In Houston, conservative poll watchers have been accused of hovering over early voters as they've tried to cast their ballots. The same complaints have surfaced in North Carolina's 13th Congressional District—home to Raleigh and other major cities—where poll watchers have been accused of taking down voters' names and addresses. In Indiana's Marion County, an altercation erupted after a local Republican official was taking photos of voters in violation of election law. There's a common thread connecting these and other recent election episodes—they're concentrated in communities with significant minority populations where tight races are on the line.
Even before Republicans and tea party activists began stirring up voter fraud fears this year, Democrats worried that many of the minority and first-time 2008 voters who showed up in record numbers at the polls in 2008 might sit out the 2010 midterms. In recent weeks, a rash of allegations of voter intimidation during early voting has raised concerns that the voter fraud crusade could make their turnout troubles even worse.
Anti-voter-fraud campaigns are popping up across the country, but their biggest rollouts have tended to be in lower-income areas with large minority populations. "Turning out people in those communities is often difficult because their priorities lie elsewhere," says Gerry Hebert, executive director of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center. "Consequently, it's a concern when word gets out about people encountering difficulty at the polls—it makes it doubly hard to get voters out." He says that such anti-fraud campaigns could have a "chilling effect" on turnout. Already, the Department of Justice is investigating complaints about voter intimidation in Houston, raising concerns that overzealous poll watchers will overstep their bounds—particularly as conservative organizers urge them to use legally dubious poll-watching tactics.
On the left, there's particular concern that Latino voters might not turn out in large numbers: They're one of the Democratic-leaning groups with the lowest enthusiasm about voting this year, in part because of President Obama's failure to fulfill his promises on immigration reform. And it might not take anything more than an environment of voter fraud paranoia to make Latinos even less inclined to show up, voting rights advocates say. "It doesn't require anyone to show up in any precinct to engage in any actual activity—it creates a climate of suspicion that could get some number of people and dissuade them from turning out to vote," says Dale Ho, assistant counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. Moreover, the anti-immigrant backlash that emerged in the wake of Arizona's harsh immigration law has also raised concerns that ethnic minorities and immigrants could be unfairly scrutinized by fraud-spotters at the polls.