The group’s leaders don’t want to disclose the details of their plan and elections officials have expressed mixed feelings about their tactics. Nonetheless, Verify the Vote AZ is training its volunteers in locations throughout the state and promises to make an impact on Election Day.
Whether the group is needed in Arizona has become a matter of debate.
While voter fraud exists, critics say it’s so uncommon that the group’s presence at the polls looks like an attempt to suppress the votes of minorities and Democrats. Verify the Vote AZ is a volunteer organization that’s closely aligned with the Tea Party and whose stated goal is to stop voter fraud.
The nonprofit 501c(3) group is led by Jennifer Wright, a Republican attorney and 2011 Phoenix mayoral candidate with strong ties to the Tea Party, and by Brad Zinn, a magician who’s also active in Tea Party circles.
Verify the Vote AZ, along with similar groups in 31 other states, sprang up after a Houston-based group called True the Vote pioneered the new wave of voter fraud protection following the 2008 election.
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On Oct. 13, Catherine Engelbrecht, one of True the Vote’s lead organizers, stood before a crowd of hundreds at a Phoenix convention put on by the conservative political action group FreedomWorksPAC, to explain how the group began.
She and other activists associated with a Houston Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots volunteered to work at polling places in 2008. Engelbrecht recalled incidents that “ranged from well-intentioned, but pretty concerning levels of confusion, all the way through to what can only be characterized as voting fraud.”
People came to vote with multiple IDs, struggled to match their signature of record and suspiciously coordinated voting choices, Engelbrecht said. That experience led to the formation of True the Vote in 2009, which later spawned like-minded groups around the country.
The groups highlight cases of voter fraud that have been investigated or prosecuted, saying that any amount of voter fraud warrants an intense crackdown by concerned volunteers.
“In the last four years, we’ve all been made aware that there are forces at work to steal from the people by manipulating the vote,” Wright explains in a video on the group’s website. “We are committed to putting a stop to vote fraud and manipulation, but we cannot do it without you.”
Since 2000, there have been seven cases of voter fraud in Arizona that have been prosecuted. Over the past two years Secretary of State Ken Bennett has referred an additional 15 cases to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.
Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said while his office takes voter fraud extremely seriously and every allegation is investigated thoroughly, people can be fueled by paranoia and often rely on rumors or second-hand information.
“I fully expect that this year,” Roberts said. “People will call and say, ‘My cousin said the grocery clerk’s cousin saw a bus full of ineligible voters go into a polling location.’ I can’t emphasize this enough. Any incidence of voter fraud is unacceptable and we will investigate every allegation… but we get a lot of unsubstantiated rumors.”
Like the warning from the Secretary of State’s Office about vague and rumor-based complaints, Maricopa County Election Director Karen Osborne said she felt it necessary to give explicit instructions to Verify the Vote AZ about what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to what poll watchers are allowed to do.
In Arizona, citizens over the age of 16 who meet voter eligibility requirements are allowed to serve as “poll workers.” They help welcome voters, check their eligibility, give them their ballot and show them how to deposit their completed ballots. They must complete training through their county election offices. Osborne said all of this year’s poll workers have been trained and assigned to polling locations.
In contrast to poll workers, “poll watchers” volunteer through their political party to observe the process. One from each of the state’s four recognized political parties is allowed inside the polling place. They cannot speak with voters, only with the poll workers. They can challenge a voter’s eligibility and can also call suspected voting irregularities into their party or to election officials.
Verify the Vote AZ offers training for poll watchers and additional training for poll workers. Representatives from Verify the Vote AZ would not allow the Arizona Capitol Times to attend their training.
Once the volunteers complete the training, they contact their county party office to be assigned to a polling location. Representatives from the group said they’re not sure yet how many volunteer poll watchers they will enlist, but their stated goal is 5,000.
Joaquin Rios, research director at the Arizona Democratic Party, said he has not heard from anyone saying they have been through the Verify the Vote AZ training and asking for a polling location assignment, even though the group bills itself as nonpartisan.
Rob Haney, chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Party, said he expects hundreds of volunteers to come to him through the training program. They will receive a form signed by him, authorizing them to work at a specific polling location.
Wright explained in a video on the Verify the Vote AZ website that “problem areas” will be filled first. But she said in an email that she is not responsible for picking those locations. Rather, each party gets to make its own assignments.
Michael Liburdi, Republican election law attorney, will lead the assignment of Republican poll watchers. He said he would not disclose which polling locations are being prioritized, “because I don’t know what the other side is doing,” he explained. “The Democratic Party has their election protection. I don’t know what their plans are, and I don’t want them to know what my plans are.”
And there will be no record of where the poll watchers are assigned, Osborne said.
“They show up, they show their credentials (from their respective party), they leave with their credentials. I don’t know where they are,” she said.
Volunteer poll watchers who go through the Republican Party to be assigned a polling location are told to let party officials know if they are willing to be part of a “team” of observers. One team member will be inside and one or two others will be outside of the polling location. Osborne said she’s never heard of a team approach. Liburdi said he’s not sure what a team approach would be used for.
Nobody is allowed to participate in electioneering activity within 75 feet of a polling location.
Chris DeRose, an attorney who has served as director of Election Day operations for various Republican campaigns, said he’s seen meddling that requires observers outside of a polling place.
“I had the police called in Virginia, because a guy was getting in people’s faces, asking them who they were voting for, and if they said they were voting for (Republican Gov.) Bob McDonnell, he was yelling at them, telling them what a mistake that was,” DeRose said. “He was basically standing right in front of the polling place doors.”
DeRose also said that attorneys working in Ohio during the 2004 election told him about seeing union workers who set up a fake voter check-in booth outside the polling location, where voters would naturally stop to check in.