Poll watchers warned in Mississippi

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State officials in Mississippi are warning groups backing state Sen. Chris McDaniel that their efforts to organize poll watchers for Tuesday's runoff might be illegal.

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Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the underdog in his primary runoff fight with McDaniel, has been pushing African-American and Democratic voters to turn out for him on Tuesday to try to expand his share of the vote.

Under state law, Democrats who did not vote in the first primary round are allowed to vote in the GOP runoff, but conservatives backing McDaniel have argued the law prevents voters from supporting a candidate in the primary that they don’t plan to back in the general election — making Cochran’s push potentially illegal.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots are deploying poll watchers Tuesday trained to “observe whether the law is being followed," an adviser to the effort told The New York Times.

But Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (D) and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (R) are charging the effort by the trio of conservative groups might be illegal. 

In a release, they point to a section in state law allowing for just one poll watcher appointed by each candidate on the ballot, and argue that “there is no authority in state law for a PAC or other outside group to place ‘election observers’ in Mississippi polling places.”

The law also allows very narrow opportunities for observers to challenge a person’s ballot — “only if the voter openly declares he does not intend to support the nominee” in the general election.

Their offices are deploying their own poll watchers to keep an eye on Tuesday's proceedings.

The contentious nature of the runoff battle between McDaniel and Cochran has tempers flaring in Mississippi, and the flood of out-of-state media, activists and officials to polling places Tuesday is likely to add to the pressure-cooker atmosphere in the state.

And Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef said he was concerned about how the poll watchers may reflect on the GOP, if they take liberties with their proposed duties and are seen as racially profiling voters.

"I’ve talked to almost every lawyer with a bar number in Mississippi about the law I just mentioned, and one thing that seems to be clear is it's nearly unenforceable. So the last thing that I want is a bunch of out of state people questioning randomly, or worse, people who are trying to vote today," he said in an interview with MSNBC host Chuck Todd.

McDaniel has led in nearly every survey of the runoff, but the outcome of such a rare election is difficult to predict. Democrats are hoping those polls are correct, however, as they're running former Rep. Travis Childers in the race in hopes of taking advantage of what they see as a weak nominee in McDaniel, if he wins.

—This piece was updated at 2:30 p.m. to reflect comment from Nosef.