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Group behind ominous voter-fraud ads: ‘All we are doing is watching’

Dan McGrath and his conservative coalition want you to know they’ll be watching you on Election Day. These political vigilantes, calling themselves the Election Integrity Watch, have posted a $500 bounty on information that sends a fraudulent voter to jail.

The coalition’s ominous posters, billboards and radio ads have set off fireworks among voting-rights activists.

“This is intimidation that is designed to scare voters off,” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said at a press conference in Minneapolis City Hall this week. (You can see the event on the UpTake.)

Scaring voters away from the polls is “not legal,” Ellison said.

But there is very little anyone can do to stop self-appointed surveillance squads as long as they honor the Minnesota requirement that they keep themselves and any posters, banners, etc. more than 100 feet away from polling places.

“It’s a grey area in a strict legal sense,” said Leanne Holcomb, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney who also works with the national voting rights organization Election Protection.

State and federal laws intended to safeguard voters’ rights often clash with laws protecting other fundamental rights such as the freedom for political activists to speak their minds. And claims that one person or group is interfering with an individual’s right to vote can be a hard sell in a court of law.

“There are no real clear-cut lines,” Holcomb said. “You would have to describe the factors to a court and hope they see it your way.”

And so, the only effective steps left to voting-rights groups are to watch the watchers who vow to watch us go to the polls Tuesday.

The U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis announced Thursday that he was stepping up Election Day efforts by the FBI and other officials to address problems with election fraud and voting rights abuses.

Segregation-era scars
Still, this flare up over voting rights in Minnesota is significant in a political and historical context. The intimidation that tainted elections in segregation-era America left sensitive scars that cannot be forgotten or ignored.

The very suggestion that someone or some group is intimidating certain voters — especially naturalized immigrants and racial minorities — is a serious accusation that should not be made carelessly.

So I asked McGrath to explain Election Integrity Watch in his own terms.

McGrath is the executive director of Minnesota Majority, one group in the coalition. The others identified on the coalition’s website are Minnesota Voters Alliance, Freedom Council and the North Star Tea Party Patriots.

Money, volunteers and mission
McGrath said the coalition has spent about $50,000 over the past two months and also recruited about 6,000 volunteers to be deployed next Tuesday.

When I asked where the $50,000 had come from, McGrath responded via email: “As a 501 C4 organization, there is no public reporting of donors and we respect our donors’ privacy. I can tell you that the money raised for Election Integrity Watch did come from private donors among our membership base.”

The bulk of the money went to pay for 10 electronic billboards in Rochester, Minn., and the Twin Cities, radio ads in Winona and the Twin Cities and 20 posters on bus shelters mainly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, McGrath said.

Some of the volunteers will be assigned to work at 10 phone stations set up in a hotline network on Election Day, he said, and the others will fan out “to watch what’s going on around them.”

Reflecting Minnesota law, the fraud spotters will be instructed to stay at least 100 feet away from polling locations, he said, and they also will be told “not to approach any voter for any reason.”

What will they do if they suspect someone is voting illegally?

“It depends on the situation,” McGrath said.


Dan McGrath
Dan McGrath

Primarily they are to document and report their suspicions to the coalition’s hotline, where volunteers will triage calls and relay reports deemed actionable to law enforcement agencies.

“But if they see voter intimidation or harassment going on, they are instructed to first call 911 and get the police involved and then call Election Integrity,” he said.

Handcuffs and jail bars
Even before Election Day, though, critics say the billboard and bus stop campaign is designed to scare certain voters from going to the polls at all. One ad depicts a person in handcuffs and warns of felony charges. A billboard shows three people clad in orange jump suits and locked up behind bars.

“It’s an effort to make people afraid and build an environment of fear,” said Maureen Ramirez, who directs Minnesota Civic Engagement Table, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations that are working to increase voting and other forms of civic engagement.

Certain groups of legitimate voters — especially immigrants and ex-felons whose civil rights have been restored — will be unnerved by such images, she said.  

“If you think you are going to get challenged, or you think there is going to be a problem, then you are more likely to stay home and say, ‘I don’t need that kind of hassle,'” Ramirez said.

Immigrants and other voters in city neighborhoods where the posters have been displayed have tended to vote for Democrats. Indeed, high turnout typically favors the Democrats. So there would be ample political reason to discourage those votes.

Mistaken fraud spotting
“I’m a 52-year-old white male, and I doubt that anybody from that group is going to be stopping me or reporting me,” said Prof. David Schultz of Hamline University School of Law, an expert on campaigns and elections.

There is a racial component involved in presuming you can spot someone who is voting illegally, Schultz said. It involves targeting certain profiles of voters.

Prof. David Schultz
Courtesy of Hamline University
Prof. David Schultz

Another worry is that that the $500 reward will spur Election Integrity volunteers beyond the bounds outlined on the coalition’s web site and in state and federal law.

Mistakes made by an overzealous “fraud spotter,” could lead to unfounded accusations and even confrontations.

A volunteer may lack the personal knowledge that is required to substantiate a claim of voter fraud, said Kathy Bonnifield of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, a group that works with the League of Minnesota Voters to organize citizen observations of post-election audits. She also has served as an election observer in other countries in a program organized by the U.S. State Department.

For example, the volunteer may not know that a neighbor who had committed an earlier felony had recently satisfied the requirements for regaining voting rights. Or, a spotter may have no way of knowing which immigrants had recently gained citizenship.

Whether or not any voter would feel intimidated varies from person to person. I don’t give a hoot if a crowd of “fraud spotters” stands down the street from my polling place. For all I care, they can shoot videos of me going in to vote. On the other hand, my shy neighbor might be shaken by such surveillance.  

“If even one voter is intimidated and doesn’t feel good about voting, that’s a problem,” Bonnifield said.

Don’t even think about it
McGrath rejected as “ridiculous” the accusations that the coalition is staging an organized effort to intimidate voters or suppress legitimate votes.

“All we are doing is watching,” he said. “If that is a threat to somebody, then you must be doing something you shouldn’t be doing.”

It’s more effective to stop fraud from happening in the first place than to try to catch it and prosecute it later, he said.

“If you are thinking about committing voter fraud, we are watching,” McGrath warned. “We hope that will be a deterrent and stop it from happening, because once the vote is counted you can’t take it back.”

Other states
The debate sparked in Minnesota is flaring in other states too, the New York Times reported.

In Milwaukee last week, several community groups protested the posting of large billboards throughout the city that show pictures of people behind jail bars under the words “We Voted Illegally.”

“The protesters said that the posters — it was not clear who paid for them — were intended to intimidate people into staying away from voting booths,” the Times said.

In Houston, a Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots recently accused a voter registration group, Houston Votes, of turning in fraudulent voter registration applications and of being tied to the New Black Panther Party. The registration group denies the accusations, the Times said.

“Private efforts to police the polls create a real risk of vote suppression, regardless of their intent,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice told the Times.

“People need to know that any form of discrimination, intimidation, or challenge to voters without adequate basis is illegal or improper,” she said.

Not easy to charge
But there are few cases around the country of successfully pressing voter intimidation charges.

In 2008, 67-year-old Dora Escobedo thought she had a case when she said a man who claimed he was investigating voter fraud showed up at her home in Albuquerque, accused her of being a non-citizen intending to vote fraudulently and threatened to call federal immigration authorities.

Further, a complaint [PDF] filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico alleges that the New Mexico Republican Party had distributed press packets claiming that Escobedo and nine others appeared to have voted suspiciously in a primary election. The press packet included her telephone number and other identifying personal information, the complaint said.

The New Mexico Independent reported that it had confirmed the investigator’s visit to Escobedo’s home. And the Associated Press reported that the investigator had been hired by the state Republican Party.

The Latina woman was a registered and eligible voter, said attorneys who represented Escobedo on behalf of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

But a federal judge denied Escobedo’s request for a temporary restraining order on Election Day after the private investigator testified under oath that he would stay away from her, the Legal Defense group said.

Freedom of speech
While vigilante groups might offend some voters, there is an important distinction between an act or a speech that leaves someone feeling intimidated and an act or speech that constitutes illegal intimidation, said Prof. Raleigh Levine of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

To the extent that the allegedly-illegal intimidation at issue consists of speech — as opposed to, say, an act of force — the speaker’s First Amendment rights have to be taken into account.

There is a key exception. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1992 that the governmental interest in preventing voter intimidation was sufficient to justify a100-foot restricted zone around polling places. That’s the same speech-free zone that Minnesota law imposes.

“But outside that zone, it would appear that many speech restrictions …will be constitutionally questionable,” Levine said in an email response to my questions.

Under federal law it is illegal to intimidate or interfere with a person who has voted or is trying to vote, she said. But the law targets only those whose willful intimidation is “by force or threat of force.”

So standing just over 100 feet from a polling — even standing there with offensive signs and a video camera — wouldn’t suffice as a legal basis for a charge of intimidation unless those actions were backed up with threats of force, she said.

On Thursday, Election Integrity Watch moved to test the 100-foot limit by suing election officials in Hennepin and Ramsey counties and the Secretary of State for the right to go into the polls wearing Tea Party apparel and buttons saying, “Please ID Me/Election Integrity Watch.” 

Similarly, Minnesota law makes it a gross misdemeanor to use “[a]bduction, duress, or fraud” to “obstruct or prevent the free exercise of the right to vote of a voter at a primary or election, or compel a voter to vote at a primary or election.” 

Again, the law seems to require some force or threat of force, harm or reprisal before speech will be held to amount to illegal intimidation, Levine said.

Poll watchers and rights groups
And, of course, members of Election Integrity Watch are not the first citizens to mobilize for the sake of keeping honest and fair elections as they define that goal. Political parties are allowed to send credentialed observers inside Minnesota’s polling places to monitor the process and challenge votes that appear to be unfairly cast or counted.

And other groups take it on themselves to monitor polling places from the outside.

Doesn’t Election Integrity have as valid a reason to watch the polls as your group, I asked Ramirez at the Civic Engagement Table.

There’s a fundamental difference, she said.

“Their campaign is built on fear,” she said. “We are not telling people that voting is dangerous and that the election system is broken and that lots of people are committing fraud. We are saying, ‘Voting is your right.’. . . What they are doing is scaring people.”

Where’s the problem?
One reason some critics challenge Election Integrity’s motives is that there is scant conclusive evidence that voter fraud has been a serious problem in Minnesota.

Minnesota Majority, McGrath’s group, reported to Hennepin County authorities that 450 felons had voted, possibly illegally, in the 2008 election. This week the Hennepin County Attorney said that 47 of the voters should be charged with fraud.

Of all the ballots cast in the county, “about 0.00006 percent,” allegedly were fraudulent, County Attorney Mike Freeman told the Star Tribune.

“There was no evidence of any organized effort to enable or promote this activity,” Freeman said.

McGrath insisted in an interview with MinnPost that Freeman’s count missed many ineligible votes that county authorities can’t prove.

Further, the county would have missed those 47 allegedly fraudulent votes if Minnesota Majority hadn’t reported them.

“So the citizen groups are essential in upholding election laws,” McGrath said.

Groups in search of problems
Schultz at Hamline University wonders, though, whether citizens groups of all political stripes aren’t sometimes “groups in search of problems” when they set out to defend election integrity.

“I don’t see any situation where there have been real problems,” Schultz said. “The allegations of intimidation and the claims of fraud both are highly unsubstantiated in terms of what actually has occurred.”

That’s not to say problems couldn’t arise, he said.

But even in Minnesota, with its high voter turnout rate, it’s likely only 65 percent or so of eligible voters will bother going to the polls this election.

“We have a third of the state that’s not going to vote,” Schultz said. “What makes us think there is any group of people clambering to cast their votes illegally….I’m more worried about people who are going to sit home on Election Day and eat bean dip rather than go to the polls and cast their votes.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/29/2010 - 09:35 am.

    A classic example of a solution in search of a problem; but this time with ominous implications.

    If the voters still do not understand the threat right wing extremists represent in this election (especially those views represented by the Angles, O’Donnells, Alaska’s Miller, Rand Paul et al) — then they will deserve the potential decay of American democracy as we have learned to respect it in the past.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 10/29/2010 - 09:38 am.

    How do you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say: “Today, I’m going to intimidate some poor schmuck so he is afraid to exercise his right to vote.”

    I hope at least one of these jack-booted thugs gets arrested.

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/29/2010 - 09:59 am.

    And once again, the framing of the Right is ceded. It is the fundamental Rovian tactic, again: take your greatest weakness and accuse your opponent of it, over and over. “Voter fraud” is a huge issue, in the myriad ways in which our system of elections is corrupted, corruptions that range from one-dollar-one-vote, to voting access imbalance, to proprietary corporate ownership of touchscreen code, to a Supreme Court that is radically activist in favor of concentrated wealth, all of which advantage the candidates and agendas of the Right. Yet the Right coordinates a message about two or three felons who have voted, the corporate media gets the vapors, the Democrats go chasing the shiny object to reassure everyone that they also think the Republic is endangered by those three felons, and the real fact that democracy has been taken completely off the table is caused to disappear into thin air.

  4. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 10/29/2010 - 10:17 am.

    This could be so easy to counteract. Why don’t those who are concerned about this overwhelm the phone number? Let’s face it, they aren’t going to get a whole lot of calls on Tuesday. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to get people to call in bogus fraud claims for Eagan, Woodbury, Delano, etc. Make Election Integrity Watch spend their resources on bogus claims. Come on young people who are concerned about this, have some fun and overwhelm the call in number.

  5. Submitted by Christopher Moseng on 10/29/2010 - 10:58 am.

    One need only imagine his response if this same effort were organized by the unions to appreciate the intimidation inherent in having people loiter outside of polling places and somehow claim to identify voter fraud by mere visual inspection.

    Nobody has been able to adequately explain what voter fraud looks like from 100 feet outside a polling location, nor why that vantage is somehow superior to that of the election judges working in each polling place, who actually speak to and catalog every voter.

    This is a thinly disguised effort to intimidate, nothing more.

  6. Submitted by Tim Walker on 10/29/2010 - 11:26 am.

    This is all about intimidating racial and ethnic minorities to try to keep them from voting. Period.

    As David Schultz says, he doubts anyone will videotape him — a 52-year-old white guy — when he goes to vote.

    I’d like to get a straight answer from anyone volunteering to videotape “suspicious” voters: How do you decide who to videotape, and who not to? What is that decision based on?

    There are no possible answers to these questions that do not involve racism.

    These scum ought to be ashamed of themselves, and if I see any of them at my polling place, I will ask them these questions. Maybe I’ll even videotape their answers.

  7. Submitted by Cecil North on 10/29/2010 - 11:40 am.

    “But if they see voter intimidation or harassment going on, they are instructed to first call 911 and get the police involved and then call Election Integrity,” he said

    Thanks, Dan, I’ll be sure to give you a call if I see any of your organization engaging in voter intimidation or harassment.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/29/2010 - 12:05 pm.

    “How do you decide who to videotape, and who not to? What is that decision based on?”

    “There are no possible answers to these questions that do not involve racism.”

    Given that 99% of conversations among leftists seem to begin or end with a description of the color of someone’s skin, that statement is no surprise.

    However, as an example of a consideration a reasonable person might entertain, loads of people being delivered to polling places, especially in vehicles that are seen making return trips or travelling between precincts, would likely arouse suspicion without regard to the skin color of the people being transported, or doing the transport.

    It’s simple. If you see something that looks hinky, you document it and have it checked out by the authorities.

    No one need confront anyone else directly and there is no need for discussion at the scene.

    I’d remind leftists eager for confrontation that the law swings in both directions. Let’s all just work together and have a nice, fair election.

    See ya at the polls!

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/29/2010 - 12:24 pm.

    All you ever needed to know about the degree to which the Left relies on illegal voting to win elections can be learned by reading their panic that someone may actually challenge the usual suspects.

    When the press plays the videos of the vans and busses arriving at multiple polling places with the same people, the American people will demand that something be done. Oops. I hope I didn’t give anything away.

  10. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/29/2010 - 12:27 pm.

    It should also be noted that voter intimidation is the classic tool of totalitarian governments. It is precisely the reason guys like Saddam Hussien, Kim Jong Il and others like them won elections getting their bogus 99% of the vote.

    Between Citizens United…voter intimidation…the already mentioned skewed SCOTUS…and noisy voices from the extreme right, the voices of moderation and reason must stand up now

  11. Submitted by Christopher Moseng on 10/29/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    So people being transported to the polls is evidence of fraud? No wonder the right sees voter fraud everywhere they look.

    Heaven forfend someone coordinate transportation for voters who may have no other means of getting to the polling place. The right wing goon squad will make a note of it, and then insinuate it was improper without any other evidence of impropriety. Which will gin up more false controversy, to enlist more goons for 2012.

    And if some Somali or Hispanic people get off the bus, then you’ve got something REALLY “hinky” on your hands!

  12. Submitted by Christopher Moseng on 10/29/2010 - 12:35 pm.

    Dennis: and when it doesn’t happen, we can expect there will be no 2012 Goon Squad to combat the imaginary menace you describe?

  13. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 10/29/2010 - 12:51 pm.

    Why are they only suing Hennepin and Ramsey? Couldn’t there just as easily be vote fraud in wealthy white Carver County?

  14. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 10/29/2010 - 02:14 pm.

    Thank you for finally, and thoroughly, covering this important issue.

  15. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 10/29/2010 - 02:18 pm.

    PS Anyone have the phone number for the “Election Integrity” hot line? It wouldn’t take much to keep it tied up all day!!!

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/29/2010 - 03:04 pm.

    Tee hee…Shiela, you’re so clever!

  17. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 10/29/2010 - 03:09 pm.

    The suggestions to flood the election integrity watch hotline sound joking, but if anyone’s thinking about it, don’t. It hasn’t been ethical or legal when Republicans made denial of service attacks on phone lines, so don’t think about doing the same, anymore than we would go to Republican precincts and engage in the same sor to f voter suppression activities. COuntering theirs rather than having our own is hte way to go.

    Besides, put in a bunch of bogus claims, aand they’ll be presented as evidence. Look at the evidence voter fraud paranoiacs have, and it’s usually someone heard someone else reported something somewhere. Punking then will just convince them they’re right.

    Also forget the idea they’ll realize after all this watching there there isn’t anything going on. The only new part is the vigilante pol lwatchers who’ll be hanging around DFL precincts. Republicans have posted poll watchers in Democratic precincts for a long time, and despite never finding anything, well, you can all see how convinced they remain. When they don’t find anything, they’ll just believe we’re so good at cheating that they just didn’t catch us, just like every other election.

  18. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 10/29/2010 - 03:16 pm.

    There is one reform I would hope both sides could agree to. ALmost every single case of actual illegal voting was a felon who thought their voting rights had been restored. Obviously they find it confusing, and besides the felons who voted illegally, there are some unknown number eligible to vote who stayed away from the polls. Since we want them to act like responsible citizens, and one of the things responsible citizens do is vote, this would seem just as bad as voting illegally.

    We can therefore get rid of almost all illegal voting by setting a clear standard: if you’re in jail, you can’t vote; if you’re out, you can. Just like that, Hennepin County’s 47 prosecutable cases drops to four.

  19. Submitted by Lance Groth on 10/29/2010 - 03:44 pm.

    I suggest that everyone have their cell phone cameras, or better yet flip video cams or similar, with them at the polls. If you see a goon squad trying to intimidate people (who don’t look like them, in all likelihood), get in their faces, photograph and video record them. Be sure to get clear shots of their faces. Ask for names and id’s. Hint: try using the german: ausweispapiere – any good squad worth its jackboots ought to dig that. Promise to post it on the web.

    Two can play at this distasteful game – what a shame that it has come to this.

    What the hell has happened to this country, anyway, and who let the brownshirts in?

  20. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/29/2010 - 04:23 pm.

    If you have concerns, by all means “watch the watchers watching” but I’d respectfully suggest that leftists considering “getting in people’s faces” think again.

    “Integrity’s” people are being trained to stay at least 100′ from polling places, and not to engage voters in conversation.

    “Getting in someone’s face” is an overt act of agression and could result in watching the election results (and footage of your arrest) from the day room at the county lock-up.

    Have fun, and be careful you crazy kids!

  21. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 10/29/2010 - 04:29 pm.

    Minnesota Majority’s problem is those people who are guilty of voting while Black (or Asian, or African, or Hispanic, or anyone who doesn’t reliably vote Republican).

  22. Submitted by Cecil North on 10/29/2010 - 04:31 pm.

    Now that I’ve been tipped off by Swift to these “hinky” leftist tactics, I’ll be sure to keep my eyes peeled for busloads of seniors. Can’t wait to call it in!

  23. Submitted by Walter Hudson on 10/31/2010 - 02:01 am.

    Prof. Schultz’s statement that there is “a racial component involved in presuming you can spot someone who is voting illegally” is nonsense. No one involved in the Election Integrity Watch effort is claiming the ability to spot a fraudulent voter based on their demographic characteristics. Rather, volunteers will be looking for blatantly suspicious situations, like busloads of people traveling to multiple polls.

    Ramirez’s rhetoric regarding the so-called “fear” and “intimidation” inherent to the Election Integrity Watch program paints voters as children incapable of the simplest cognitive process, as if they can’t figure out whether they are legitimate voter or not. This weekend, MnDOT has electronic signs around the metro warning of increased DWI enforcement. Are they fear-mongering and intimidating? Stating that illegal activity will be prosecuted is a service, not an act of intimidation.

    County Attorney Mike Freeman’s citation of a “lack of evidence” of voter fraud misses the point. We have an election system so fundamentally flawed that the meaningful detection and determent of voter fraud is nearly impossible. We have a vouching law which allows residents to vouch for up to 15 other voters. We have no photo ID requirement. We have same day registration which is not verified until after ballots have been cast and counted. With such a dubious election environment, its no wonder little “evidence” exists. That’s the whole point! You can’t see evidence when you’re not looking for it.

    Kudos to Minn-Post on their even-handed coverage of this issue. This is the best mainstream article I have read on the subject.

  24. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/01/2010 - 06:57 am.

    Going forward by walking backwards?

    Intimidation at the voting booth and then where next?

    It can’t happen here?

    But it did happen here…and then some.

    Check out “Watchdog of Loyalty” – The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety,World War I”; pub.1991

    It’s never too late to evaluate where we may be headed after this ugliest of all election years where…

    “Within the political arena, a tendency for slogans and soundbites to overwhelm rational
    discourse inhibits the ability of a democratic system to respond creatively to the enormous changes of the day.” P.H. Chrislock

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