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GOP trains N.M. tea party poll challengers
Republican Party operatives from Texas have been training Albuquerque tea party activists as poll challengers for more than two weeks, GOP New Mexico Victory 2010 Director Ash Wright and GOP poll challenger trainer Josh Weber told The Independent.
“It’s not like we send every last tea party person,” Weber said. “It’s not just the tea party. Susana (Martinez) is sending people to us, and (Jon) Barela.”
The training center’s address was listed, without mention that it is a GOP facility, on the Albuquerque Tea Party website.
“Poll challengers and watchers are absolutely critical in this, and every election cycle,” the tea party website states. “The allegations of voter fraud in NM are rampant. We cannot allow the election to be stolen because we could not recruit and train enough challengers and watchers!”
Sessions held at the GOP facility train poll challengers, whose job is to object to voters who may be voting fraudulently, Weber said.
“Poll watchers are not poll challengers,” Weber said. “We only train poll challengers here. We’ve been holding trainings for about two and a half weeks now.”
No voter’s right to vote has actually been challenged so far this year, Weber said.
“We’ve had some (challengers) call us with questions, but that’s it,” he said.
The Democratic Party has trained approximately 200 challengers of its own, an official confirmed Thursday.
Weber has trained close to 350 poll challengers, he estimated. He did not know how many of those volunteers were tea party activists. But an August issue of the Albuquerque Tea Party newsletter posted on the group’s website reports that at least 80 of its members had been trained by late summer.
Democratic Party officials and other critics have claimed the real function of poll challengers is to discourage or intimidate voters in heavily Democratic pricincts.
But Weber rejected suggestions that challengers are intimidating or discouraging voters at early-voting precincts.
“We haven’t heard of anybody crossing the line,” Weber said. “It’s been going great. We haven’t had any issues brought to our attention. It’s been really smooth.”
Actual voter fraud is extremely rare, experts say
But the threat of voter fraud is exaggerated, independent experts have concluded.
“Do these challengers ever find fraud? Almost never,” Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Steven Robert Allen said Friday. “There’ve been numerous studies that show statistically speaking, there really is no significant voter fraud occurring in this country. If you look in Doña Ana County, where the most heated allegations come from, the county clerk has done an excellent job debunking a lot of the mythology around voter fraud.”
“But that doesn’t mean [poll challengers] don’t have a legitimate reason to be there,” Allen said. “I think eyes on the election process are a good thing.”
Common Cause will operate a voter assistance hotline at 866-687-8683 both Monday and Tuesday, Allen said.
“If there’s any sort of intimidating or abrasive behavior on the part of a challenger, that’s clearly inappropriate at a polling location,” Allen said.
Poll challengers have in past elections created a hostile voting environment that discouraged or prevented legitimate voters from casting their ballots, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with investigating and preventing voter fraud, despite the fact study after study shows that actual voter fraud is extraordinarily rare,” the Center’s report states. “But democracy suffers when anti-fraud initiatives block or create unnecessary hurdles for eligible voters; when they target voters based on race, ethnicity, or other impermissible characteristics; when they cause voter intimidation and confusion; and when they disrupt the voting process. Unfortunately, historically and in recent elections, ‘ballot security’ operations have too often had these effects.”
“One federal court recently found that ballot security operations planned or conducted in recent years have largely threatened legitimate voters,” the study notes. “As the court found, not only have such initiatives often targeted eligible voters for disenfranchisement, but they also disrupt polling places, create long lines, and often cause voters to feel intimidated.”
Indeed, even though this is Weber’s third election as a challenger trainer and coordinator, his volunteers have never actually caught a case of voter fraud, he acknowledged Wednesday.
“Most of the time they think there’s a problem (with a voter’s registration), it’s a misunderstanding on the part of the challenger,” Weber said.
The Albuquerque Tea Party is training its own poll challengers but they are then sent to a one-hour certification training session run by the Republican Party, Albuquerque Tea Party acting secretary Debbie Weisman told The Independent Thursday morning.
“The GOP or the Democratic Party has to appoint their people because we don’t have the authority,” Weisman said. “They have to be appointed by the party they’re affiliated with.”
GOP brought Texas party operatives to train N.M. challengers
Both Weber and Wright are residents of Austin, Texas, Weber said.
“This is our first year in New Mexico,” Weber said.
But the poll challenger training program is funded entirely by the state Republican Party, without assistance from out-of-state sources, Wright said.
Four vehicles with Texas license plates were parked in front of the GOP’s leased strip mall offices, including a black SUV emblazoned with a large “Rush for Land Commissioner” banner. Republican Matthew Rush is running against Democrat Ray Powell for state land commissioner.
The GOP offices abut a title loan business and a Coast Guard recruiting station. The training center’s windows are blacked out and a sign on the door reads: “New Mexico Operations & Control Center. Restricted access. Authorized personnel only.”
Weber said the sign was posted as a joke.
Asked for copies of training handouts and literature, Weber told The Independent the training was entirely “verbal.”
“I pretty much stand up there and run them through it,” he said.
Voters with any questions or concerns on Monday or election day should call Common Cause’s Count Every Vote New Mexico hotline, toll-free, at 1 (866) OUR VOTE (1-866-687-8683).