Across the country, Tea Party groups are raising concerns ahead of the midterm elections about potential voter fraud—a problem that most voting experts say has been exaggerated by the GOP in order to push for policies that suppress Democratic turnout.
But to combat what they say is a major threat to the integrity of elections, many local sections of conservative organizations are setting up educational events, creating videos and preparing their members to serve as poll watchers and workers on election day.
Their concerns about illegitimate voters stealing the election have been ginned up by movement leaders like Dick Armey, who recently stated at a GOP event in California that he believes about three percent of the Democratic vote was not legitimate.
"I'm tired of people being Republican all their lives and then changing parties when they die," Armey joked.
Concerns about voter fraud are often stirred up by conservative activists who assert that illegal immigrants, convicted criminals, and even union workers pretending to be dead voters who have not been removed from the rolls are voting on a regular basis. Such assertions are almost always accompanied by calls for restrictive voting laws that can disenfranchise legitimate votes. One study by the Brennan Center found that a person is more likely to get struck by lightning than impersonate another voter at the polls.
But despite all the evidence that voter fraud concerns are, at best, exaggerated, conservative groups appear eager to push their concerns again in 2010. And TPM's search of Tea Party websites and interviews with movement leaders show Armey isn't the only one in the Tea Party who's been bit by the voting fraud bug.
In Texas, a group called True the Vote, which is affiliated with the Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots, announced last month they had discovered of "possibly tens of thousands, of incomplete, inaccurate or false voter registrations." Represented by the 501(c)(3) non profit organization Liberty Institute, which describes itself as "dedicated to protecting freedoms and strengthening families," True the Vote produced a video about the threat of voter fraud, now removed from their site, which was later found to feature a doctored photo of a woman holding a sign reading "I only got to vote once."
In California, the Central Valley Tea Party said over 600 people showed up to an event last month, and the group has posted several voter fraud videos on their website. In one video, a woman named Ruth Gardner claims that labor contractors were picking up groups of people from East Los Angeles to vote illegally and that between 1 million and 1.3 million fraudulent votes were cast in the state.
Groups like Americans For Prosperity have had a hand in flagging the issue — an Arizona Republican strategist suggested at an ATP summit late last month that activists take video cameras to polling stations to film voters to prevent groups like SEIU from voting twice.
Where Armey got his three percent figure, only he knows for sure. But one possibility is from an interview with the former political director of the Republican Party of Texas. Royal Masset said that, in the GOP, it is "article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections," but said he didn't agree with that assertion. He did say, however, that stricter voter ID laws — like the one which was then being debated in Texas and the the ones under fire in Ohio, Indiana and Georgia — would cause a drop off in legitimate Democratic votes and give the GOP a three percent boost.
Tea Party leaders say said they expect that conservative activists will get directly involved with the election process this year by becoming poll workers and watchers.
"It's a cause of concern," Shelby Blakely, a writer and radio host who serves on the National Leadership Council of Tea Party Patriots, told TPM. "I think as we get past 9/12, you're going to see a lot of Tea Party officials get trained to be voting officials."
If they don't keep an eye out, said Blakely, "all the sudden, Al Franken is a senator." She said the biggest threat is voter fraud where dead voters take part in elections, but voting by illegal immigrants is another large concern.
But a lawyer who has written extensively about the voter fraud says the allegations are overblown.
"To the extent that they are encouraging people to get involved in the process, spectacular," Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, told TPM. While he was with the Brennan Center for Justice, Levitt authored the report which showed that voter fraud claims were exaggerated. "Where I start to get more nervous is where there are accusations of fraud that are not based in fact which then lead to calls for policies which hurt real voters."
One of the biggest disconnects, says Levitt, is over the difference between someone being registered to vote and that person actually taking part in an election. Dead voters or voters who have moved out of the area may still be on the rolls, but there is difference between being on the rolls and actually casting a ballot, he said.
"There are an awful lot of safe guards between here and there to make sure Mickey Mouse isn't showing up to vote," Levitt said.
Still, Tea Party groups will be out to make sure illegitimate voters don't cast a ballot.
"They'll be in battleground states where a truckload full of votes will make the difference," Blakely said.