Going Undercover at the GOP's Voter Vigilante Project to Disrupt the Nov. Election
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America is filled with leave-me-alone, blame-the-government types and paranoid groups on the left and right. But most fringe groups have not been given millions by rich right-wingers between 2009 and today. As 2012’s presidential election approaches, True the Vote has three main focuses: policing new voter registrations and winnowing existing voter rolls; training polling place watchers to spot and protest all kinds of slights that undermine voting; and filing suits to prompt states and counties to purge voter rolls. It claims it has 300 active chapters in three dozen states. It claims to have thousands of volunteers using its web-based software who are identifying thousands of questionable voter registrations or possibly illegal voters in battleground states. It is trying to partner with Republican election officials to detect and investigate suspicious names, and then stop those people from voting this November unless they prove their eligibility.
On Election Day, it says it wants to deploy one-million people at polling places to watch who shows up, how people are checked for ID, how they are given ballots, and ensure that people who ask poll workers for help fill out their own ballots. All of this is to prevent illegal voting, presumably for Democrats.
True the Vote has training materials online. Members are organizing Election Day hotlines and county-based chains of command for poll watchers. They are lining up lawyers to take their reports to sympathetic state officials. They’re being encouraged by Republicans in high office—such as Florida’s governor, secretaries of state in Colorado, Kansas and Ohio, attorneys general in Texas and Colorado. They are reviving discarded strategies from George W. Bush’s Justice Department by suing the state of Indiana and 160-plus counties all over America, to pressure them to purge voter rolls. They could collect court costs if they win—which would further fund their efforts. These Election Day plans and litigation strategy mimic the liberal groups they revile, such as Project Vote, ACORN, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and labor unions.
They could be very disruptive this fall, were it not for a track record so far in 2012 that has revealed them to be more amateurish than impactful. In fact, their allegations—which election officials have to take seriously—are filled with error rates on par with ACORN’s voter drives. (Part of that is because they want officials to follow the law as they see it, which is not always as the law is—leading election officials to investigate and dismiss a majority of their allegations.) However, bad behavior by some of their poll watchers—such as in Racine, Wisconsin, this June, during the Scott Walker recall election—has prompted that state’s top election board to issue stricter poll watcher guidelines for the fall. But in 2012, if you’re a new national group fueled by voting fraud fantasies, a God-given mission, and have plenty of money and spunk, you have a capacity to create chaos for unsuspecting voters, and confidence that you’ll be around long after November.
“They are convincing otherwise civic-minded people that there’s massive voter fraud out there and that their work is needed to protect the ballot,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist who has been deeply involved in Texas voting rights battles for years. “They’re playing on fears and civic duty and promoting themselves all along the way… They think they are doing something patriotic. To me, that is the most distasteful thing.”
The Colorado Summit
I grabbed some handouts, stepped into the windowless conference room, got some coffee, and sat at one of a half-dozen cloth-covered tables. It didn’t feel like a political freak show. To be honest, it felt a bit familiar. To my right was a woman in her 50s, a quality control manager from Colorado Springs who was worried about elections. Around the table were Tea Partiers, a young woman who was a GOP county leader, and retirees concerned about government and democracy. I could relate to their worries that American democracy was in big trouble. These were civic-minded grassroots people not unlike those I’d met in Ohio after the 2004 election, when I helped publicize the ways that state’s GOP tried to suppress and steal John Kerry’s votes.