot problems today than there were voters with headaches to report.

Along one wall of the school’s gymnasium dark-suited Virginia lawyer Larry Brown sat cradling his cellphone, ready to spring into action on behalf of the Obama campaign at the slightest sign of trouble.

Along the opposite wall, past the snaking line of voters, sat a volunteer for GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, perusing a clipboard in jeans and a sweater. Brown said only a handful of routine glitches had cropped up that morning, despite widespread anxiety among voting rights advocates that the state’s new voter ID requirements would disrupt the process.

“No one has been turned away,” said Brown, one of thousands of lawyers from both the Obama and Romney camps fanned out at polling places across the country today. Their goal, said Brown, is “to stay on top of issues before they come up.”

Virginia’s new voter ID law — one of five such ballot restrictions that survived court challenges to take effect this year — has triggered alarm among voting rights advocates. A few blocks down the street at Robert E. Lee High School, two female volunteers wearing black-and-white “Election Protection” buttons handed out fliers to voters reading “Know Virginia’s New Law … Bring an ID,” with instructions to call “1-866-OUR-VOTE” should problems arise.

They were among more than 300 volunteers deployed throughout Virginia by Election Protection, a national coalition spearheaded by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The coalition set out to mobilize some 10,000 volunteers nationwide.

“You all set? Any questions? Did you get to vote?” the two called out eagerly as voters streamed in past a red, white and blue sign that read: “Upon Request And By Officer: Present ID to Officer. Please State Your Full Legal Name and Residence Address. Virginia Code 24.2-643.”

Election Protection recently accused True The Vote, a Texas-based nonprofit that aims to fight voting fraud, of circulating a manual to Virginia volunteers that contained inaccuracies. In one instance, the manual incorrectly stated that voters already standing in line when the polls closed must cast provisional ballots, said Anna Scholl, executive director of the Progress Virginia Education Fund, which is part of the Election Protection coalition. In fact, state law permits such voters to cast regular ballots.

“I think our biggest concern is that the poll monitors who have been trained with this manual haven’t received accurate information,” said Scholl. “And voter challenges based on this information could create delays and confusion at the polls.”

Tea party activists have a different fear: that ineligible voters are casting ballots. Their champion is True the Vote, whose organizers said they would train 1 million poll watchers to monitor today’s elections.

Virginia’s tea party organizers have been preparing for months, if not years.

Reagan George, a volunteer for True the Vote and the vice-chair of the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots, traveled to Richmond earlier this fall to train more than 50 poll watchers. For the past year, he has used data analysis tools provided by True the Vote to check Virginia voter rolls against property records and challenge the registration of those that appeared ineligible.

John Jaggers, the director of operations at the Northern Virginia Tea Party, said that at least 10 members of his group were assigned as poll workers to precincts throughout Alexandria and Arlington, two heavily Democratic counties in Northern Virginia. He declined to provide an exact number.

“I don’t want people to go through and do opposition research on who might be tea party and who might not be,” Jaggers said. “The upside of being an election official is you’re in charge, but you’re required to be very, very nonpartisan.”

Jaggers said he saw no evidence of attempted fraud at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Va., where he served as an election worker.

But George cited problems further west, in Chantilly, Va., where he said two volunteers with Election Protection were asked to leave the interior of the Brookfield Elementary School polling site.

“I think it’s an intimidation ploy, to intimidate voters and election officials, so I was glad to see them thrown out,” he said in a telephone interview with Roll Call. “They are not supposed to be here.”

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