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Despite advocates’ concerns, no reports of problems with Arizona poll watchers

GUADALUPE – After Margarita Cota voted Tuesday in this mostly Latino community, she sat outside a market and talked politics with friends.

She said she barely noticed the half-dozen people – partisan poll watchers, along with federal election monitors – who kept an eye on those casting ballots.

"They're just sitting there quietly, not doing anything," said Cota, Guadalupe's former mayor. "It didn't bother me."

Cota, other voters and election workers at several precincts in majority-Latino areas of Phoenix, Tempe and Guadalupe said the presence of poll watchers wasn't a big deal.

Democrats and left-leaning voter-rights groups had raised concerns that poll watchers mobilized by conservative groups like True the Vote nationally and Verify the Vote in Arizona would lead to voter intimidation and vote-suppression.

But Sam Wercinski, head of the Arizona Advocacy Network, which trained and mobilized hundreds of its own poll watchers in response, said he didn't hear any reports of problems with poll watchers beyond isolated reports of people being rude.

"It doesn't seem as bad as we prepared for," Wercinski said.

Verify the Vote co-founder Jennifer Wright said she didn't hear of any problems with the poll watchers that her group trained and offered to the political parties. That lack of drama validates what Verify the Vote was trying to do, she said.

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"The reason why we have poll watchers is showing that by having people there problems don't occur," she said. "That's the way voting should be."

Tim Sifert, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, said he had "zero" reports of issues with poll watchers from any group.

"This is one of those no-news-is-good-news stories," Sifert said. "We have not heard anything at the Maricopa County level or any of the other counties about problems."

Joaquin Rios, research director and election protection coordinator for the Arizona Democratic Party, said the party was investigating a few minor incident involving poll watchers but added that there weren't nearly as many problems as expected.

"It was not the mass onslaught we were expecting," Rios said.

Barry Buhan was appointed as a poll watcher by the Maricopa County Republican Party Tuesday and worked most of the morning at Joseph Zito Elementary School in west Phoenix. He said he volunteered because wanted to ensure everybody's vote counts.

"That's all I'm there to do, to make sure either way," Buhan said mid-Tuesday morning. "So far I'm seeing it's run very well."

Linda Grim, a poll watcher trained by the Arizona Advocacy Network and appointed by the Democratic Party, said she saw minor issues but nothing major at the polling place at Peralta Elementary School in west Phoenix.

"Nothing I'm seeing that the poll workers can't take care of," Grim said.

The U.S. Justice Department deployed more than 780 federal observers across jurisdictions in 23 states, including Maricopa and Pima counties in Arizona. Their goal: ensuring that states comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bars election procedures that have racist or discriminatory effects.

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Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment Tuesday on what the federal monitors found nationally or in Arizona.

During a news conference Tuesday afternoon held in Washington, D.C., by Election Protection, a coalition of voting and civil rights groups, leaders said True the Vote didn't come close to mobilizing the 1 million poll watchers it claimed to be training.

"I think that True the Vote certainly attempted to have a significant effect on this election but … they weren't as strong as they were claiming to be," Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which is part of the coalition.

Greenbaum said in some cases election officials stopped True the Vote's efforts. For instance, he said, in Ohio's Franklin County election officials banned True the Vote from registering more than two dozen poll watchers because its applications weren't filed correctly.

"They sort of bungled it along the way," he said.

True the Vote didn't respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday. But Catherine Engelbrecht, the group's founder, told conservative political website Brietbart.com that its poll watchers were blocked because candidates who originally sponsored the poll watchers for placement at the polling sites later rescinded their sponsorship.

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Natasha Khan/Cronkite News Service

Barry Buhan, a poll watcher registered with the Republican Party, stands outside a polling place at a west Phoenix school. 'I'm just here to make sure everything runs smoothly,' he said.