Ohio Senate Democrats sent a letter to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday asking them to investigate True the Vote (TTV), a Tea Party group established to combat alleged voter fraud. The Democrats claim TTV is unnecessarily intimidating voters.
In the letter, the Democrats say they would find voter fraud to be a serious problem if it was happening, but they also note recent studies have found no evidence of widespread voter impersonation fraud. An Oct. 4 Government Accountability Office study could not document a single case of voter impersonation fraud. A similar study by News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project, found a total of 10 cases of alleged in-person voter impersonation since 2000. That’s less than one case a year.
Tim Burke, chairman of both the Hamilton County Board of Elections and the Hamilton County Democratic Party, says the faulty voter registration forms, which groups like TTV typically cite as examples of in-person voter fraud, never amount to real voter fraud.
“Those nonexistent voters never show up to vote,” he says. “(The forms) were put together by people working on voter registration drives. Frankly, the intent wasn’t to defraud the board of elections; the intent was to defraud their employer into making them think they’re doing more work.”
In other words, people aren't submitting faulty voter registration forms to skew elections; registration drive employees are submitting the forms to try to keep their jobs.
To combat the seemingly nonexistent problem of voter impersonation fraud, TTV is planning on recruiting one million poll watchers — people that will stand by polling places to ensure the voting process is legitimate. The Democrats insist some of the tactics promoted by the group are illegal. The letter claims it’s illegal for anyone but election officials to inhibit the voting process in any way. Most notably, Ohio law prohibits
“loiter[ing] in or about a registration or polling place during registration or the casting and counting of ballots so as to hinder, delay, or interfere with the conduct of the registration or election,” according to the letter.
Burke says state law allows both Democrats and Republicans to hire observers at polling booths. However, the observers can only watch, and they can’t challenge voters. Even if the appointed observers see suspicious activity, they have to leave the voting area and report the activity through other means.
The tactics adopted by TTV have an ugly history in the U.S. Utilizing poll watchers was one way Southern officials pushed away minority voters during the segregation era. By asking questions and being as obstructive as possible, the poll watchers of the segregation era intimidated black voters into not voting. In the post-segregation era, the tactics have continued targeting minority and low-income voters.
The Senate Democrats make note of the ugly history in their letter: “It has traditionally focused on the voter registration lists in minority and low-income precincts, utilizing ‘caging’ techniques to question registrations. It has included encouraging poll watchers to ‘raise a challenge’ when certain voters tried to vote by brandishing cameras at polling sites, asking humiliating questions of voters, and slowing down precinct lines with unnecessary challenges and intimidating tactics. These acts of intimidation undermine protection of the right to vote of all citizens.”
TTV has already faced some failures in Hamilton County. Earlier this year, the group teamed up with the Ohio Voter Integrity Project (VIP), another Tea Party group, to file 380 challenges to the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Of the 380 challenges, only 35 remain. The vast majority were thrown out.
“For the most part, they tried to get a bunch of UC students challenged because they didn’t have their dormitory rooms on their voter registration rolls,” Burke says. “All of those were rejected. We did nothing with those.”
But he said the group did bring up one legitimate challenge. Some voters were still registered in a now-defunct trailer park in Harrison, Ohio. Since the trailer park no longer exists, Burke says no one should be voting from there. The board didn’t purge those voters from the roll, but the board unanimously agreed to ensure those voters are challenged and sent to the correct polling place if they show up to vote.
Still, TTV insists on hunting down all the phantom impersonators and fraudulent voters. In partnership with VIP, TTV is continuing its mission to stop all the voter impersonation that isn't actually happening.
VIP is brandishing the effort with a program of its own. That organization is now hosting special training programs for poll workers. The organization insists its programs are nonpartisan, but Democrats aren’t buying it.
Burke says it’s normal for Democrats and Republicans to hire poll workers, but if the Voter Integrity Project program puts the organization’s anti-fraud politics into the training, it could go too far.
“The job of the poll worker is to assist voters in getting their ballots cast correctly,” Burke says. “It’s to be helpful. It’s not to be belligerent. It’s not to be making voters feel like they’re doing something evil.”
He added, “If poll workers are coming in and deciding that they’re going to be aggressive police officers making everybody feel like they’re engaged in voter fraud and therefore trying to intimidate voters, that’s absolutely wrong.”