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Politics

Some wary of Hillsborough poll-watching group with tea party ties

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:54 AM
TAMPA -

A new organization in Hillsborough County says it is making a non-partisan effort to clean up errors or possible fraud in voter rolls, but it is associated with a tea party group accused of seeking to suppress minority votes in Texas.

The organization, Tampa Vote Fair, is combing county voter rolls using a database and software obtained free from a national organization called True the Vote.

True the Vote is an outgrowth of King Street Patriots, a Houston-based group accused in court of using poll watchers to suppress minority voting in Houston in 2010.

Backers say the Tampa group's efforts will be nonpartisan, but its work could draw fire in a state already roiled by allegations of attempted voter suppression.

Democrats and others are challenging new laws passed by the Republican majority in the state Legislature, which Republicans say are aimed at preventing voter fraud, but Democrats say are aimed at reducing voting by minorities, young people and women.

The group's formation also suggests the increasing extent to which partisan battles are being fought through voting regulations.

"The election system is under the microscope by both parties," said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. "For Republicans it's the fraud angle, and for Democrats it's the anti-voter suppression angle.

"Probably the most difficult job in Florida politics this fall is going to be the supervisor of elections."

Kimberly Kelley, a local Republican activist and head of Tampa Vote Fair, says the group's goal is not to reduce voter turnout, but to find possible errors in voter rolls: numerous voters listed at the same address, voters who may be deceased, or instances of people registered more than once. It then informs the elections supervisor's office about them.

She said that's "a nonpartisan effort to ensure that anybody who is legally registered to vote is entitled to vote and should vote."

Kelley said the software and voter database obtained from True the Vote don't show the partisan affiliation of the voters.

She said the group will train poll watchers but "to make sure everything is done and followed to the letter and assist anyone if it's not being fair to them."

But she said the poll watchers might also challenge voters, meaning object to poll officials allowing them to vote, she said.

Voter challenges by Republican poll watchers in the past have led to national litigation and court orders against "voter caging," challenging voters based on previously compiled evidence of incorrect addresses on voting rolls.

Asked under what circumstances Tampa Vote Fair poll watchers might challenge voters, Kelley didn't give a clear answer, saying she hasn't been through the poll watcher training provided by True the Vote.

"Until I go through the training, I won't know the specifics," she said. "I believe they can challenge if they feel there's something amiss with what's happened."

She said the poll watchers will not take to the polls any of the data produced by the organization's research.

Kelley is a member of the local Republican Party executive committee, the grassroots-level party organization. But county GOP Chairman Art Wood said her group isn't part of the local party: "It's not our effort. It's her effort."

Tampa Vote Fair has sent the county elections supervisor's office its first list of what it suspects are improper registrations: about 70 pairs of identical or similar names it believes could be the same person registered twice.

About 50 of the 140 names are labeled black or Hispanic.

Elections Supervisor Earl Lennard said his office is investigating the list, but that such errors routinely crop up and are caught as part of the office's normal "list maintenance." That includes reviewing change-of-address notices from the post office and other sources, death reports from the state and reports of voter changes from other counties.

It's not unusual for people to register twice accidentally, and similar names can result from omitting a middle initial or a "Jr." or "Sr.," said Lennard's chief of staff Craig Latimer. With almost 700,000 voters on the county rolls, he said, they'll always contain some errors not yet caught.

In a lawsuit, the Texas Democratic Party has charged King Street Patriots with sending poll watchers to minority precincts to harass and intimidate voters in 2010.

"They had them walk around with clipboards and official-looking clothing, and stand over people's shoulders while they were voting," said Chad Dunn, the party's lawyer.

He said the group would sift through voter registration applications and challenge applicants based on "hypertechnical errors," such as an applicant with a driver's license listing a Social Security number instead of the driver's license number, which is preferred – although neither is required.

Texas voters don't register by party, he said, but the challenged voters were mostly minorities. "It's easy to find the Democrats – you just look at black and Hispanic precincts."

"It's a voter suppression organization funded by right-wing business interests whose goal is to suppress Americans' right to vote and foster in election of Republicans," he said.

As educational charities, neither King Street Patriots nor True the Vote reveal their donors. Dunn didn't provide evidence of his comment about their funding. His lawsuit seeks to have King Street Patriots designated a political committee.

Kelley was inspired to start Tampa Vote Fair after attending a True the Vote seminar in Sarasota.

Catherine Engelbrecht of Houston, founder of King Street Patriots and True the Vote, said she hopes to spur formation of local voter registration watchdog groups nationwide.

She denied the allegations in Dunn's lawsuit, saying True the Vote provided only training for the poll watchers and didn't send them to polls or control their work. In Texas, like Florida, poll watchers must represent a party or candidate. Engelbrecht said it was her understanding some trained by True the Vote were appointed by Democrats.

She said funding comes mostly from "$10 and $20 donations from people across the country, and what we do is not very capital-intensive."

True the Vote's goal, she said, is "Just to make sure that our voter rolls are as accurate as they can be. When there are issues, you turn them over to the county or municipality and they clear them up and everybody's happy."

She said True the Vote is working to start other local organizations in Florida, and didn't pick Hillsborough County because of an indication of a problem in voter rolls.

"We have created a program that any citizen across the nation can be involved in," she said.


News Channel 8 reporter Lauren Mayk contributed to this report. wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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