MIAMI — Kimberly Kelley of Tampa has provided Florida elections officials with thousands of names of people she thinks may be ineligible to vote and should be removed from the rolls. On Election Day, she'll join thousands more – people of all political stripes – to monitor balloting.
"I believe there is fraud both ways. I don't think it's a specific group," said Ms. Kelley, a registered Republican whose group is called Tampa Vote Fair. "We're just there to observe. We're not going to intimidate anyone."
Poll watchers from unions, immigration groups and other organizations favoring greater voter access will also be on hand. Gihan Perera of the group Florida New Majority said training sessions are being held for observers and communications lines set up to respond to problems.
"We'll be aware and vigilant so that all of the rules and processes are honored and that our people are able to vote with ease," he said.
With polls showing a close race between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a relative handful of votes either way in a battleground state such as Florida or Ohio could make all the difference. The potential for disruptive crowds of observers at some precincts has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or harassed or have their eligibility to vote challenged directly.
The concern is particularly intense among black and Hispanic voters, who historically have suffered discrimination and were targeted anew in more recent elections, civil rights leaders say.
"People have suffered and bled for our right to vote," said the Rev. Victor T. Curry, pastor of New Birth Baptist Church in Dania Beach, north of Miami. "We will have monitors who will monitor the monitors."
Groups such as True the Vote, a Houston-based organization with links to the tea party, refer to their activities as "election integrity." For those fearing suppression attempts, it's all about "voter protection." Both sides are organizing people around the country to be their poll watchers.
True the Vote has said it hopes to recruit 1 million people nationwide to be monitors. Its founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, said that her group is nonpartisan and that its goal is "renewing faith in our election system" through its growing national coalition.
"Every eligible American voter deserves the opportunity to participate in a fair and legal election process, even those Democrats and left-leaning organizations who continually cast false aspersions about our efforts," Ms. Engelbrecht said in an email. "We support lawful election processes."
States have specific rules regarding who is allowed inside polling places and how close outside observers can get. In Florida, those on the outside must stay at least 100 feet away. Most states also allow private citizens to directly challenge the eligibility of voters – for example, claiming they don't have proper identification – although not all of those challenges can be made on Election Day.
Federal and state agencies also play a role in poll monitoring. The Justice Department, for example, will appoint observers under the 1965 Voting Rights Act who are geared mainly toward guaranteeing that minority voters are not interfered with at the ballot box. This third group of monitors will be sent to precincts that officials deem most at risk of voting access violations.