Slightly worn funky armchairs, a blackboard with cute drawings and local versions of coffee — the “short north”, a heavy espresso, named for the district of Columbus, where it’s based. A dozen or so people — most with laptops; kids doing college work on a cold wet afternoon and Columbus’s ageing hippie (there’s one in every town) with chest-length grey beard, Creedence souvenir baseball cap, bifocals reading the street press. I scan around, looking for a meeting.

At a big table near the front window, a table of a dozen young people talking animatedly. Must be it. “Hi” I say, hauling my backpack to rest — I’ve come straight from the airport — “I’m the reporter from Australia. Sorry I’m late.'” They look bemused. A silence. “Um, is this the Occupy election observer meeting?”. I glance at the literature on the table. It’s some whacky pyramid-selling scheme. The energetic leader is no community organiser, she’s more a Mitt Romney type.

Look around the cafe again, and uh oh, the only other possibility is three men, scruffier but presentable, the traditional look of the organiser. “Is this the voter suppression meeting?” I must have put the emphasis unwittingly, because the lead guy says, without being asked “there’s four more people coming”. There are sheaves of instructions for observers on the table, copies of Ohio election law, and a roll of stickers for official election observers.

By the end of the meeting, the stickers remain unpeeled — the four attendees, who had confirmed through Facebook, do not arrive. The organiser does not appear fazed: “the thing is with Occupy, you have a lot of people who are ready to turn out when something’s on. We’ll get our observers through the Green Party. They know how important it is.”

You would hope so. If the election is close, it will go well beyond November 6 in Ohio, and the Ohio improptu observation committee will need all the help it can get.

Observers from the Left in Ohio are going to be out in force, but they’ll be as much meta-observers as observers — they’ll be watching out for the “True The Vote” crowd, the Tea Party-based group who claim to be organising non-partisan observers to watch for individual voter impersonation, a vanishing small event, but whose real task appears to be generalised voter intimidation, especially of black, Hispanic and poor voters (i.e. those more likely to vote Democrat).

The practice is an old Southern one, a development on from the Jim Crow laws which made voting by blacks near impossible for decades. In the 90s and 2000s, as voting blocs settled into place, it became clear that Ohio would be the battleground state in any close election. Thus in 2004, the state was flooded with a group that became known as the “Texas Strike Force”, the precursors of True The Vote.

Their dirty tricks are renowned: getting lists of people with minor criminal convictions and calling them up, telling them, falsely, they’d be arrested if they tried to vote, that police were at the polls serving unfilled warrants, and the like. This year, in Cincinnati, the swing city in a swing state with a large black population, billboards mysteriously appeared saying “Voter Fraud is a Felony”, signed off by an anonymous donor. When a sluggish Ohio state department (the state is now run by Republicans) was eventually prodded into forcing the donor to disclose themselves, as per regulation, the billboards came down.

The Texas Strike Force issued, at a couple of remove points, from Karl Rove’s Texas organisation, a group which is unsurprisingly entangled with the Bush dynasty. The question that haunts American politics is whether election fixing went beyond voter suppression, to outright electoral fraud. It’s a question that the observer team wearily acknowledge, but also one that is a little too raw. “We’re going to be taking down the serial numbers of every voting machine so we can sound the alarm if there’s any sudden ‘recalibrations’. Also we’ll be looking for any technicians from “TRIAD’,” said one.

Say what? “You should ask Bob. Bob Fitrakis. He know’s about all this stuff.”

“Hey come in, don’t mind the decor,” said a large Joisey type guy, when I call on Bob Fitrakis. His offices are in one of Columbus’ old mansions, perfectly preserved, lovingly detailed — “this was one of the old robber baron places, I snapped it up when it was 70% down on the market, during the crash”. The main room is littered with books and charts — electoral law, computer design, books on the 2000 election, ’04 election. Fitrakis and a few others run The Free Press, an online news site which has made outright electoral fraud its purview.

Few others are, despite ample evidence that the 2004 election was stolen in Ohio, and that the same forces are gearing up to steal the 2012 one, should it come down to a single state. The Free Press breaks story after story, but there is little press interest. Most recently, the discovery that a Romney-connected company, Hart Intercivic, supplies the machines for voting in one key county — Hamilton, where Cincinnati is located — and also control the maintenance contracts for the machines. briefly excited the interest of the mainstream press.

“But then it died away again,” Fitrakis noted, laughing grimly. “Can you believe it? I mean what possible interest could there be in a Republican-owned firm having the maintenance contract on voting machines owned by a Republican firm? Nuthin to see!”

Though irregularities in the 2004 Ohio vote generated a congressional inquiry and report, run by Detroit Democrat John Conyers, much of it summarised in Mark Crispin Miller’s “None Dare Call It Stolen” article in Harpers, the real possibility that the vote was stolen has proved almost too much for the media to focus on. “The Democrats don’t want to know about it either,” said Fitrakis. “They feel if they made it so public, their voters would just give up en masse.”

Has the process already begun? In Florida, another state known for its shonky tactics, early votes in Broward county have already been subject to some harsh revisions in voting numbers, with one early voting booth revising its total number of votes from 2945 votes to 1942. This time the story made the mainstream media — sort of. It was reported by The Grio, NBC’s site targeted at black readers. But the story never transferred across to the NBC proper, and despite another major story in Harper’s, there is a near-manic refusal by the mainstream media to examine the role of Hart InterCivic, its parent company HIG, ES&S (the rebranded Diebold), and the interlinked companies with the maintenance contracts, particularly an outfit called Solamere, that Tagg Romney (Mitt’s eldest son) founded.

“We got the FBI coming in to monitor Ohio elections,” said Fitrakis “but the problem with voting machines is, what can you do? These things are simply adding voting totals — they shouldn’t need more than a hundred lines of code? Why do they have 1500 … 10,000? How do we know there’s not an Easter egg in em, preset to a fixed total?”

The phone has rung incessantly since we sat down to talk, and the next meetings are piling up. “If we really need to do it, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, will demand a recount. Of course.” He laughs again, an ironic disposition necessary to this work: “In Ohio you have to pay for your own recount, so that would be a million or two, we need to find.”

It is dizzying, really. The country has the most ramshackle electoral system in the modern world. Jimmy Carter refuses to have his electoral group monitor US elections, because they do not meet the minimum standard required for transparency. And there is every sign that the Right is gearing up for the big steal — most explicitly by incessant chatter about “skewed” election polls, and stories about failing turnout by Democratic voters.

Is such talk desperate cheer up — at a time when Hurricane Sandy has given Barack Obama a presidential stage, and the implicit support of Republicans such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie — or is it the pretext on which the big steal will be legitimised? Should that occur, on election night, Fitrakis’s robber baron home/office will become the command centre for a series of emergency injunctions and impoundings. But the small crowd at the coffee shop meeting for Left observers shows what they’re up against — the Right will turn out in droves for “True the Vote” because, well, it’s an old white person’s thing, and they live on a rigid mythology, that there’s no way the American people would ever choose a Kenyan Muslim to lead them.

There is something almost too sinister, too malign to contemplate in large scale voter fraud, and the mind slides off it. Come Tuesday night, however, the US public may have no choice but to focus upon the dilemma of American democracy — or the lack thereof.