Going Undercover at the GOP's Voter Vigilante Project to Disrupt the Nov. Election
I was nervous getting onto the flight to Denver. Since 2004, I have been a national radio producer, investigative reporter, author and consultant—writing about how elections are won, lost, bungled and improved, with a big focus on voter registration. But I had never snuck into a meeting of right-wing voting vigilantes who are the frontline of a national voter suppression strategy, and where the main speaker was a man whose new book I’d aggressively debunked days before, in an AlterNet article lauded by a leading election law blog and Washington Post. The meeting was a state summit organized by a group called True The Vote. The author was John Fund, who absurdly claims that more than 1,000 felons voted illegally in Minnesota in 2008, sending Democrat Al Franken to the U.S. Senate, where he was the final vote that passed Obama's health care reform.
I didn’t want to be outed or bullied. I support citizen activism and was intrigued, even if I knew I was heading into the heart of the GOP election fraud brigade at the Colorado summit. On the plane, I wondered why many of the right-wing activists I hoped to meet in Denver believe as they do—eyeing almost all phases of the voting process with suspicion and mistaking errors as political conspiracies. The group’s Web site was very thin, but as knowledgeable people told me, they had big money behind them and were organizing on a scale that recalled the early days of the Christian Coalition.
The next day, Saturday, August 18, I got up early, ate quickly and took my props—a copy of Fund’s 2004 book, Stealing Elections, one of the first Republican tirades to make outsized and false claims that Democrats were involved in vast conspiracies to illegally vote, and a blog post saying the summit was open to walk-ins. I looked like I was going golfing and headed for the Sheraton conference center. A few minutes before 9, I got in line behind a manicured middle-aged man wearing an Americans for Prosperity T-shirt, the group founded and still funded by the Koch Brothers, and a few retirees, all white, and asked if they any room left. They nodded. When time came for pay, a perky woman at the welcome desk asked my name for a badge. Next to her sat Fund, selling and signing his book. I quickly replied, “Steve Rose,” what my friends call me. No one blinked. Then I bought the book for $20. He signed, “Keep Fighting. John Fund.”
Once inside, the meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer “for truth in America” in Jesus’ name, and then some of the most incredible tirades against liberals I’d ever heard, including Fund’s messianic exhortation to work against all those who “bear false witness,” which, ironically, is exactly what he and True the Vote does.
True the Vote is a voting vigilante group that never should have grown past its Texas cowboy-meets-Tea Party justice roots. Its top leaders have a jaunty, string ‘em up, guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset. They represent the most extreme views on the Right when it comes to voting—that the process is filled with corruption that is bound to be exploited by local political bosses and machines, which, of course, are Democratic. Where liberals see that a third of all eligible voters in America do not vote and want to make the process more accessible, the Right believes to do so would mean the end of America as they know it. They think it’s patriotic to be self-appointed judges, juries and if necessary, citizen police, to stop what they believe is rampant illegal voting. This purview goes far beyond today’s fights over voter ID.
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.
In the eight years since Ohio, I’ve learned that what really happens in elections is more complicated than easily minted conspiracy theories. At worst, I thought most attendees were low-hanging fruit, ready to be molded by this movement’s disingenuous national leaders—like Fund, who knows the real facts and ignores them, or Christian Adams, an embittered ex-Justice Department civil rights attorney who felt he could not work for Eric Holder and quit, and now inveighs against the DOJ’s liberal biases. Later, when a handful of attendees started snickering at California’s gays and civil unions, and loudly applauded an Oliver North-like local Republican County chairman who cited the most deadly Nazi fighter pilot’s wartime survival credo in his powerpoint—as advice on beating Obama—I thought, wow, let’s hope this crew is all bark and no bite.
The summit began with a classic political attack video—dark imagery, brooding camera angles, dropping all the names of liberals that Republicans love to hate, such as ACORN and Project Vote (which helped run ACORN’s voter drives). The screen decried "dead people" on the rolls, duplicate registrations, double voting, registrations with addresses from empty lots, and other would-be horrors that scholars say are the vast exception not rule in voting. Anita MonCrief, an African American who worked at Project Vote before quitting and becoming a conservative celebrity, recounted how poor people were paid to register voters, often turning in faked names and multiple registrations. (These are easily caught by election offices). Then the founder of the King Street Patriots, out of which True the Vote emerged, took the stage. You may have seen Katherine Englebrecht on Fox News. She’s tall, trim, blonde, articulate and driven—a typical activist.
“How did we as an organization get from working at the polls a few years ago to feeling the need to put together a video like that?” she began. “That is a story I would like to open today’s event with and share with you, what we’ve seen, and I suspect many of you possibly have seen yourselves.” She paused and looked at the room—perhaps 60 people filled the tables. “How many of you have worked at the polls before?” A few hands went up. “Okay. As a general statement, if you work at the polls, it is hard to find volunteers?” More murmurs and yeses were heard. “Agree or disagree, the process might lend itself to manipulation?” "Yes," a woman shouted.
“I am just going to go way out here, agree or disagree,” she continued. “If you don’t have enough volunteers, and you have a process that is weak, can those weaknesses be exploited for political gain?” More fervent yeses replied. Englebrecht paused. “I think you’re right, and a lot of people across the country think you’re right.”
The way Englebrecht told her story, you would think she was another suburban mom whose faith-and-family moorings were upended during the 2008 presidential race and couldn’t stop shuddering at the way the mainstream media was not telling the truth—prompting sleepless nights, smeared glitter and glue on her kitchen floor as she made protest signs, her subsequent discovery of kindred spirits in the Tea Party, and a husband who asked her, “Have you lost your mind?” But according to Houston’s Maureen Haver, who ran a non-profit doing voter registration drives in Harris County’s poor and minority neighborhoods in 2008 and was among the first liberal registration groups to be attacked by Engelbrecht, there’s more to her story than what she shared in Denver.
Englebrecht didn’t say she and her husband live outside Harris County—where Houston is located and is more populous than 22 states. They run an oil services company worth millions. She has a record of disrupting public meetings going back to 2009, Haver said, when pre-Tea Party activists disrupted that summer’s congressional town hall meetings. Englebrecht didn’t say that she and her husband this year started a new company with the provocative name, Plan B Firearms. Acccording to Tea Party Web sites, "Plan B" refers to the steps "patriots" might have to take if Obama gets re-elected.
No, in Denver, she put on a plucky smile and earnestly pitched for volunteers to enroll in True the Vote’s training sessions—to either review voter rolls online, or to join their fall poll watcher brigades to prevent electoral skullduggery. Of course, she added that True the Vote was a “non-partisan” organization, even though they were selling black T-shirts with Ronald Reagan’s profile on them. (They also had Elvis shirts.)
Republican ‘Election Integrity’
True the Vote’s paranoid and possibly disruptive civic activism in 2012 comes from its very predictable history. It is hardly the first group to peer behind the curtain of how elections are run in America, and quickly assume that anything and everything that could go wrong, would go wrong, and be used against their comrades. As Englebrecht recited their history, it foreshadowed the tools and strategy they’ve since developed and are deploying in 2012’s presidential election.
“We had heard there was a need for people to go and work the polls,” she said, referring to their roots in 2009. “We thought we would go work for a day, and check it off our list and move onto something else...” But then they discovered how erratic elections can be, especially when states pass all kinds of complex laws and rely on poorly paid volunteer poll workers to implement them with little or no training.
“What we saw ranged from levels of confusion and incompetence, frankly that were very disturbing, when you consider the importance of the proceedings in the polls,” she said. “When you have so much slack in the process, you know, whether or not the code was followed based on a wink and a nod… We saw people not show any form of ID whatsoever and be allowed to vote. In Texas, you have to show some form of ID. In Colorado you have to show ID. In some of our sister states, it is even illegal to ask for identification.”
Here is where her propagandizing and right-wingers jump orbits. Engelbrecht was talking to an audience who, by a show of hands, were more than half Tea Party members, avid Drudge Report readers, and mostly vote by mail. In other words, most don’t vote in the venues they were hearing about. But they still shook their heads and gasped anyway.
“We saw people who would come in with multiple registration cards,” she continued. “And when they would present the first one and be told, ‘I’m sorry, it looks as though you already voted in an earlier election,’ they’d go, ‘Huh, how about this card?’” That was good enough for poll workers, she said, her voice rising. “People would come in and want to vote and they’d open the poll book—in Texas, we print out these little labels, and you stick this label in the book and sign your name. Well, the label was in the book and that person’s name was signed. But that wasn’t his signature. Somebody beat ’em to the punch… There’s a lot of latitude for people who want to subvert the process.”
I might have been the only one in the room to realize that most of her anecdotes—if they were true—probably have little or nothing to do with padding elections. They could just as easily be explained by bureaucratic bungling, bad poll worker training, confusion by voters who don’t understand what they got in the mail or other factors. These problems also are not solved by stricter voter ID laws. In some counties, election administration can be as drab as polling places are chaotic. But that’s not a political conspiracy.
Her war stories continued. They were low-rent compared to later speakers, who described a full-throated U.S. Justice Department conspiracy to ignore discrimination against white voters, or Fund telling people that they should enjoy bullying liberals because they were doing God’s work. “Your opposition are cartoon characters. They are. They are fun to beat up. They are fun to humiliate,” he intoned. “You are on the side of the angels. And these people are just frauds, charlatans and liars.”
Propaganda and Internet Tools
True the Vote’s response to the problems it perceives is ambitious. It’s also incredibly error-prone, according to its track record thus far in 2012. The group’s pre-Election Day focus is not just about training poll observers—people who’ll watch how voters are checked in and speak up if they don’t like what they think they see. They’re also focused on voter registration rolls, trying to identify, weed out, challenge and remove people who they believe are illegal or phantom voters. This is where things get dicey.
Drawing on the power of Internet organizing and Tea Party networks, they’ve developed an infrastructure where they "crowd-source" analysis of voter registration records, using software and vetting standards they created. True the Vote will take various state databases, starting with voter registration lists (which are always in flux as people register, move and die), driver’s license databases and jury lists, and look for inconsistencies. If they don’t like the way a person’s signature varies from form to form, it is flagged as suspicious. If they see that too many voters are registered at an address, it is flagged. If a driver’s license has a different address than a voter registration form, it is flagged. Their research team then seeks to turn over these names to county or state officials, who they urge to investigate—and, of course, remove ineligible voters from the rolls.
Mark Antill, their national research director, explained that they developed the software to first identify addresses with the most registrants attached to them. “When you find 80 people [registered] at an empty lot, you push a button and all 80 people get challenged,” he told the room. “When you vote once, and some guy votes twice, that is an issue.”
If the local election officials do not remove names from voter lists (and there are detailed federal laws that mostly bar voter purges within 90 days of an upcoming federal election, and require that names be left on voter lists to ensure that nobody is disenfranchised) then True the Vote wants those offices to take other steps. Antill said Colorado will send a postcard to the voter in question saying he must present proof before getting a ballot this fall; or that he can’t vote by mail until he shows up with documents at a polling place. (He did not say where they got the legal authority to do that, and I didn’t want to be too pushy. But in a state where 70 percent of people vote by mail, and 10 percent vote early, that hurdle could easily prevent infirm elderly people from voting.)
True the Vote’s Texas adversaries have seen these tactics before. “They are challenging new voter applications as they come in. They are challenging registrations that already exist on the rolls,” said Houston’s Haver. “They believe it’s grounds for a challenge if you have six people living at a household on a registration form.” Angle said, “They couldn’t operate in Texas or anywhere else unless they had officials supporting them.”
That is exactly what they have in Texas, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Kansas and a handful of other states. At the Denver summit, Colorado’s Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Coffman fully backed their agenda. So did Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who told attendees “you will be demonized, called a racist and a vote suppressor” but encourged them to soldier on.
But True the Vote has not found as welcome a reception in Wisconsin, where the state board overseeing elections—composed of retired judges—rejected its effort to partner with them. This past winter, the group initially sought an official role validating the petitions calling for the gubernatorial recall. After that was rejected, several thousand volunteers across the country looked for errors on their home computers and flagged questionable signers. To be fair, examining 800,000 signatures and addresses in a month is a gigantic undertaking. Where their independent assessment became politically predictable was when they claimed that about 40 percent of the petitions they examined were incomplete or required “further investigation.” Of course, that figure brought the total number of legal signers—in their eyes—below the threshold to qualify the gubernatorial recall.
Following Whose Law?
It’s important to understand why True the Vote feels victimized and how that affects its politics, whether its results are amateurish or not. In Wisconsin, election officials give the benefit of the doubt to the voter when assessing voting documents and deciding disputes. That is true in many states. True the Vote takes the exact opposite approach. If there are any doubts, then in True the Vote’s world the burden of proof immediately shifts to the accused, not the accuser, to defend their voting rights. And if proof is not forthcoming, they believe that person’s voting credentials should be revoked.
Moreover, True the Vote’s assessment—and this is the case in its voter registration program and poll watcher trainings—is based on what they want to see in the law. But that’s not the same as what actually exists in the law. This split leads to a predictable collision between what they think they see, and what they think should be in law, and how local election officials process the same information and officially react to it. A Wisconsin Government Accountability Board report issued in May assessed their vetting of recall petitions. It concluded they “created results that were significantly less accurate, complete, and reliable than the review and analysis completed by the G.A.B.”
Another group affiliated with True the Vote, Minnesota Majority, used a similar method, also based on sloppy database analyses, and presented the Hennepin County Attorney (where Minneapolis is) with what it claimed were more than 1,500 instances of illegal felon voting during the November 2008 election. They claim Al Franken only won because felons illegally voted. That charge, which is repeated in Fund’s new book, was vigorously rejected this month by Hennepin County Prosecutor Mike Freeman. He said they brought 1,500 allegations -- but there was only sufficient proof to charge 38 people.
What is dangerous here is that the voter fraud movement’s leaders know these facts, but that’s not what they are telling the grassroots at meetings like Colorado’s summit. Instead, they’re deliberately misinforming local activists who care about elections, and encouraging them to take the law into their own hands when the courts fail them.
“You know the job of a recounter. You count, you count, you count until your candidate is ahead, and then you stop counting,” Fund glibly explained to the Denver conference room. Never mind that he described precisely what the Minnesota Majority did in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election—they stopped "disqualifying" petitions when they had the number they wanted.
"We know this," Fund thundered. "Eleven-hundred felons voted illegally. The margin was 312 votes. Minnesota Majority uncovered this. The media didn't. The prosecutors didn't. It had consequences. Al Franken went on to become the 60th vote in the U.S. Senate, in the majority that passed Obamacare."
What we know is that there is an ascendant nationwide right-wing movement to police American elections. We know that movement is turning to dishonest public intellectuals to educate its ranks. We know the focus is much bigger than new voter ID laws, and that True the Vote may or may not disrupt polling place voting this fall. We also know that after November they will be around to share their "lessons" from the voting wars and push solutions. We might hope that they will be honest about the true scope and scale of voting problems that inevitably will surface, especially as they delve into the details of running elections. However, that’s probably naÃ¯ve.