As Election Nears, Cries Of Voter Intimidation

By: CBS News, Posted by Chelsey Moran
By: CBS News, Posted by Chelsey Moran

In the final week before the 2012 election, all evidence suggests that the presidential race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is locked in a dead heat, with both candidates within striking distance of victory in nearly every battleground state. Which man ends up behind the Oval Office desk come January could plausibly come down to a handful of votes in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or nearly any other of the several states deemed toss-ups this year. Amid this environment, various state election officials have reported multiple complaints of bogus phone calls, fraudulent letters, intimidation efforts, and threatening billboards all over the country -- including in several of these critical battleground states.

Below, CBSNews.com rounds up a handful of the alleged voter suppression and intimidation efforts many believe are threatening to disenfranchise thousands of people on Election Day.

Bogus mailings, phone calls

For months, both Mr. Obama and Romney have furiously campaigned in the delegate-rich Sunshine State in ongoing efforts to win over the state's diverse collection of voters and pump up turnout ahead of Election Day. But according to the Florida Department of State, some voters there are being targeted with fraudulent efforts attempting to keep them home from the polls.

Chris Cate, communications director of the Florida Department of State, tells CBS News that between 50 and 100 Floridians in at least 28 counties have recently received letters informing them that their citizenship and right to vote is in question. The letters, which are printed on false letterhead from election supervisor Kathy Dent, calls on recipients to return voter eligibility forms to the local Supervisor of Elections office within 15 days of receipt. "A nonregistered voter who casts a vote in the State of Florida may be subject to arrest, imprisonment, and/or other criminal sanctions," the letter reads. (See a sample copy of the letter at left.)

Cate says the letters appear to be landing all over the state and that there's no indication it's being sent to areas that trend particularly Democratic or Republican. But he says that while Democrats and independent voters have gotten them as well, a "significant majority" of recipients are Republicans.

The FBI has joined with Florida law enforcement to investigate the letters - which appear to be postmarked from Seattle - but so far, the Florida Department of State says it knows very little about their provenance.

"The number one thing we can do right now is try to get the message out that this is a fraudulent letter and that it's not real," said Cate. "I think the message goes beyond this letter - that Floridians need to be aware that this is the time of year when you're going to see people trying to illegally influencing an election."

The letters aren't the only example of suspicious activity in Florida: Cate said a handful of voters have also received calls informing them that they will be able to vote over the phone - which, he points out, is "not true whatsoever."

Similar calls have been reported in Virginia, a major battleground state where polls show Romney and Mr. Obama essentially tied. Earlier this month, the state board of elections received 10 complaints within a few hours from voters who said they'd gotten phone calls from unidentified individuals informing them of the phone-voting scam. Nikki Sheridan, a spokesperson for Virginia's board of elections, said the calls were made by live individuals and appeared to target older voters (The callers hung up when asked who was responsible and/or paying for the call). And while she said it's impossible to know how many Virginians received similar communications, the fact that 10 people leveled complaints within the space of such a limited time frame led election officials to believe the number was statistically significant.

Since the Virginia board of elections released a "rumor-buster" press release alerting voters of the scam, however, the calls appear to have stopped. Sheridan said that the board of elections had not received any further complaints as of October 12, the day the calls were first reported and the so-called rumor-buster went out.

Intimidating billboards?

Overt campaigns aimed at confusing or dissuading voters aren't the only examples being cited as attempts at suppression this fall: Voting rights activists have targeted a number of billboards in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as allegedly attempting to discourage minority and low-income voters from going to the polls next Tuesday.

The advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor is currently in the process of moving 145 billboards in Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee that advertised the consequences of voter fraud, as is Norton Outdoor Advertising, which was as of Friday in the process of removing 31 displays in the Cincinnati market.

"[If voters in] communities of color get the idea that there may be trouble at the polls, some voters might say, 'Well, I don't want to do anything wrong, and because I'm not as familiar with the system I may do something by mistake. I don't want to do something by mistake and end up in jail,'" said Rudy Lopez, of the advocacy group Campaign for Community Change, which aims to increase the profile of policy issues that matter to low-income people and people of color. "I think this is a direct response to the involvement and the energy that we're seeing in communities of color. People in those communities do see a need to come out and vote, and I think others understand that that vote could make a difference and be a game-changer in some instances."

"I don't think it's a coincidence that now, in 2012, we're seeing a huge increase in laws that are trying to limit voting rights," he added.

Jim Cullinan, the spokesman of Clear Channel Outdoor, said the company reviewed the billboards in light of complaints, which it rented out to an unnamed client, and subsequently "asked the client how they would prefer to work with us to bring the boards into conformance with our policy," since the company's policy does not accept anonymous political ads. "The client thought the best solution was to take the boards down, so we are in the process of removing them," he said.

Mike Norton, of Norton Outdoor Advertising, argued that the billboards were not meant to target specific demographics but that it decided to remove them due to the "perception by some that these displays are targeted to specific segments of the population, and are an attempt to intimidate them and suppress their voting rights." (In an e-mail, Norton said "there seems to be no dispute as to the accuracy of the message on the displays.")

Not all of the complaints are being directed at advertisers and anonymous donors, however. In Pennsylvania, controversy has erupted over a series of billboards that seem to suggest voters need to show their IDs at the polls - despite the fact that the state's controversial voter ID law was recently stayed by the court.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State (DOS), 58 billboards across Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as a small number in Tioga and Fulton counties, depict a person holding up a photo ID alongside the text "this election, if you've got it, show it." About 12 of these billboards are in Spanish, the DOS told CBSNews.com. (See an example of the Spanish-language billboard above.)

Ron Ruman, a spokesperson for the Pennsyvlania DOS, says the billboards are part of an ongoing education campaign regarding the impending voter ID laws, which, as of now, are slated to go into effect following the November 6 election. He argued the billboards weren't meant to disproportionately target low-income and minority voters but rather that the state is trying to hit the "highest traffic areas we could," which translates into urban areas. According to the recent voter ID ruling, state law does require that voters be asked to show photo ID at the polls, but it doesn't actually require them to present one in order to be able to vote.

While any legal citizen should theoretically be able to get a state-issued photo ID, Lopez and other activists argue that people in low-income communities aren't as likely to have such IDs already - which makes voter ID laws, or the suggestion that IDs will be required at the polling stations, an additional hurdle for voting.

"It's trying to raise the inconvenience factor, and also it's just suggesting that there may be trouble afoot," he said.

Others point out that Pennsylvania was slow to take down some of the old billboards advertising that IDs were a mandate for voting, and argue the government hasn't matched pro-ID law outreach - and that many voters will remain unaware that the law has changed.

Ruman said sending out statewide mailers informing voters that IDs would no longer be required (as had been done to tout the voter ID requirements) was "not a feasible thing to do considering the time frame and the funding," and that the state is attempting to educate voters in other ways. He acknowledged that one billboard touting the ID law remained in place until October 16 - two weeks after the ruling -- though he said most of them were taken down much earlier.

"[The billboards] shouldn't dissuade people from voting," Ruman said. "The message is that if you have an ID, show it, but it does not indicate that it is required."

Government error

In some cases, a simple government error could lead voters astray.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., which boasts a robust Latino population, the County Recorder's office printed two separate Spanish-language documents listed Election Day as November 8 -- rather than November 6 -- even while the the English-language versions had the correct date.

Yvonne Reed, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Department of Elections, says the mistakes were innocent errors and a product of the fact that Election Day was on November 8 last year. She cited a series of outreach efforts aimed at informing the Latino community of the correct date, including a press conference and ad buys, to make up for the 2,000+ documents that were circulated with misinformation. (See an example of one of the faulty notices, at left.)

That's not the only recent mishap in Maricopa County, however. In an interview with Phoenix CBS affiliate KPHO, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell seemed to suggest that it's illegal for volunteers to hand in other peoples' early voting ballots, though that's not true. The Recorder's office said later Purcell was referring to people who inaccurately presented themselves as government officials, and again stressed its efforts to right the error. Still, the inaccurate report was later cited in a campaign robo-call on behalf of Joe Arpaio, the county's controversial sheriff, who urged voters "not to give your ballot to anyone who comes to your door."

Similar mishaps have taken place in Ohio: According to the Washington Post, officials in Ottawa County sent out mailers announcing Election Day as Thursday, November 8, and got the location of a polling place wrong.

Bullying at the polls?

In addition to a slew of voter ID laws that have popped across the country, a handful of organizations are pledging to send volunteers to the polls on Election Day in what they say is an ongoing attempt to prevent voter fraud. Chief among these groups is True the Vote, a Texas-based, Tea Party-influenced organization that aims to "detect problem areas" in existing registration lists (ostensibly to suss out potentially fraudulent registrations), and generally "restore truth, faith, and integrity to our elections." According to the New Yorker, True the Vote has spurred voter ID related legislation in 37 states since 2011.

Voting rights advocates contend that, because there's no history of meaningful voter fraud in recent history, these groups are essentially attempting to target minorities and urban populations by training poll workers to intimidate Democratic demographics at the polls come Election Day. According to The Nation, True the Vote is attempting to recruit a million poll watchers and workers to make voters feel "like driving and seeing the police follow you" on Election Day.

The organization has also teamed up with a number of offshoot organizations, including the Ohio Voter Integrity Project and "Election Integrity Maryland," which have similar aims. But according to The Nation, groups like the AFL-CIO and the Election Protection team, as well as the Justice Department, are dispatching thousands of lawyers, government officials, and civil rights activists to ensure that attempts to bully voters at the polls are curbed.


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