Pa. voting rights groups increase prevention efforts

Election Day going under the microscope

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Voting rights advocates are promising a statewide effort next week to keep lingering confusion over voter ID and other common voting problems, such as broken machines or long lines, from disrupting Election Day.

Around Pittsburgh, teams of nonpartisan lawyers -- as well as poll watchers from the Democratic and Republican parties -- will also be on the lookout for polling snafus.

Groups including Common Cause, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the League of Women Voters are mobilizing poll watchers and lawyers to look out for polling problems, which they will monitor via a toll-free hotline and an online database.

Around the Pittsburgh region, the Republican Committee of Allegheny County is seeking hundreds of poll watchers to look for voting irregularities on Tuesday. The Allegheny County Democratic Committee has a longer tradition of deploying such officials -- it stuffs poll watcher certificates into all the election day bags given to committee chairs countywide -- and is working with the Obama campaign and state party leaders to deploy more.

Under Pennsylvania law, all candidates and parties can certify poll watchers to go inside polling places to oversee them. Others, such as attorneys or even police officers, are not allowed in unless invited by an election judge.

The Lawyers' Committee has recruited 75 election protection attorneys and law students to patrol polling places around the city and county on Tuesday, aided by another 200 volunteers. They will be on the lookout for normal polling place problems but also looking for new issues this year from the suspended voter identification law, such as voters or poll workers assuming ID is required for everyone to vote Tuesday, when it is not. Similar teams will be deployed in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

They will also be looking out for Election Day dirty tricks -- like fliers or signs with bogus or confusing voting information -- to be reported to local and state election officials.

Lawyers and poll watchers, both outside and inside the polls, vowed they would be there to support legitimate voting procedures and not get in their way.

"Election protection's goal is to help voters -- not to play gotcha with poll workers," said Geoffrey Melada, the media coordinator for Lawyers' Committee efforts in Pittsburgh.

Bob Howard, an Allegheny County GOP activist and former PPG executive, gave a training class for his party's poll watchers Monday, going over issues such from polling machine operation to looking out for voter intimidation or suppression.

"This is not to be confrontation. We start with the assumption the election judge wants same honest, fair election we do," Mr. Howard said.

Should voters face similar voting problems Nov. 6, advocates at the Lawyers' Committee are urging them to call 1-866-Our-Vote (or for Spanish speakers 888-VE-Y-VOTA), which will be overseen in Pennsylvania by the Philadelphia good government group Committee of Seventy. With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, they plan to send attorneys to polling places or courthouses statewide to address voting problems, stay in touch with local law enforcement and elected officials and keep a running tally of the reports online at www.ourvotelive.org.

Worries about dirty tricks or voter intimidation are to be expected, especially in a high-turnout presidential election year, but this year, the halted voter identification requirements present a new wrinkle. Though a Commonwealth Court judge stayed the requirements that all voters show ID on Tuesday, the state has gone forward with advertisements urging voters to bring ID anyway, partially to get used to the requirements for future balloting.

Opponents, such as those at the ACLU, worry the messages may confuse both voters and poll workers (some of whom were already being trained in voter ID requirements before the judge's Oct. 2 ruling).

"Our concern is there is a considerable amount of confusing advertising out there," Harold Jordan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said in a conference call last week.

In some parts of the state, Common Cause will work with fellow voter ID opponents at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University to do exit polling Nov. 6 on the effects of the halted requirements on voting patterns. Advocates also plan to review Election Day problems and issue a follow-up report on recommended voting system changes to elections officials.

electionspa - state

Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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