The Four-Alarm System That Is Helping Obama’s Ohio Team Fight Voter Suppression

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Ohio

Today, volunteers for both the Romney and Obama campaigns in Ohio will fan out across the state, serving as poll observers and watching for signs of mischief at polling places. The Obama campaign is especially worried about efforts to crack down on voter fraud led by conservative groups like True the Vote, which some volunteers say traffics in intimidation and suppression.

To properly police poll workers and keep activists at arm's reach, President Obama's Ohio volunteers, many of whom are lawyers (and two of whom, full disclosure, are my parents) will have with them copies of a 34-page "observer manual" prepared by the campaign. The document lists their rights and obligations as poll observers, and gives them a four-tier triage system in case they spot any shenanigans at the polls.

Default Action is the lowest alert level and is the recommended response to an incident that is too minor to bring out the big guns. According to a copy of the observer manual, taking Default Action means politely informing the presiding judge at the polling station of the issue, then proposing a solution. (Essentially, solving a problem yourself.)

Level 1 Action (Log Only) is the next most serious action an Obama volunteer can take, and involves marking an incident in a log book that includes the voter's name and address, the precinct judge's name, and a description of what occurred. (These log books will barely be used unless a re-count is needed, in which case, they will be pored over for evidence of sketchy behavior.) Incidents for which Level 1 Action is recommended include "any opening or manipulation of a voting machine component" that is not properly documented by poll workers, a failure to log the closing time of a poll, and "any unsealed voting equipment or supply bags" that are found in the polling place.

Level 2 Action (Log & Call) is reserved for more serious offenses and involves not only filling out an incident report but calling a special "boiler room" hotline that is staffed by volunteer campaign lawyers. Observers are told to call a Level 2 alert "if memory card bag or voting machines are unsealed," if voting supplies are running low and not being replenished, if wait times outside the polls exceed 30 minutes, and other mid-level crises.

The most serious escalation, Level 3 Action (Declaration & Call) is the campaign's equivalent of a code red. If they see a Level 3–worthy incident (a voter being challenged by a poll worker, or a voter who has mysteriously dropped off the register at his or her proper precinct), observers are instructed to fill out an official Voter Declaration form, as well as calling the boiler room.

Obama's volunteer coordinators are especially concerned about voter suppression in minority-dominated Ohio neighborhoods. One passage in the state observer manual reads:

IF YOU SEE POLLWORKERS CHALLENGING A UNUSUALLY LARGE AMOUNT OF VOTERS, ESPECIALLY OF A PARTICULAR RACE OR OTHER CHARACTERISTIC, TAKE LEVEL 3 ACTION: DECLARATION & CALL IMMEDIATELY.

The campaign hopes that by over-preparing its volunteers for possible election day mischief, it will reduce the possibility of harassment or intimidation at the polls. And although it's not an entirely pleasant scenario to think about, Obama's Election Day protocol could help him in the event of an Ohio recount.