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State parties praise federal hotline on election fraud, suppression

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PHOENIX – On election day, voters in Arizona and other states will be able to call hotlines at U.S. attorney’s offices to report allegations of fraud and voting rights abuses.

Both major political parties in Arizona welcomed this week’s announcement from John S. Leonardo, U.S. attorney for Arizona, though for different reasons.

The Arizona Democratic Party is concerned about intimidation from groups like True the Vote and Verify the Vote, which train volunteers to serve as poll watchers on election day to watch for suspicious activity.

“There’s a reason for (the U.S. Department of Justice) to have concern about Arizona,” said Joaquin Rios, the party’s director of election protection programs.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Tom Morrissey said he supports the hotline because it will help prevent voter fraud.

“Voter fraud is a concern for everybody because unless we protect the integrity of our voting system, we don’t even have a country,” Morrissey said. “Whatever measures that the U.S. attorney wants to put in place I support 100 percent.”

Leonardo’s announcement said his office will provide an election-day hotline for those who see any evidence of election fraud or voter interference or intimidation. The hotline is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s nationwide Election Day Program. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dominic Lanza will oversee the program in Arizona, it said.

The FBI will have special agents available in offices across the country to field calls, and voters can contact the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division Voting Section directly with any concerns, the announcement said.

Leonardo’s office didn’t respond to requests for interviews Thursday, while a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman declined in an email to comment beyond the announcement.

True the Vote, a tea party-backed group based in Houston, is a nonprofit that claims to protect the integrity of elections by training volunteers to serve as poll watchers and scour voter rolls looking for problem registrations. The group’s volunteers were accused of harassing and intimidating voters in primarily minority neighborhoods in the Houston area in 2010.

In early October, Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., accused True the Vote of targeting and harassing minority voters and demanded the group turn over documents related to its operations.

True the Vote’s model has been duplicated in more than 30 states, spawning groups like Arizona’s Verify the Vote.

True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht has always denied allegations that her group’s poll watchers do anything but follow state laws. She said Thursday that she supports the U.S. attorney’s hotline.

“True the Vote commends the U.S. attorney’s effort to offer assets to voters spotting voter fraud or intimidation,” Engelbrecht said in an email. “TTV will share this effort with volunteers and the general public in the weeks ahead.”

Rios said Arizona Democrats will field their own poll watchers and offer support to voters.

“I believe that (True the Vote and Verify the Vote’s) actions are going to do more harm than good,” he said. “The net effect will be to suppress the vote and discourage individuals who have the right to vote.”

Jennifer Wright, a Phoenix attorney and one-time mayoral candidate who co-founded Verify the Vote with political activist Brad Zinn, said Rios’ concerns are wrong.

“Verify the Vote Arizona stands firm against vote suppression,” Wright said. “Our only goal is to make sure elections are free and fair.”

Wright, who said she supports the U.S. attorney’s hotline, said Verify the Vote’s training stresses that poll watchers can never interact directly with voters, only with the inspectors in charge of polling places.

“We beat that like a drum,” Wright said.

Morrissey said the state Republican Party is training poll watchers and will deploy them in as many places as possible. All of them will know what their roles are and what they can and can’t do, he said.

“We support our candidates, we support our nominees, but we don’t intimidate,” Morrissey said. “There’s nothing built into our system that would bring that about.”

Doug Chapin, a University of Minnesota researcher and director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration, said the U.S. Department of Justice does things like the voter hotline as part of its role in protecting civil rights and investigating election improprieties.

What’s different now, he said, is increasing concern nationally about groups like True the Vote and the politics of the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama.

“In the past a Republican administration might have been looking for fraud,” Chapin said. “This DOJ is not as concerned about that as evidenced by some of their pushback on some of the voter ID laws.”