As Jamila Gatlin waited in line at a northside Milwaukee elementary school to cast her ballot June 5 in the proposed recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, she noticed three people in the back of the room. They were watching, taking notes. Officially called “election observers,” they were white. Gatlin, and almost everyone else in line, was black. “That’s pretty harassing right there, if you ask me,” Gatlin said in the hall outside the gym. “Why do we have to be watched while we vote?” Two of the observers were from a Houston-based group called True the Vote, an offshoot of the Houston tea party known as the King Street Patriots. Their stated goal is to prevent voter fraud, which the group and founder Catherine Engelbrecht claims is undermining free and fair elections. The national anti-vote fraud movement represented by groups such as True the Vote is one of the most hotly debated issues of the 2012 election. Proponents say it’s about preserving the integrity of the electoral process, while critics contend that the movement is more about voter intimidation and vote suppression in Democratic strongholds and minority communities.
Engelbrecht and True the Vote volunteers describe themselves as the front line in a war against voter fraud. Engelbrecht’s poll watchers claimed to have witnessed election workers telling voters how to vote in Houston in 2010 and submitted 800 reports of irregularities to the Harris County Clerk’s office in Houston. Nothing came of the complaints.
“Just being in the poll and having a presence in the polling place is a deterrent,” said Cathy Kelleher, a Maryland real estate agent who started poll watching and voter-roll inspection efforts after getting involved with True the Vote in 2011. “We’re there so people don’t try to do anything fishy.” Voting rights groups say white poll watchers in minority areas can have a disenfranchising impact even if there’s no direct interaction, and as a result the debate has unfolded largely in a racial and partisan context.