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Pennsylvania voter-ID debate likely to heat up at polls

| Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, 11:44 a.m.

After months of political jousting, observers from opposite sides of the voter-ID debate could come face to face at polling places on Election Day.

A Houston nonprofit, True the Vote, is including Pennsylvania as it tries to enlist one million poll watchers in 35 states by the Nov. 6 election. The group's founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, supports voter-ID requirements and often suggests safeguarding against voter fraud.

On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and their political allies are assembling observers to focus on voter access to polls. The groups decry ID mandates as infringements on voting rights and warn against voter intimidation.

Neither side could say how many activists it might organize in Pennsylvania. Both intend to carry out their plans no matter how a court challenge to the ID law unfolds, leaders said.

The Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement has about 100 observers in line, founder Patti Weaver said.

“I think most people like voter IDs, and most people want a fair election,” Weaver said. She said poll watchers make sure “no one's putting in votes when nobody's looking.”

Across the aisle, Sara Rose, an ACLU staff attorney in Pittsburgh, said: “Certainly, we're concerned about people making challenges” to voters' eligibility. The organization helped assemble election observers in the city in 2008 and wants to ensure that everyone eligible can vote, she said.

Observers affiliated with the ACLU and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will stand 10 feet outside polling places to help “people who may have questions about voting or have problems exercising their voting rights,” Rose said.

True the Vote hasn't determined how much help the state needs but will talk with election officials, Engelbrecht said.

“There is a tremendous shortage of election workers across the country,” she said. “More often than not, these discussions lead to a sigh of relief from election officials.”

Her participants plan to become officially designated poll watchers who can monitor inside polling locations. The law allows that for formal designees of a party, a candidate or a group involved in a ballot referendum.

The voting process became a flashpoint when Gov. Tom Corbett signed the ID mandate in March. Backed by Republican legislators, the law requires voters to produce state-approved photo IDs before they can cast ballots. Those without acceptable ID can complete provisional ballots; their votes would be counted only if they produce ID within six days.

Acting on an ACLU-supported challenge to the law, the state Supreme Court returned the issue to Commonwealth Court, asking it to decide by Oct. 2 whether the measure gives voters enough access while deterring fraud. That raised doubts about whether the requirement will be in effect Nov. 6.

Election officials in Allegheny, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties said they know of no planned surge in poll observations aside from the uptick typical for presidential elections. No party or candidate may put more than one designated watcher at a time inside a polling place. Watchers must keep away from voting booths.

This year marks the first time True the Vote has ventured into the state. It gained momentum in Texas in 2010, sprouting from a Tea Party group, but calls itself nonpartisan. Through online training, it tells watchers to document and report observations “in keeping with state law.”

“We will go and train whoever invites us,” Engelbrecht said.

Still, True the Vote has fallen under scrutiny for its tactics. An NAACP organizer said True the Vote affiliates in Wisconsin “questioned and intimidated students” during the attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker. Engelbrecht rejects the assessment.

The NAACP anticipates True the Vote will embolden voter intimidation in black communities, said Jotaka Eaddy, an NAACP senior director in Washington. “Our folks will be very focused on ensuring every single voter has correct information.”

Engelbrecht said her supporters would like to work with the NAACP, saying True the Vote “encourages all citizens to serve in our elections — all citizens — irrespective of party, race, creed or color.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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