This is the second and final part of our series on True the Vote. Check out our earlier piece on just how effective the group will—or won't—be on election day.
In 2010, before most reporters had heard of True the Vote, the group put out a video introducing itself. As epic battle music plays, far-right activist David Horowitz comes on screen. “The voting system is under attack now,” he says. “Movements that are focused on voter fraud, on the integrity of elections are crucial. This is a war.” Horowitz goes on to claim: “A Democratic party consultant once told me that Republicans have to win by at least 3 percent to win any elections.” Catherine Engelbrecht, the group’s founder, recounts that True the Vote poll watchers went out and “saw corruption everywhere.”
"The left has been focused on this now for decades,” says Horowitz, as photographs of black voters lining up to cast ballots flash by. “Obama’s very connected to ACORN, which is a voter-fraud machine. ACORN is the radical army.” True the Vote is important, the captions say, because “The corruption cannot continue.”
As the video illustrates, True the Vote unites a clear, conservative bent with a general message of paranoia: The elections are corrupt, especially in the nonwhite parts of town—and that’s why Democrats are winning. The group has become one of the most controversial to take the national stage this election; many voting-rights advocates and Democrats accuse them of using poll watching, as well as their push to purge voting rolls, as voter-intimidation efforts. The group has touted a goal of training and mobilizing one million poll watchers around the country this election.
True the Vote insists it has no partisan interests and no racial bias; it’s simply trying to ensure election integrity. But that is hard to square with its rhetoric and actions.
True the Vote began in Harris County, Texas (home of Houston), as a project of the local King Street Patriots, one of the thousands of Tea Party groups that cropped up around the country in 2009. The King Street Patriots’ (KSP) formation, like that of its many counterparts, seemed to be a direct response to the election of the nation’s first black president. Engelbrecht herself doesn’t quite put it that way. After years of being apolitical, “something clicked” in 2008, she told The New York Times.
By 2010, True the Vote—still an offshoot of the King Street Patriots—had become a visible force in the Harris County elections. King Street Patriots was registered as a 501(c)(4) with the IRS, meaning it could do some political lobbying but could not focus on partisan activities. But joint events between True the Vote and the King Street Patriots often featured Republican candidates speaking to Tea Party enthusiasts. Their Democratic counterparts said they did not get invitations. At these gatherings, True the Vote’s logo was often superimposed over the logo for the King Street Patriots. The group became infamous in nonwhite communities for training white poll watchers who showed up in minority precincts on Election Day, and soon faced accusations of intimidation. Additionally, the group has faced criticism and legal action for its Republican ties.
Texans for Public Justice, a state good-government group, filed a complaint alleging that True the Vote trainings served as in-kind donations to the state GOP. According to the complaint, the group’s poll-watching guide referred readers to the Harris County Republican Party's website and told poll watchers to send their Election Day notes to Brian Bishop of the Harris County Ballot Security Committee, who worked for the county GOP. The state Democratic Party soon brought suit and, earlier this year, a judge ruled that based on its partisan activities, the King Street Patriots could not be a nonprofit corporation and was instead an unregistered political action committee.
To hear proponents talk about True the Vote, though, it sounds like a reformist group, outside the influence of partisan fights. The group is now a fully separate entity from the King Street Patriots; it has registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3), which gives it nonprofit status and precludes any partisan activity (according to the group’s website, the designation is still pending). When asked how important the group’s nonpartisan status is, Brock Akers, an attorney for the group, wrote: “We regard it as important enough that we have sent letters offering our services to the heads of both parties in 17 states. That ought to speak for itself.”
But the GOP edge remains easy to spot. In 2011, at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona, Engelbrecht took questions after her presentation. When asked about outreach to younger voters, she explained, “We are reaching out to schools, we're reaching out to young Republicans, to any number of organizations.” Later, the group teamed up with Judicial Watch, a multi-issue hard-right group, to sue states that weren’t doing enough to purge voters from voter rolls. Judicial Watch is famous for its president’s remarks about “Obama’s food-stamp army” and complaints that welfare offices allow for voter registration.
Then there was last Wednesday’s bombshell. The website Facing South discovered that in August, True the Vote donated $5,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a political organization focused on electing GOP candidates at the state level. As Facing South notes, the contribution is not necessarily illegal—so long as the donation isn’t used for a prohibited activity. But there’s no doubt that contributing to the RSLC is supporting a partisan group with clear partisan goals. The check is also a hefty one for the organization; in 2011, True the Vote only raised a total of $137,000.
In addition to True the Vote itself, there are numerous state-level organizations that call themselves “empowered” by True the Vote; these groups, out of the public eye, are sometimes more overt in their partisan sympathies. The groups are not legally affiliated with True the Vote, and a few have opted to get a 501(c)(4) status with the IRS to allow more latitude in political advocacy. Others have sought the same, stricter 501(c)(3) status that True the Vote is currently requesting from the IRS. Still others aren’t registered with the IRS at all. The groups vary in how overtly they discuss partisanship.
One such state-level group is the Virginia Voters Alliance, which makes presentations to Tea Party groups around the state. It’s hard to know the group’s tax status; leader Reagan George declined to be interviewed and the group’s site does not say whether it is a nonprofit, even on its donation page. But the group’s political objectives are clear enough. In one YouTube video from late April of this year, George stands in front a slide titled “Strategy for Winning Elections” while giving a presentation to the conservative Shenandoah Area Working Group.
“The Virginia Voters Alliance is a leg of a three-legged stool,” he explains, gesturing to the image of a labeled stool behind him. The top is labeled “Constitutionally Conservative Candidates.” The two other legs, he says, are the Republican precinct organizations and grassroots Tea Party groups. “We want to try to get away from three or four conservatives running against one RINO.” (For those who haven’t been hanging around Tea Party chatrooms, ”RINO” stands for "Republican In Name Only.") He explained that the Virginia Voters Alliance would have a targeted poll-watching program in “problem precincts,” and that they would work with the Republican Lawyers Association to address legal challenges.
George focuses heavily on getting Republicans elected. “Poll-watcher training is done by the party in effect,” he says in the video. “You’re there representing the Republican Party as a poll watcher.” He also spends much of the 45-minute presentation telling the audience that voter fraud is a widespread problem that benefits cheating liberals. “The Republican Party pretty much abandoned precinct organization and poll watching back in the '90s,” he says. “One of the things we’ve talked about is how to get back into that mode.”
His sympathies are shared by others; the Missouri Precinct Project, an “empowered” group that isn’t registered with the IRS, describes its mission on Facebook as “a grassroots effort to activate concerned citizens … in order to impact the election process by getting conservative candidates elected to public office.” Other groups are less overt. Verify the Vote Arizona produced an infomercial-style video, in which one of the leaders specifically notes that being a poll watcher “is a partisan position” and names both Democratic and Republican parties. But whatever these state-level groups do—and whatever lines they cross—need not concern True the Vote. By maintaining formally separate organizations, True the Vote has effectively created a legal buffer from these groups, despite their joint work.
Along with charges of being partisan, True the Vote has also been accused of overt racism. The group seems to target its appeals to white voters who feel that advocates for people of color have gone too far. White victimhood is a consistent theme in their rhetoric. When he came to a group meeting in 2010, Horowitz warned the audience: “They hate you. They think you’re a racist because you’re a Republican.”
True the Vote’s introductory video became famous not only for showing pictures of black voters as it discussed voter fraud, but also for featuring an altered photograph of an African-American woman holding up a sign: “I only got to vote once.” The original photograph said “Don’t mess with my vote.” That initial slide has since been removed, and some of the captions were changed. Even the edited version of video has become hard to find now on the internet.
But it’s not just rhetoric: True the Vote has been accused of targeting nonwhite voters in its activities. Before the 2010 poll-watching controversy, the group targeted a voter-registration drive in Houstin, which has an estimated 600,000 eligible voters who are not registered. Houston Votes, a paid registration canvass, aimed to sign up 100,000 new voters in 2010, focusing on nonwhite communities where turnout is low.
Harris County is changing, and changing fast. In the 2000 Census, whites made up 42 percent of the county; by 2010, they had dipped to less than a third. African Americans make up 19 percent of the population while Latinos make up 41 percent. Based on voting trends, Harris County should be reliably Democratic—but it’s not. Registration drives to mobilize nonwhite voters would likely begin to turn the county blue.
Alleging that Houston Votes was part of ACORN, True the Vote worked with the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office to allege that the registration drive was evidence of widespread voter fraud. The Republican tax assessor held a press conference, based on the evidence True the Vote gathered, that drew tremendous attention from state press as he alleged there was “widespread voter fraud.”
One key piece of evidence that’s been repeated against and again by True the Vote leaders is the story of a vacant lot where multiple voters were registered. True the Vote considered it a smoking gun. However, according to Doug Ray, the senior deputy attorney in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, the vacant lot had been a subdivided house until the owner sold it and everything was knocked down. “It’s not an example of voter fraud, “ Ray says. “It’s just an example of how mobile the population of Houston is.”
The voter-registration drive has become part of True the Vote lore. In his talk, Virginia Voters Alliance leader Reagan George references the vacant-lot story. A leader of Verify the Vote Arizona goes further in the group’s video, saying Houston Votes tried to registered 100,000 people in one month. After Engelbrecht requested the new registrations, he says “it was found that 70,000 [of the registrations] were questionable. In other words, there was a 70 percent error rate.”
But according to Fred Lewis, the leader of Houston Votes, the group had only submitted 29,000 voter-registration applications when True the Vote began to complain; 80 percent were accepted. Lewis said that after the True the Vote claims, the registration drive’s funding largely dried up and volunteers quit. “Houston Votes was viciously and falsely attacked for alleged ‘voter fraud’ to impede our voter registration of lower income and minority citizens and to scare up Tea Party poll watchers for minority areas,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Engelbrecht herself has accused Houston Votes of being part of the New Black Panther Party. At a True the Vote meeting, she played a clip of a black man on Fox News arguing that “We have to exterminate white people.” Engelbrecht then showed a photograph of the Houston Votes office, proclaiming, “This is the New Black Panthers office.” Fred Lewis, who is white, later filed a defamation suit that’s still pending.
Whites aren’t in danger of any extermination in Harris County, but they will make up an increasingly smaller share of the population. Engelbrecht herself seemed to allude to that dynamic as she promoted her group. “If we lose Houston, we lose Texas,” she said at a Tea Party rally in the Houston suburbs 2010. “And if we lose Texas, we lose the nation.”
When the group began targeting nonwhite precincts in Houston in 2010, it seemed to confirm the idea that this group was primarily concerned about black voters. Complaints of voter intimidation were high around the county, with a total of 56.
In an e-mail, True the Vote attorney Akers denied all allegations of voter intimidation and of targeting certain neighborhoods. He also said the group is explicitly nonpartisan. “It continues to be a mystery to us,” he wrote, “that any credible person would quote from and make use of raw, unsubstantiated allegations as though it was an established fact.”
But the group does little to fight allegations of racism. In 2010, when I asked True the Vote attorney Kelly Shackelford about the allegations, he brushed them off. “A lot of districts who've never had poll watchers, then poll watchers show up for the first time and they’re a different color than them and they just don't like that,” he said. Instead, he explained, the real issue was intimidation of the poll watchers by the voters.
When I asked Akers about outreach to nonwhite communities, he responded: “If invited to speak to a group in a ‘nonwhite neighborhood’ about these issues, we would be pleased to attend and offer our services as we have for everyone else.”
In 2011, Engelbrecht took the stage at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona, where she began her presentation, as she usually does, with the origin story of True the Vote. In 2009, she said, "We wanted to do something—we weren’t quite sure what—but we wanted to do something,” she explained. When they heard there was a need for poll watchers, several people decided to give it shot. Pausing dramatically, Engelbrecht arrived at the big reveal: “When we went to volunteer at the polls we saw problems, we saw big problems. We saw people who would come in and say ‘I don't know who to vote for,’ and then the election judge would say, ‘I can help you with that.’ And then they'd escort them over to the voting booth and before you know it, that poor voter had had their vote effectively stolen right out from underneath them.”
Engelbrecht herself has not poll watched in Harris County. She can’t; she lives in Fort Bend County, and Texas only allows poll watching where you live. But the story she told was the same one an unidentified woman tells in the group’s 2010 video. That woman also alleges the judge voted for the voter.
Hitting a climax, Engelbrecht looked out to the crowd pleadingly. “Once you see something like that you can't forget it,” she said. “You certainly can't abide it. If you do nothing and you're no better than an accessory to the crime.
“We stepped back and said we're gonna bygum true the vote!”
Later in her presentation, however, Engelbrecht got serious. “Be prepared,” she said. “Because you will be vilified. We have been called the largest voter suppression effort ever in the history of the country by the Huffington Post.”
The crowd cheered at that remark, as she said ruefully, “in some circles that would not be an applause line.” Lucky for her, she’s found a circle where it is.