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Election 2012: True the Vote volunteers versus "voting heroes" in poll-watching smackdown?

Throughout Colorado today, hundreds of poll watchers will be monitoring activity to ensure that there is no law-breaking or fraud. But they won't be the only volunteers at election sites. Hundreds more will also be dispatched throughout the state with the central mission of protecting voter's rights. And part of that effort, they say, is watching the poll watchers to make sure no one is being harassed or unfairly intimidated. Think West Side Story.

Last week, we reported on training by True the Vote, a controversial national organization dedicated to preventing voter fraud on election day. Voter rights groups critical of True the Vote worry that today, the organization will embark on a witch hunt across swing states to find nonexistent instances of fraud in efforts that will only scare legal voters at the polls. Some of those tactics, Colorado Common Cause told us last week, could be against the law.

Inside the Denver GOP office.
Inside the Denver GOP office.
Sam Levin

True the Vote training documents for poll watchers have all sorts of misinformation, from incorrect ID requirements to false guidelines around the kind of assistance disabled or non-English voters can get in the voting booths, according to Common Cause.

It's not clear, however, what kind of physical presence True the Vote will actually have in Colorado, if any. The organization has not returned numerous phone calls, but last week, we reached a representative from a group called Colorado Voter Protection, which is using True the Vote training tools and is helping organize poll-watching volunteers across the state. And the chair of Denver's Republican Party recently told us that the GOP in Denver has been working with True the Vote materials in its trainings.

Jeff Kelly, the founder of Colorado Voter Protection -- which Common Cause also criticized in a recent letter it sent to state officials -- sees all the negative press around True the Vote as completely unwarranted. From his perspective, he said, it seems like all these different groups essentially have the same goal of ensuring fair elections.

He told us that his organization, which he founded over the summer as a nonprofit, has helped train more than 500 volunteers to do poll watching on election day. He says the group will be staffing all the polls in Douglas, Arapahoe, Adams, Broomfield and Larimer counties, with a possible presence in Denver and Boulder as well.

"There's this misunderstanding that people are trying to intimidate voters," he said in response to the critics of True the Vote. "We don't even approach the voters."

He said his whole effort is about getting citizens involved in the process.

"I've seen the press. I don't understand it," he said. "If they just took the training once, they'd understand that this isn't political at all. This is strictly civic."

He said he has had a mix of volunteers with different party affiliations sign up to help out and monitor polls.

Last week, after we sent him the letter from Common Cause, he also told us he appreciated the feedback, though not the tone, and passed it along to volunteers.

There are many different goals of poll watching, he explained, including ensuring there is no electioneering -- which is basically wearing campaign gear into the polls. The volunteers also look to make sure there's no intimidation, such as a large group of supporters for one candidate blocking the path into the polls. And they also make sure the election staffers on site are doing their job of checking that voters have proper IDs.

"I just don't understand why anybody would care if the citizens were involved in the elections," he said.

Continue for details on the "voting heroes" dedicated to protecting voters' rights and stopping intimidation.   A coalition of organizations have joined together for an initiative called "Just Vote! Colorado," which is geared at protecting voters' rights. It's a partnership of Colorado Common Cause, Mi Familia Vota, The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People, League of Women Voters of Colorado and the Colorado Lawyers Committee.

Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, told us last week that they are dispatching "voting heroes" across the state.

"They'll be nonpartisan volunteers outside the polls," she said.

As part of this effort, group members will man two hotlines from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: The English one is 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) and the Spanish hotline is 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682). They've also launched the website justvotecolorado.org with information about basic rights voters have. The groups have also trained 400 "voting heroes," who will help people with questions about their rights on election day.

Wendy Warner, chairwoman of the Denver GOP
Wendy Warner, chairwoman of the Denver GOP
Sam Levin

"We just think it's important to [provide] basic information and to be there as a counter to any intimidation," she said.

Nuñez said she has no idea what kind of illegal poll watching or potential intimidation could occur from groups like True the Vote, but wants to be prepared.

"I hope...voters have quiet days and that people have good experiences," she said. "The goal is that every voter who is eligible to vote is able to vote.... The 400 poll monitors are going to be our eyes and ears. If we see something, or hear a problem, we are going to step in quickly to make sure laws are followed, and if not, we are going to ask that poll watchers be removed."

When told about the "voting heroes," Colorado Voter Protection's Kelly said, "Awesome. If there's more people there watching and making sure that the election is accurate, great. I applaud that."

But what does he think of groups saying they are there to counter organizations like True the Vote that could potentially harass or scare voters?

"If someone says they're counter to True the Vote, then they are counter the law. They are implying they are against the law, because we do nothing other than what the law says," he responded.

On top of these groups, the U.S. Justice Department also will be monitoring polls in 23 states today, including Colorado. According to a news release sent out last week, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department plans to deploy more than 780 federal observers and department personnel to 51 jurisdictions, and on that list are Denver and Arapahoe counties.

The stakes are especially high for all of these different forms of scrutiny today in Colorado, where a very small margin of voters will determine the state's presidential pick, which could play an important role in deciding who wins the national race.

Wendy Warner, chair of the Denver Republican Party, told us last week at an early vote event that poll watching is about enforcing basic guidelines: "We're there to make sure that the rules and regulations that the city has about voting are being followed."

Sign calling for poll watchers in the Denver Republican Party office.
Sign calling for poll watchers in the Denver Republican Party office.
Sam Levin

She added, "We work very closely with the Elections Division if we have concerns."

Warner said it's personal for her, since two years ago, she was unfairly confronted on her way into the polls and felt intimidated. And she also has worries about voter fraud -- people casting ballots who shouldn't be, she said.

"We're just concerned. We want to make sure that everybody who is registered to vote can vote," she said. "And that they vote themselves and somebody doesn't take over that function for them."

More from our Politics archive: "Amendment 64: Manager of Safety predicts law enforcement "turmoil" if it passes"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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