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A Reading Guide to True the Vote, the Controversial Voter Fraud Watchdog

The group
bills itself as a citizen-led effort to restore faith and integrity to
elections. Who’s behind this group and what does it stand for?

(Flickr)

As Nov. 6 approaches, the efforts of True the Vote, a Texas anti-voter fraud group recently profiled by the New York Times, are gaining national attention.    

Despite scant evidence of voter fraud, the group is laser-focused on weeding it out. It has pushed for voter-ID laws, voter roll purges and other controversial voting-related measures in a host of states. (Here is our guide to the voter ID controversy, where we note that evidence on both sides of the issue is lacking.)

True the Vote also has promised to deliver 1 million volunteer poll watchers on Election Day, though its resources appear to be quite modest.

Given its annual summits featuring conservative speakers and its hand in spurring voter integrity projects around the country, we thought we’d take a closer look at this activist group.

The basics

True the Vote is a grassroots initiative spun out of a Houston, Texas-based Tea Party organization called King Street Patriots. Its focus is on training volunteers to serve as poll watchers on Election Day and inspecting voter registration rolls for hints of inconsistency to flag to elections officials.

The group believes that citizen vigilance is necessary to protect elections from corruption and fraud.

Its leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, a former poll worker and suburban Texas mom, has repeatedly emphasized the group’s nonpartisanship. “This has absolutely nothing to do with race or creed or color or party or politics, it’s about principle,” Engelbrecht said earlier this year in an interview to NRA News, a channel of the National Rifle Association.

But many of the group’s tactics have come under fire for intimidating would-be voters and raising the specter of voter suppression. True the Vote has been backed mainly by Republican lawmakers and opposed by voting advocates that warn of minority disenfranchisement.

True the Vote did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment about these allegations.

Last year, True the Vote and King Street Patriots jointly released a blueprint for legislation to change voter registration rules. The guide’s recommendations included requiring photo ID to vote, increasing penalties for forged or otherwise fraudulent voter registration applications, prohibiting same-day voter registration, allowing recording devices inside polling precincts and designating English as the “official language of Texas and the only language used on ballots.”

What about funding?

So far, there hasn’t been much. According to True the Vote’s tax forms, the group raised $65,000 in 2010 and $137,000 in 2011.

While much of the money has come from anonymous donors, the New York Times reported that True the Vote received a $35,000 donation in 2011 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization known to award grants to conservative groups.

According to the Times, True the Vote had to return the donation because it was given on the condition that the group’s application for tax-exempt status was approved by the IRS, which has not happened yet. We’ve asked True the Vote about this donation and it didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It’s really going to have 1 million volunteers on Election Day?

That is the goal, says Engelbrecht, the organization’s chief: To “train, mobilize, and merge a million new election workers into the 2012 process,” according to remarks she made last August during a panel hosted by the conservative group Judicial Watch.

But it’s unclear how many volunteers True the Vote actually has.

While True the Vote initially focused on Harris County, Texas – the nation’s third-largest voting district – they say they’ve since expanded into 35 states.

Michael Power, a True the Vote volunteer in Alabama contacted by ProPublica from a Tea Party Patriots group web page, said that his work involves looking out for “voters who are registered at non-residential properties, vacant lots, those types of things,” or reporting fellow poll workers “who might be improperly influencing a person’s ballot.”

According to Power, voter rolls are purchased from the state, but also from “various companies that assemble records from the state,” a strategy outlined here in this profile by ColorLines Magazine.

In interviews, Engelbrecht often discusses her observations as a poll worker during the 2008 election as her “Eureka” moment. In that year, ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, became caught up in a controversy over collecting phony voter registration applications.

In recent months, True the Vote has taken up the mantle of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which requires states to maintain their voter registration rolls by removing the deceased, convicted felons or otherwise ineligible voters from their lists. (In February, a Pew Center on the States report found that 1.8 million dead people are still included on voter rolls while 2.75 million people are registered in more than one state.)

True the Vote has sent letters to 160 counties around the country alleging they have failed to update their voter rolls, according to “Bullies at the Ballot Box,” a report by liberal groups Common Cause and Demos that is critical of True the Vote’s methods.

Through its attorneys, True the Vote has demanded a correction and retraction of the report, which it says contains “misleading information” and “false and defamatory statements.”

Partnerships

True the Vote has helped get out its name by partnering with larger, more prominent organizations. It has co-sponsored events with Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and collaborated with other nonprofits such as Tea Party Patriots in places from Colorado to Alabama to host “Election Integrity” fundraisers and recruitment events.

Its mission also strongly resembles that of Republican-led political action committee Madison Project’s Code Red USA, which works on “participating in election integrity efforts, and/or participating in cross community engagement.”

Engelbrecht told the New York Times that her group has no connection to Code Red USA.

Connections to the Tea Party King Street Patriots

True the Vote is often referred to as an offshoot of King Street Patriots. The two share leadership: Catherine Engelbrecht, her husband, Bryan Engelbrecht, and a person named Dianne Josephs are all listed as directors on both groups’ tax forms. But a True the Vote spokesman told us that despite these connections, the group keeps separate accounting structures and staff from King Street Patriots.

That is relevant because True the Vote is seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which is for charitable or educational organizations that can only engage in a limited amount of lobbying and can’t support or oppose candidates for elected office.

King Street Patriots, by contrast, is a 501(c)(4) social welfare group, meaning it can engage in an unlimited amount of political lobbying, as long as that is not its primary purpose (the definition of which is extremely murky, as ProPublica’s recent investigation into dark money groups detailed).

While it’s common for c4 groups to have separate charitable arms—The Sierra Club and National Rifle Association are examples of this—they must keep their financial accounting separate, said Lloyd Mayer, a law professor specializing in nonprofits and election law at Notre Dame Law School.

“It can even share a name, but it has to have its own money. That’s the key thing,” Mayer said.

According to a tax filing King Street Patriots provided to ProPublica, the group received $140,722 in donations in 2010. It’s received an extension on its 2011 tax filing.

‘Verify the Recall’

Earlier this year, thousands of True the Vote volunteers got involved in the Wisconsin recall election through an initiative, “Verify the Recall,” that sought to identify illegitimate signatures on a petition to remove Republican Gov. Scott Walker from office.

Using its own methodology, True the Vote concluded that more than 63,000 signatures were ineligible. It also identified 2,590 names that were “potentially false” based on a predetermined list of names the group believed would be used fraudulently on the petition. Organizers declined to share this list with state officials.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, a non-partisan state regulatory agency consisting of six former state judge appointees, later discounted much of the group’s findings and methodology, concluding they were “significantly less accurate, complete, and reliable than the review and analysis completed by the G.A.B.” and that they “would not have survived legal challenge.”

True the Vote’s Lawsuits

Earlier this year, True the Vote teamed up with Judicial Watch to sue elections officials in Ohio and Indiana for their alleged failure to clean up their voter rolls.

In June, the group filed a motion for intervention in a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice to halt the Florida voter purge. Should the purge stop, the group argued, “registered voter members may have their votes cancelled out or diluted by unlawful ballots cast in the names of unlawfully present aliens.”

Florida elections officials originally identified up to 2,600 non-citizens registered to vote in the state. But it turns out the number was actually a lot smaller. Recently, the state reached a partial agreement with voting rights groups, agreeing to notify these flagged voters that they’ll remain eligible to vote in November.

2010 election controversy

In 2010, the Department of Justice launched a probe of alleged voter intimidation efforts by True the Vote poll watchers during the midterm elections in districts near Houston.

That year, a national voter hotline received more than 200 calls alleging voter intimidation – as well as other election snafus – from several states, Texas included. It’s unclear to what extent True the Vote was responsible for those complaints.

The Justice Department investigation didn’t proceed any further. True the Vote didn’t respond to our questions about the episode.

Update 11/6: True the Vote won't be watching the polls in Franklin County, Ohio, during today's election. The group was denied status as official poll watchers after the local board of elections determined they had misused candidates' signatures on their application to be election-watchers.

Ohio law says five candidates must endorse a poll-watching effort. According to the Columbus Dispatch, "at least most" of the six candidates whose signatures True the Vote had obtained withdrew their support. One Democratic candidate for judge told MSNBC that she had been misled about the group's intentions when she initially signed their application. She sent a withdrawal letter to the board of elections on Oct. 1.

But True the Vote submitted another application with the same signatures. Local elections officials have said they will investigate whether forms were intentionally falsified. True the Vote released a statement saying that they filled out the forms according to instructions and that neither the group nor any of its volunteers did anything "that was illegal or unethical."

Folks, the pretextual “hunt for voter fraud” goes beyond registration purging and poll watchers.  In states where poll watchers are more heavily regulated, True the Vote and their affiliates/allies are recruiting and training people to be actual election judges.  One organizer went so far as to say “Being an election judge is even better than being a poll watcher as you are actually running the election.”

So do you think that driver’s license makes your vote safe? 

Any liquor store clerk knows how easy it is to get a fake.  Do we expect TTV not to be aware of this fact in their training?  Does the state provide adequate guidance for election judges in determining whether an ID’s picture sufficiently matches the person staning before them?  What about the signature matching requirements? 

These subjective judgment calls concerning a person’s right to vote a regular ballot may end up in the hands of someone trained to be paranoid rather than reasonably vigilant.  See http://www.ragingwisdom.com/?p=1146 for some of the flaws in Ohio’s laws protecting voters on election day.

So another group of whites trying to bully non-whites into not voting.  Surely it’s time for a non-partisan body to be established to prescribe and manage national voting policies and legislation.  Or does that sound too logical?

It could start with electoral boundaries and gerrymanders, but should also deal with “voter registration” (i.e. disenfranchisement).

I would love to see ads now thru Nov 6 warning Americans coast to coast about this tea party/republican organized effort to destroy democracy, our voting rites, our lives! Damn it all! These “others” r trying to takeover America. invading the United States of America is how I see it, illegal, criminal behavior. Jesus, round them up, arrest them, jail them!

Just remember that your best defense against these hate-mongers is to advise everyone of your voting friends and anyone around you at the polls that they do not have to identify themselves to anyone but voting officials, they do not have to answer “any” questions concerning their residency, their party affiliation, or their intentions in the voting booth before of after the vote and if they become agrressive towards you, my suggestion is that you smack them upside the head! (Not really, but you get the idea)

Stephen, it’s a bigger issue than that, I think.  Think like a magician.  While we’re all (mis?)directed to look at the pretty lady in the flashy dress standing in front of alleged fraudulent voters, what are we not able to watch?

Put another way, in a small community, you know if someone is voting who shouldn’t.  But how many of us can track our vote from the booth to the Electoral College during the tallies…?  How many of us can even see our contribution to tallies at our polling places?  Fraud is a lot easier to hide from the top down.

Yes, I am telling everyone. Everyone should be telling everyone. All hell will break lose if these OTHERS screw w/me. - besides, if the OTHERS show up, the police should escort them away, or the nearest bouncer should bounce them away. There really must be an ad warning people- always expose the OTHERS.

clarence swinney

Sep. 28, 2012, 10:55 a.m.

Are the people finally awakening to the damage done by corporations from shipping our jobs to low wage countries like China and India? It has hurt state budgets.
It has decimated our local apparel and textile 6000 jobs in 45,000 city.
In the last ten years 2001-2011 We lost 58,000 factories.
Each time a plant closes, it reduces revenue going to the city, state and causes deficits.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing states the U.S. Lost at least $254 Billion in manufacturing wages in the past decade due to the loss of 5.5 million manufacturing jobs. Ending China’s currency manipulation would create more than 1 million jobs, Add to economic growth, And reduce the budget deficit by $500 billion over the next six years

“The voter fraud fantasy sounds slightly deranged until you put it in perspective.  For white Americans the world has suddenly turned upside down.  All the security and prosperity that was our birthright has evaporated.  Broader freedom for minorities and women has meant competition from corners we barely knew existed.  The end of Communism has taken that competition global as brown folk all over the planet are getting a shot at the Capitalist dream.

“America always intended to be a meritocracy.  As the gap slowly shrinks between that ideal and our reality many white Americans are getting nervous.  We don’t need evidence because we can feel the fraud all around us.  Our power is waning and shadowy conspiracies provide the only explanations we’re going to accept.”

from the Houston Chronicle blogs, “The Tea Party Helps Black People Vote Properly”

http://blog.chron.com/goplifer/2012/05/the-tea-party-helps-black-people-vote-better/

I say challenging someones right to vote is a two way street. We need the names of these “patriots” so we can see if there is a need to challenge their right to vote.

And then they had Franken

Sep. 29, 2012, 12:22 p.m.

AL FRANKEN was elected to the US SENATE based on VOTER FRAUD.  It was shown AFTER he took his seat that 1,000 ineligible votes - such as felons not eligible to vote, duplicate votes, and “fake” votes—were counted FOR Mr. Franken.

Voter Fraud does exist, and happens every election cycle.  Authorities do not like to attempt to enforce laws because it all makes them look very bad.

You are showing your leftist biases by denying the truth.

And then they had Franken

Sep. 29, 2012, 12:28 p.m.

Oh, and by the way, it was MR. FRANKEN’S “Vote” that allowed Obamacare to pass the US Senate.

The people of Wisconsib did not elect lawfully Franken but because of voter fraud, there he sits.  Once a Senator takes his seat, he cannot be ejected from the Senate unless tehre is legal cause (some states have a recall provision), he is convicted of a felony, or he resigns, OR loses the next election.

Stephanie Palmer

Sep. 29, 2012, 1:58 p.m.

To get an election watcher certificate one party has to sponsor the watcher.  I sincerely doubt that the Democrats would be so idiotic to go along with such a bunch of creeps who serve only to disenfranchise legitimate voters.

In my experience of working at the precinct level running the polling process and at the county level talling the votes and verifying provisional ballots, I have never seen voter fraud.

I followed very closely the Minnesota   recount that led to the election of Al Franken and remember thinking that was the way to run a recount.

The current attempts to use Minnesota as an example of voter fraud is an example of voter fraud.  There were irregularities in the Minnesota recount but the were all carefully examined and decided upon by a Supreme Court Justice and members of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Here is a link:

http://www.alternet.org/gop-voter-fraud-hucksters-latest-lie-felons-made-franken-us-senator?page=0,1

But on the other hand, the GOP is currently trying to win the current election by any means and have just been nailed:
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57522980/voter-registration-problems-widening-in-florida/

These are the people who would have supported George Wallace back in the Civil Rights days and now only work in minority precincts to intimidate voters.  They are considered the New Jim Crow supporters in Houston.

Ralph Bertelson

Oct. 6, 2012, 9:20 a.m.

Is it true that these people have a uniform consisting of a white sheet that they wear to there meetings?

To “and then they had Franken”

You are correct in saying the people of Wisconsin did not lawfully elect Franken but it’s not because of your unsupported claim of voter fraud.  It’s because the people of Minnesota lawfully elected him as their senator.

wow, you throw out vote intimidation like it is something rampant.  Know what this article cites as intimidation?  1 black person seeing 3 white people watching them vote.  Also noted was a line of voters that were mostly black.  Now, call me crazy but this is not voter intimidation…but I do note her trying to throw out the race card in the article.  People…know your facts and dig into what the story claims are facts.  All this story does is show how people trying to do the right thing are being targeted for doing the right thing.  How many others feel intimidated if there are 3 white people watching them vote?  If I am white, can I claim intimidation if there is a black or hispanic or native american watching me vote??

Anybody want to “volunteer” and infiltrate true the vote with me and then write an article for salon or wired? :)

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