AMERICAN PROSPECT: True the Vote trains poll watchers to intimidate voters

October 10, 2012
Abby Rapoport
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Two years ago, the week before Election Day, I drove to Harris County, Texas. More specifically, I drove to the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, a polling location for early voting in one of Houston’s poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. After alleging that Harris County had a widespread problem with voter fraud, a Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots had launched a project called True the Vote, which had trained hundreds of volunteer poll watchers. As the early-voting period began, reports had begun to trickle out about white poll watchers arriving at minority precincts and intimidating voters. In Texas, poll watchers, appointed by a political party to watch the proceedings, aren’t allowed to do much; they’re barred from communicating with voters. But these poll watchers, foreign to the neighborhoods they were working in, were apparently not all observing the rules.

As I walked into the building, I asked one of the custodians how to spot the poll watchers. “Just look for the white people!” he told me. He said that he’d heard about people who were afraid to bring elderly relatives to vote because “first thing [they’d] be thinking about is 1960.”

The stories I wrote for The Texas Observer explained why voters could easily feel threatened: “Around the lines of voting booths, ramps into the building created a mini-balcony, from which two poll watchers looked down at the voters. Both older white men, they maintained a serious expression for the entirety of the two hours I was there. Sometimes they wandered amidst the voting booths. Since everything was crammed together, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one of the watchers could feel intrusive to a voter. There was barely room for people standing in their rows.”

In the parking lot, I interviewed Gloria Alfred, who’d been disabled by a stroke and brought her son to help her vote. But after her son got sworn in by poll workers and began accompanying her to the booth, Alfred said that a poll watcher appeared and told him sternly, “You can’t help her!” While her son knew enough about the rules to explain he’d been sworn in and get on with things, his mother was shaken by the incident. “I might have been to the point where I couldn’t even have voted,” she said, if not for her son.

By the end of the election, 56 complaints had been filed by Harris County voters, many for voter intimidation. Voters reported hovering and intimidating poll watchers; meanwhile, True the Vote's poll watchers complained that they were harassed by voters. To keep things from getting out of hand, the county attorney set up “strike teams” made up of peace officers, attorneys, and investigators who were dispatched wherever there were conflicts. The election, needless to say, was a tense affair.

Two years later, True the Vote is nationally famous—or infamous, depending on your perspective. The group, which describes itself as a non-partisan effort that mobilizes citizens to combat “voter fraud,” has gone national—and stirred up a much larger hornet's nest. In recent weeks, True the Vote has been the subject of a New York Times investigation and an Atlantic feature, as well as lengthy pieces on Colorlines and Alternet. The group now claims to have volunteers doing its work in 30 states, including all the presidential battleground states, and it touts a goal of having one million poll watchers trained and mobilized for this year’s elections.

True the Vote says its mission is to help cleanse voting rolls of illegitimate and deceased voters, and to recruit and train poll watchers who can report irregularities. The press accounts, both mainstream and progressive, paint a vastly different picture—one of a zealous group of predominantly white Tea Partiers whose real plan is to “true” elections in Republicans’ favor by targeting poor and nonwhite voters in presidential battleground states.

There’s one thing that the reporters and True the Vote’s leaders can agree on: The effort is a well-oiled machine, and one that could have a sizable impact on this year’s elections. Most of the stories on the group, including The Atlantic’s, cite True the Vote’s goal of training and mobilizing one million poll watchers. For a group that was strictly local just two years ago, that would an impressive feat. It would also, as some progressives and voting-rights activists fear, give it the potential to cause widespread delays and controversies on Election Day.

But it's unclear whether True the Vote’s impact will be as great as advertised. So far, its efforts to purge voters from the rolls haven’t exactly gone as planned; in several states, including Ohio, North Carolina, and Maryland, elections officials have mostly rejected the thousands of challenges to voter registrations that volunteers have put forth, often for lack of evidence. And nobody knows just how many poll watchers it will actually mobilize during early voting and on Election Day. Brock Akers, an attorney for the group and for the group’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, told the Prospect by email that True the Vote does not even keep a count of visitors to its website. As for the number of trained poll watchers, Ayers simply wrote, “We have thousands of volunteers.”

Based on what the Prospect could glean from Akers and from state groups that claim a connection with True the Vote, it appears that the group could fall well short of its million-watcher goal. True the Vote's most serious effect on this fall’s elections could stem more from its outsize reputation than from its organizational heft. As national attention ratchets up, it’s possible that some voters from marginalized communities might think twice before heading to the polls—either for fear of harassment, or because they simply don’t want to bother with the hassle.

“What I’m really afraid of is there are people who will see the news and then say there are people who will be at the polls and then won’t show up,” says Doug Ray, the senior deputy county attorney in Harris County, where True the Vote got its start. Ray worked hard in 2010 to keep all sides calm, creating teams of investigators and attorneys who could show up quickly at any poll place when there was a dispute. He hoped no one would be afraid to show up at the polls. But with so much attention to the group, he worries that some will be unnecessarily reticent about voting. “I think there are people who will not vote because they don’t want to deal with it.”

It’s impossible to accurately assess the national reach of True the Vote, partly because much of the training and organizing is occurring with state and local groups that have only a loose connection with the national organization. Many of these disparate groups call themselves “empowered” by True the Vote, and have the national group’s orange-and-black logo stamped somewhere on their websites. On a radio program, one of the leaders of Honest Elections Illinois, one of the “empowered” groups, described True the Vote as “almost like a parent group but not exactly.”

The Prospect attempted to contact 11 "empowered" groups, mainly through emailing the general-info addresses on their sites. Two declined to comment; three others responded. The email address listed on Clean Up the Vote Nevada’s website bounced back. Most of the groups simply did not reply. But the state groups we spoke to had nowhere near the number of volunteers that would be needed for a million-person effort. A leader of the Missouri Precinct Project said in late August that the group had 100 volunteers. The head of Election Integrity Maryland said that her group had approximately 90. Arizona’s Verify the Vote, which appears to be one of the best-funded and well-organized efforts in the country, also has one of the largest goals for a statewide group; it hopes to recruit 5,000 poll watchers. (It might not get there: After it conducted voter-roll research, Arizona Verify the Vote’s website thanked the “over 1,250 volunteers who helped verify petition signatures.”)

While Facebook and other social media have been important tools in Tea Party organizing, only two “empowered” groups have more than 1,000 Facebook “likes.” One of them, Verify the Recall in Wisconsin, organized around the Scott Walker recall election in June, but has kept relatively quiet since. Its Facebook page has not been updated since April. Of the other groups, few have more than 100 “likes.” The Virginia Voters Alliance currently has 13.

The state groups run the gamut from the well-funded to the shoestring. The Virginia Voters Alliance has a website that looks out of the early Geocities days, while Arizona Verify the Vote has an active, professional-looking site, complete with its own logo and infomercial-style video on its site. By contrast, Trauernicht, a leader at Election Integrity Maryland, described her outfit as “a small grassroots endeavor" with “no budget to speak of.”

Other “empowered” groups are barely more than a few volunteers giving their own PowerPoint presentations. The tiny Missouri Precinct Project mainly tells people where they can go for trainings. “We don't take any money, we don't endorse anything,” explained the group’s leader, Frieda Keough. “We're not anything. We're just registered with our name. That's it.” Keogh says her group’s plans are different from True the Vote’s, too; it is encouraging volunteers to be poll workers rather than watchers.

Two groups, Colorado Voter Protection and the Virginia Voters Alliance, referred the Prospect to True the Vote spokesperson Logan Churchwell for answers about their efforts. Churchwell did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Attorney Akers responded to questions for founder Catherine Engelbrecht. When the Prospect asked Akers about the general relationship between True the Vote and state-level groups that identify themselves as "empowered by True the Vote,” he replied that the national organization has “no direct relationship with any other groups, and [is] not aware of others describing themselves as ‘empowered.'”

On its own website, True the Vote says it has “developed an exportable program of training, technology and support to equip citizens with the tools they need to get involved in election processes; from working at the polls to advocating for common-sense election code improvements.” Many of the groups began their activities with work combing the voting rolls in different states, and relied on the data portals that True the Vote has amassed, using proprietary software and publicly available data. The Ohio Voter Integrity Project website, one of the “empowered” organizations, lays out the relationship thusly: “TTV will only train people that have been vetted and referred to them by Ohio VIP. So if you sign up with TTV, you must also sign up with Ohio VIP so that you can be vetted.”

Though it appears to be careful not to have a formal relationship with state-level groups, True the Vote does say that it has trained volunteers across the country, and that those volunteers give the group a presence in 30 states. Just about all of the groups appear to rely on True the Vote’s data portal, at least to some extent, when they comb the voter rolls. Beyond that, it’s hard to gauge the level of coordination between the groups. In an infomercial-ish YouTube video, Brad Zinn, a co-leader of Verify the Vote Arizona, says that True the Vote asked him and Verify’s other leader to train poll watchers in Wisconsin during the recall election of Governor Scott Walker. “True the Vote is now working with groups like ours in 32 states,” he says.

Catharine Tauernicht of Election Integrity Maryland, wrote in an email, “We say we are ‘empowered’ by True the Vote because we received our own initial training from them, training which consisted of attending their first national Summit in the spring of 2011 in Houston.” Like many of the groups—Ohio Voter Integrity, Verify the Vote Arizona, Verify the Recall, and others—Election Integrity Maryland has its own IRS designation. “We receive no financial support from them,” Trauernicht wrote of the national group.

True the Vote itself has a request to be a 501(c)3 corporation pending with the IRS. That status would prohibit all partisan activity or advocacy. Previously, the organization was part of the King Street Patriots, which held a 501(c)4 status with the IRS, allowing it to do advocacy work but prohibiting partisan activities. A judge this year ruled the King Street Patriots could not keep its non-profit corporate status because of its work on behalf of Republicans in 2010.

True the Vote has a significant budget; in 2011 it raised $137,000, more than twice what it raised in 2010. That includes three major donations of $50,000, $19,000, and $5,000. The Times reported that True the Vote also had to return a $35,000 donation from Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation because its tax-exempt status has not yet been approved by the IRS.

So far this year, True the Vote and the "empowered" groups have been most visible in challenging voter registrations. The effort garnered a tremendous amount of bad press and appears to have been largely ineffective. In at least three states—Ohio, Maryland, and North Carolina—elections officials have rejected thousands of challenges to voter registrations for faulty evidence. In the Wisconsin recall election, where True the Vote volunteers tried to challenge the petitions of those supporting the recall, the non-partisan agency that administers elections, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, said that the challenges would not pass legal muster. Many of these problems were recently documented when Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, launched an investigation of True the Vote.

Ohio’s Voter Integrity Project has now suspended its work combing through voter rolls after coming under significant scrutiny. The group particularly targeted students living in dorms around the state, but so far all the challenges have been tossed out. Though the project did identify some dead voters still on the rolls, almost all its other challenges were dismissed. Meanwhile, at least two legitimate voters received a letter from their local board of elections explaining that their right to vote was being challenged. That prompted Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, to issue a warning: “When you cry wolf, and there’s no wolf, you undermine your credibility and you have unjustly inconvenienced a legally registered voter, and that can border on voter intimidation.” Nevertheless, True the Vote put out a press release in support of the group’s efforts last week.

For all the national attention it’s garnered, True the Vote largely remains a mystery. Will it be a real force in the 2012 election? It’s impossible to know, because the group won’t share its numbers or details of its collaboration with other groups. “Observation changes things,” the group’s founder, Engelbrecht, told a voter summit in Phoenix in February 2011. She invited the summit's attendees to True the Vote’s own summit that was held a month later in Houston, to learn more about "voter fraud" and the group’s plan of action for 2012. But when asked if the summit would have a webinar component—an online stream for those who couldn’t be physically present—Engelbrecht demurred. “I don't know if we're going to have a webinar or not,” she said. “There are an awful lot of people that are very curious about what we might be up to.”