Bill Ouren, True the Vote's national elections coordinator, is presenting before a group of about 50 recruits in Boca Raton, Fla. He stands beneath a banner bearing his organization's name, alongside that of the Koch brothers' SuperPAC Americans For Prosperity, and the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity's "Citizen Watchdog," a rightwing group that teaches people how to become "investigative" journalists. He's telling the story of how True the Vote grew from a small posse in Harris County, Texas, in 2009, to a deployed army of over 1,000 poll watchers across most of the state the following year. Ouren brags that the 2010 recruits reported "over 800 individual incidences of voter ... irregularities."
Irregularities is not a common term in the True the Vote vocab. Usually, it's just called fraud. Seeing that the wording change has brought confusion to some of his audience's faces, Ouren offers an explanation. "I use the word 'irregularities' because we don't know if people did it intentionally or if they just didn't know better." That kind of logic isn't normal for the group either, so he immediately adds, "So for those people who say voter and election fraud doesn't exist, I've got 806 answers to that. It absolutely does in one election."
Ouren and Americans for Prosperity gathered these recruits in Boca Raton in July to instruct them on how they could become "empowered" vessels for True the Vote's poll watcher program. True the Vote is most widely known for its advocacy of restrictive photo voter ID laws. But while that might garner headlines, the group's real focus is on policing the act of voting itself. As Ouren declared during the group's national summit in April, and repeated again in Boca Raton, his recruits' job is chiefly to make voters feel like they're "driving and seeing the police following you." He aims to recruit one million poll watchers around the country.
That's an ambitious goal, and it's easy to conclude Ouren's eyes are bigger than his organizing stomach. But when you consider all of the eyes in True the Vote's rapidly growing network, the goal may not be so far-fetched.
True the Vote's emergence wasn't an isolated event. Its rapid rise occurred in harmony with hundreds of other Tea Party groups across the nation, dozens of which exist in Texas alone and many of which have been "empowered" by True the Vote for "election integrity" kibitzing. It has plugged itself into an existing infrastructure of influential far right organizations hellbent on criminalizing abortion, banishing gun control, repealing the Affordable Care Act--and now, on intimidating would-be voters.
These alliances have helped expand True the Vote's range of influence over election activities. Today it boasts having trainees in 35 states, people who'll spot "irregularities" and chalk them up as "fraud" and then use that tally to justify new voting restrictions. As one strategy, the group buys voter rolls from states and counties, then disseminates the lists to thousands of largely unsupervised volunteers, who are urged to submit to election officials names from the rolls that may be improperly registered.
The group has involved itself in every high-stakes electoral drama this year, from the Wisconsin governor recall election to Florida's controversial "non-citizen" purging. True the Vote now turns its attention to the main event this fall, gearing up for an Election Day showdown that its leaders hope will establish voter fraud, rather than voter suppression as a dire threat to democracy.
A Star Is Born
Catherine Engelbrecht is the founder of both the King Street Patriots and True the Vote, in that order, and only months apart. Name and IRS status appear to be all that differentiates the two groups. The former, a 501c4, is a Tea Party group that lobbies for conservative issues, chiefly election reform; the latter is a 501c3 that takes a hands-on approach to making sure election reform is implemented--Dr. Jekyl and Dr. Jekyler.
The 2008 ACORN "scandal," where ACORN was found with thousands of falsified voter registration forms, is partially what inspired Engelbrecht to form the King Street Patriots. Even though no fraudulent votes were cast, Engelbrecht's King Street Patriots lionized the ACORN tale and used it as a mobilizing tool to recruit hundreds of volunteers for 2009 Election Day poll watching, mostly in black and Latino districts. The Patriots came out of that experience convinced that election workers in Harris County were letting non-citizens vote and enabling fraud.
"There were people being allowed to vote without showing any identification, people who'd say, 'I don't know who to vote for,' at which point an election judge would jump up, escort them to the voting booth, dial in the vote, and tell the voter to 'press here,' " Engelbrecht told The American Spectator.
Only a handful of fraud cases were tried after the election, and none led to full convictions. Still, the King Street Patriots spun off as "True the Vote" and came out again for the 2010 elections--bulkier with more recruits, again at black and Latino polling places. A local Houston newscast noticed the bulge in poll observers and reported, "As the number of poll watchers have increased, so have the number of complaints." A video True the Vote circulated at the time contained doctored photos of black people falsely pictured as advocating for voter fraud.
True the Vote's lawyer Kelly Shackelford, of the Christian rightwing organization Liberty Institute, explained away the intimidation complaints this way: "Poll watchers show up for the first time and [the poll watchers are] a different color than them and they just don't like that."
Engelbrecht's network put together a list of 22 ideas for electoral reform in Texas, based off of its unsubstantiated allegations of fraud at the polls. A new photo ID law was primary on the list. It was an idea that had been circulating in the state since at least 2007, but Engelbrecht's Tea Party network lobbied Republican leaders hard. When the 2010 elections brought a wave of Tea Party-backed legislators into the state's House of Representatives, True the Vote's agenda became top priority. A third of True the Vote's reform ideas became law, including the voter ID mandate.
The voter ID provision was recently blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice when the state failed to prove that it would not have discriminatory impacts on people of color, setting up a likely Supreme Court battle over the Voting Rights Act. That's a critical example of the way in which the True the Vote/King Street Patriots network has moved the voting discussion over the past three years. As the Texas Democratic Party recently declared, "Many of the Republican policies being pushed around the country today which seek to make democracy less accessible were originated by Texas Republicans like the King Street Patriots."
Friends in Key Places
The electoral reforms True the Vote pushed, and the High Court fight they spawned, would have never become law if not for the relationships the group built with Texas elected officials and election administrators. As far back as early 2010, the group was hosting events in a mall office that drew county clerks, state legislators, members of Congress and a wide net of Tea Party and Patriot groups across the state. (Read a list of them and see their pictures here.)
These relationships with elected officials are perhaps the most troubling ones in the impressive national network that True the Vote has since built. The group claims non-partisanship, which is an important assertion to avoid legal entanglement. But that's dubious given its affiliations and activities.
True the Vote encourages recruits to "build relationships with election administrators" because "they control the access to the vote," as Ouren told a gathering in Houston. In 2010, the group was able to get a list of voter registration data from Republican Harris County registrar Leo Vasquez, who reportedly refused the same to the Democratic Party, for which the party sued. When the King Street Patriots submitted to him their list of fraudulent actions they claimed to see at the polls, Vasquez accepted them without verification and held a press conference with Engelbrecht asserting Harris County polls were "under a systemic and organized attack."
True the Vote often explains to recruits that they can't dispatch them at polls in many states; they can only offer training. In Florida, for instance, the political parties and their candidates must select and place poll watchers. So if a volunteer wants to be considered by the parties for Election Day, "we can help facilitate those connections," Engelbrecht told recruits at the Americans for Prosperity summit in Boca Raton.
Such facilitation means relationships with people in government. That was apparent at True the Vote's national summit this year, when Republican Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who helps manage elections, was asked to stand and given applause. He's been a regular at True the Vote events since their inception. Also in attendance were True the Vote regulars U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, infamous for quoting a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard on the House floor in 2007, and state Rep. Jim Murphy, both Republicans. Gov. Rick Perry wasn't present, but he wrote a letter of congratulations to Engelbrecht saying he looks "forward to working with you and True the Vote in the coming weeks and months ahead."
A year before the conference, Gov. Perry was the guest speaker when the King Street Patriots opened their new headquarters, an upgrade from their mall office. The King Street Patriots were working so closely with the Republican Party--hosting fundraisers and providing resources for their candidates--that a judge ruled this year that the group's electioneering violated its 501c4 status and declared them a political action committee.
But the relationship with the Republican Party goes beyond Texas.
At a Heritage Foundation-sponsored panel in July, Engelbrecht shared the stage with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, both of whom are involved in a multi-state program Kobach created for purging voters using dubious methods. Under the Interstate Cross Check Project, 15 states (not including Texas) have been enlisted to share voter registration data under the premise that they will root out "non-citizen" voters. It's an outgrowth of Kobach's Secure and Fair Elections [SAFE] law, one of the strictest voter ID laws passed in 2011, particularly for its requirement that voters show proof of their citizenship when they first register. It was fueled by claims that felons, dead people and "illegal aliens" were voting and stealing elections. There is scant evidence for any of those claims. But Engelbrecht told the Heritage crowd that Kobach's SAFE was "the model" the rest of the nation should follow.
Englebrecht's Heritage Foundation panel was actually a rogue's gallery of election administrators. The same week of the panel, Colorado's Gessler tried to force local elected officials to accept changes to poll monitoring and canvassing rules; the locals protested loudly. At the panel Gessler, who's embroiled in lawsuits over a directive to county clerks not to mail ballots to people who skipped the 2010 elections, said he is busy checking databases for "illegal immigrants" on ICE holds, and asserted he found 185 of them were registered to vote.
"We have to confirm that," said Gessler, "but that is the likelihood." Critics of Gessler's tactic, which has been been deployed in other states as well, point out that even if an undocumented person's name ended up on a voter registration card, it's highly unlikely that person would actually cast a vote. Last week, Gessler joined his state's Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Coffman as featured speakers at True the Vote's summit in Colorado.
In Florida, when Gov. Rick Scott was hammered with lawsuits for a controversial "non-citizen" purge program--similar to what Kobach's multi-state project is carrying out--True the Vote rallied their troops to support him. In Wisconsin, the group sent thousands of recruits to audit Gov. Scott Walker's recall petition, which netted almost a million signatures. True the Vote's audit claimed only half of the signatures were eligible. However, the official audit by the Government Accountability Board said that over 900,000 were eligible, and that only five fictitious names were added.
This week the Republican National Committee expanded the party's voter ID platform to include an endorsement of "proof of citizenship" laws for first-time registered voters, along with tougher immigration language like building a border fence. All of it was submitted by Kansas' Kobach. The law that Engelbrecht endorsed as "the model" for the nation is now the Republican Party's official agenda.
Building an Election Day Army
Near the end of June, President Obama was in Colorado Springs checking on the destruction caused by wildfires. Not far away, in downtown Denver, was a gathering of folks who wouldn't be confused for Obama's fans. At the Western Conservative Summit, over a thousand conservative Christian activists assembled to hear from speakers like Glenn Beck, NRA president Wayne LaPierre, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who joked about Obama avoiding her at the airport.
The convener of the summit, the Centennial Institute, is a department of Colorado Christian University, a school that blends traditional biblical philosophies with the principles of limited government and free markets. One of the speakers was James Robison, a Texas televangelist who believes the 1 percent are victims of a "type of racism." Robinson yelled at the audience that they "better learn the language of the poor, or they will destroy our prosperity."
True the Vote was a "partner organization" of the summit, along with their affiliates Colorado Voter Protection, with whom they shared a table to recruit volunteers. They held an "election integrity happy hour" at a bar not far from the Christian Summit where attendees could have a free drink and learn how to become "citizen-volunteers."
This is how True the Vote has been building its poll-watching army: recruiting from one far-right confab after another.
Ouren has a five-point recruitment strategy: Plan. Mobilize. Train. Deploy. Follow-up. Election workers, poll judges, clerks, machine operators and other elections staff are "under immense pressure to do the wrong thing," Ouren told recruits at the Boca Raton training. "Your monitoring gives them cover to do the right thing."
Recruits sign up at True the Vote's website for online trainings and gain access to voter registration lists in their counties. They look through the lists for names to submit to election officials for purging. This process is playing out now in Tampa, where True the Vote's reputation for voter intimidation has followed the RNC to a state already notorious for reckless purging. Come Election Day, they'll deploy to the polls.
"We ask anyone and everyone who serves under True The Vote" to write down everything they see that looks funny, funky, fraudulent, Ouren told recruits. "If something doesn't go right, document it." Gather those incident reports, he urged, and they'll be given to legislators or used for lawsuits. "You create the record that debunks so much of the nonsense that says that there is no such thing as voter election fraud."
This was the strategy that worked in Texas, that helped pass a voter ID law and set up a showdown over the Voting Rights Act, even though none of what they documented actually amounted to voter fraud.
Expert after expert has refuted assertions of widespread voter fraud. In Florida, only 10 cases of a non-citizens who may have voted have been found, according to University of Florida elections expert Dan Smith. Colorado's Gesssler regularly sells stories about masses of people double-voting and literally dying to commit fraud--so much that even their corpses vote. But a News21 investigation found just 16 cases of double voting or voter impersonation since 2000 in Colorado, and just one conviction in 2008.
There have, however, been ample complaints about True the Vote intimidating voters. During Wisconsin's recall election, students complained that True the Vote volunteers harassed them. The group's regional director Erin Anderson told me the charges were false, but acknowledged that they couldn't account for every volunteer they had in the state. "We had an online training, but a lot of people participated in it," said Anderson. "We know who they are but we don't know where they ended up."
The complaints were significant enough that Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board, which is responsible for state election activities, issued a statement saying "in recent elections we have received disturbing reports and complaints about unacceptable, illegal behavior by observers. Voters expect a calm setting in which to exercise their right to vote." True the Vote took it personally.
But the group's notoriety has no doubt also aided the expansion of its brand. When Engelbrecht first assembled people in the fall of 2009, she had about 20 folks. By the end of 2010, there were 100 people calling on for her services from 25 states. In 2011, True the Vote's conference drew double that number and the group declared a budget of $300,000, according to minutes taken by the Alvin Tea Party in Texas. This year, the national summit in Houston drew more than 300 people from 32 states--primarily leaders or representatives of Tea Party and "election integrity" groups. The poll watcher trainings are available to hundreds of Tea Party groups through the website teaparty911.com.
Who are these volunteers? Their South Carolina recruit, Cibby Krell of the Spartanburg Tea Party, is a neo-Confederate member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "My kids are and have been studying the Civil War for years and the Northerners wrote the history books," says Krell in a podcast professing his own love for the Confederate Army.
Of course, if there's doubt that True the Vote's zealous promotion of poll monitoring is about more than "election integrity," suspicions are confirmed every time Tom Fritton of Judicial Watch speaks to the recruits. At least twice he's been a featured guest at True the Vote events and both times he's delivered the same message: "We are concerned that Obama's people want to be able to steal the election in 2012" with the "illegal alien vote" and a "food stamp army."
Judicial Watch is crusading to force states to carry out voter-roll purges like the one that has subjected Florida to multiple lawsuits. Together with Judicial Watch, True the Vote formed the 2012 Election Integrity Project, launched in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Through the Election Integrity Project, the group has sued to allow Florida's purge program to commence, and has sent letters threatening lawsuits in Indiana and Ohio to do the same.
CPAC, meanwhile, rewarded True the Vote's efforts in 2011 with one of its highest honors, the Ronald Reagan Award, which no doubt ingratiated them with even more activists on the political far right.
All of this further betrays the idea that True the Vote is a nonpartisan organization with an agenda that won't harm the civil rights of African American and immigrant voters. "Their organization knows they broke the law in 2010 by coordinating with only one political party while enjoying nonprofit status," says Rebecca Acuna, communications director of the Texas Democratic Party.
That's perhaps why, in August, True the Vote sent letters to both Democratic and Republican party leaders in 17 states, saying they are "available for small briefings to party officials or to meet with the members of your party who lead voter mobilization efforts or assist in the election process." Most of the Democratic Party leaders I spoke to said they did not receive the letter nor any other follow-up correspondence from True the Vote about it. One of the letters was addressed to a person who hasn't been a Democratic Party chair in over a year.
One person, however, did respond. Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer accepted True the Vote's invitation. And then he asked them to look into all of the fraudulent activity happening within the Republican Party. As for anything else, Brewer wrote, "To paraphrase Michigan's state motto, if [True the Vote] seeks voter fraud, look elsewhere."