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When Minnesota voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they may get the feeling someone is watching.
The increasingly popular practice of keeping an eye on the polling places, looking for cheats on one hand and unfair barriers to eligible voters on the other, has come to Minnesota, although in a milder form than in heavily contested states such as Ohio. Election Integrity Watch, which is worried about fraud, and Election Protection, concerned about voters' rights, will have their hotlines and volunteers ready.
Inside the polls, the major parties expect to station official challengers who can watch the proceedings at select precincts. State law limits the ability of those observers to challenge individual voters, but the potential for low-level conflict exists -- particularly in close elections.
"We advise folks to never, under any circumstances, actually approach a voter or challenge a voter," said Walter Hudson, who is organizing fraud-seeking volunteers for Election Integrity Watch, an affiliate of the pro-photo ID group Minnesota Majority. "Our job ... is to observe anything that seems to be out of line or suspicious, and report that."
Jonathan Van Horn, a lawyer helping to organize Election Protection, said the goal is to protect the rights of voters and help them deal with barriers and bureaucratic snafus. "Part of the role is looking for instances which, fortunately, in this state are rare but do happen, where the system isn't working the way it should be working," he said.
Tuesday's ballot, which includes a constitutional amendment on whether to require photo ID at the polls, is the culmination of a raging debate over how Minnesota's election system operates. The ballot booth has become a focal point of contention.
In Minnesota in 2004, when Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry battled for the state's electoral votes, scattered complaints arose about behavior inside and outside the polling place.
Republican poll challengers were accused of intimidating voters on the Red Lake Indian Reservation and in Duluth. The liberal group MoveOn.org was accused of stationing volunteers too close to the polls.
A change in state law specifies that poll challengers -- who are appointed by major political parties and who have a right to be at the polling places -- must be from Minnesota and can challenge a voter only when they have personal knowledge that the voter may be ineligible. That did away with "hired gun" challengers and limited the total number of challenges, said Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky.
"That has been useful in kind of turning down the heat when races are close," Mansky said.
Voters, election judges and partisan challengers -- and few others -- are allowed inside the polling place. If a voter's eligibility is challenged, the chief election judge questions the voter under oath on the spot. If the judge is satisfied, the challenged person is allowed to vote. Voters face penalties after the fact if caught cheating.
"I think things are better now than they were in '04," Mansky said. Joseph Valerio, an election judge in New Hope, agreed that the system is working. "It has been remarkably trouble-free," Valerio said.
But concerns about voter fraud, which has animated the photo ID debate, are motivating Election Integrity Watch to keep an eye out.
Hudson, who is active with the Tea Party Patriots of the Twin Cities, said his group will staff an Election Day phone bank, has placed advertisements in bus shelters calling for a reward for reporting fraud, and is asking volunteers to be on the lookout. Volunteers can report anything they consider suspicious, either while they're voting, serving as an election judge or observing polling places from outside the 100-foot buffer zone required by law, Hudson said.
"Obviously there's a limit to what is detectable, given the limits imposed on us by law," he said. Volunteers are told to look for "buses or large vehicles carrying large numbers of people to the polling place," he said, or "indications that multiple people are being vouched for by people who don't appear to actually know them." A voter who sees "folks from assisted-living facilities who are being more than just assisted by whoever is escorting them" could report that, he said.
Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs for the secretary of state, notes that Minnesota does not have "poll-watchers" -- partisans who may keep lists of who has and hasn't voted. Only organizations conducting exit polls can get within the 100-foot buffer zone required by law. "No one is allowed to impede traffic to or from the polling place," she said.
Van Horn, a lawyer with Dorsey & Whitney, said Election Protection is a national coalition involving the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Common Cause Minnesota. Its hotline will run during business hours and until 8:30 p.m. on Election Day. The group trains volunteers to observe, answer questions and respond to problems.
"The primary effort is in voter assistance," Van Horn said. "The laws can be complicated. ... Our intent is not so much to look for problems, as to be an additional resource for voters."
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042