WASHINGTON — As if this election season weren't already tense enough, fears about voter fraud — and some of the steps that are being taken to combat it — have created more worries.
With control of Congress in the balance, both political parties are gearing up for a possibly wild and woolly Election Day around the country.
"Legal war rooms," roving teams of lawyers, hot lines and poll challengers are all part of the strategy that Democrats and Republicans will employ Tuesday to handle suspected fraud or to help voters whose right to vote is questioned.
The issue is also on the Justice Department's radar. It will post federal monitors at selected polling places around the country, and prosecutors, civil rights attorneys and the FBI will be tasked with handling election-related complaints that day. A special toll-free number — 1-800-253-3931 — will be available for complaints about ballot access.
A lot is just precautionary and not out of the ordinary. What's different this year is that candidates and others also are getting into the act.
Ed Martin, a Republican congressional hopeful in St. Louis, intends to deploy a "Count Every Vote Unit" to look for possible voter fraud.
Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, who's running for the Senate in Illinois, has a "voter integrity program" in place for Election Day.
Tea party groups plan to use "surveillance squads" at polling places to record possible voting misbehavior. Some tea party groups already have questioned voter registration records.
"This is happening to a degree we haven't seen in years," said Wendy Weiser, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "The concern with ballot security operations is not with their intent. They can be highly confrontational. That can cross the line into intimidation and voter suppression."
Democrats claim that the fears about fraud are overblown and are being stoked by Republicans and conservatives to scare off voters, particularly minorities, many of whom tend to vote Democratic. In the Illinois U.S. Senate race, for instance, Kirk can be heard on a taped conference call saying where his "voter integrity program" would be sent, and it was largely African-American neighborhoods.
Republicans deny that they are raising false alarms about voter fraud and say that their concerns are legitimate.
"We have had some problem in the past with folks voting that should not have happened," said Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
Among those was the famous case in 2000 of Ritzy Meckler — a dog — listed on the St. Louis voter registration rolls. Smith likened the party's preparations this year to "a speed limit on a highway. It's not there to write you a ticket, but to make sure everyone plays by the rules."
Some problems have occurred already.
During early voting In Texas, there were reports of poll watchers "hovering" over voters and "getting in their face," according to an account in the Houston Chronicle.
In Minnesota, a group composed of members of a conservative party and the tea party has offered a bounty of up to $500 for anyone who turns in someone who's successfully prosecuted for voter fraud.
"We've had everything from tornadoes and ice storms to other types of problems, such as voting challenges and polling place conduct," said Laura Egerdal, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Secretary of State's Office. "We hope we don't have to deal with any of those, but we're making plans."
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