Oct. 6, 2008 -- Election officials and watchdog groups are bracing for the wave of sneaky or suspicious phone calls, leaflets and emails that typically hit battleground states in the final 30 days of the presidential campaign.
Young voters at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Penn. have already been targeted, with students reporting that flyers have been posted around campus warning that undercover police will be at the polls on Election Day looking to make arrests.
The flyer reads like a friendly letter to fellow students relaying a warning from an "Obama supporter": "He informed me that on the day of the election there will be undercover officers to execute warrants on those who come to vote based on the anticipated turnout," writes the anonymous student in the letter which was later posted on the Drexel College Democrats website. "He advised me if I had any outstanding warrants or traffic offenses I should clear them up prior to voting."
Political experts say the Drexel flyer is a classic example of voter suppression – a practice that involves scaring, angering, or confusing voters so that they stay at home on Election Day.
"The basic idea is that you intimidate people by saying that law enforcement is using the polling place to catch scofflaws…criminals…whoever. It's basically a deterrent to keep people away from voting," said Allen Raymond, a former Republican operative who went to prison for three-months in 2006 for his involvement in a scheme to jam the phones at headquarters of the Democratic get-out-the vote effort in New Hampshire in 2002.
Raymond says that such tactics have evolved from some of the more overt voter intimidation schemes seen back in the early 1980s when the GOP's "Ballot Security Task Force" used armed off-duty police officers at the polling places in New Jersey and posted signs reading "voter fraud is a felony."
Other underhanded tactics seek to confuse voters about their voter registration. In 2006, voters in Virginia reportedly received fake voicemail messages from the state elections commission claiming that the voters were registered in another state and could be criminally charged if they cast their vote in Virginia.
"It doesn't take much to discourage people from voting," said Dr. Larry Sabato, political analyst and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"Generally when people see that, they think 'I just don't want to take a risk. I've got enough problems in my life, I think I'll just skip this one."
Raymond and Sabato say voters should be on the look out for a number of other time-honored tricks, including:
- "Push-poll" phone calls using the guise of a survey to push negative information about a candidate.
- Leaflets or emails listing the wrong date or a "rain date" for the election.
- Automated voicemail messages telling voters that the location of their polling place has changed.
- Repeated late night automated "robo-calls" with a message from a candidate.
Raymond says that some of the dirtiest – and most effective – tricks are designed to trigger a "latent bigoted reaction." Perhaps the most notorious example was the smear against Senator John McCain in South Carolina before the state's presidential primary in 2000.
Anonymous opponents used push-polls and flyers to spread a whisper campaign suggesting that McCain's Bangladeshi-born adopted daughter was his illegitimate black child.
In his book, "How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative", Raymond describes how he helped devise other subtle tricks playing on voters' prejudices during the 2000 congressional race in New Jersey. One trick involved phone calls to Democratic voters of Eastern European descent using the voice of an "angry black man," while another used taped phone messages to Democratic union households using actors with thick Hispanic accents. The ultimate goal of both efforts was to make the voters "throw up their hands" and stay away from the polls.
Such schemes may be harder to pull off today now that federal laws require campaigns and parties to identify themselves to callers, but political experts say that in the age of the Internet the dirty trickster has an almost infinite ability to carry out their schemes with easy and anonymity.
"It's easy, it's untraceable, and by the time you find anything about it, the election is over," said Sabato.