Who Watches the Pollwatchers?
Listening to True the Vote’s leaders, you’d think voting fraud was as common as triple-digit heat in the Texas summer –– they are dead certain a conspiracy is afoot.
The group’s president, Catherine Engelbrecht, a Houston mom who joined the Tea Party before founding True the Vote, gave a July speech in Montana titled, “Voter Fraud: The Plot to Undermine American Democracy.” She refers to volunteers as “warriors.” A similar group in Florida that aligns itself with True the Vote said it wants to raise a “cavalry” of pollwatchers to march on swing states.
During the 2010 Harris County elections, True the Vote unsuccessfully targeted black U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson. The group’s pollwatching tactics in black neighborhoods reminded many Democrats of a time when racial intimidation in the South was commonplace. True the Vote also compiled a list of hundreds of voters, mostly minorities, whose voter registrations bore addresses for vacant lots.
They used the same methodology a year later during the recall election of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, where the state’s Government Accountability Board said their methods were “at best flawed” and disproportionately affected lower-income families.
At a polling place near Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc., elections workers complained that True the Vote pollwatchers were slowing down a line of college students by disrupting workers, on suspicion that they were allowing the young people to vote without identification. Students left the line as a result, the workers told The New York Times.
“In recent elections we have received disturbing reports and complaints about unacceptable, illegal behavior by observers,” the accountability board said in a statement. “Voters expect a calm setting in which to exercise their right to vote.”
And then there’s “voter purging,” where the group compiles a list of allegedly dead people still on the voter rolls and demands their removal. That resulted in a couple of Texas lawsuits this summer, when some of those people, very much alive, received letters asking if they were dead and threatening to trash their registrations.
Despite negative media attention from “liberal reporters,” accusations of intimidation are baseless, True the Vote’s public relations director wrote on the website this summer.
“Our national network of volunteer pollwatchers are armed with notepads and smiles, not nightsticks and snarls,” Logan Churchwell wrote. “Accusations of intimidation have proven to be illogical and without any objective evidence.”
True the Vote makes a big deal of being nonpartisan, yet it’s an offspring of the Tea Party that donated at least $5,000 to the Republican Party and coordinates with well-funded organizations working explicitly to remove President Barack Obama from office.
After True the Vote received a $35,000 grant from the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the money had to be returned because True the Vote has repeatedly failed to receive tax-exempt status from the IRS.
A Travis County judge ruled in March that the group’s activities violated Texas campaign finance laws. True the Vote is not a nonprofit, the judge ruled, but an unregistered political action committee that had illegally aided the Republican Party in the 2010 elections.
When the group hosted a debate during the Senate primary, Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst were invited. The Democratic candidates were not.
The group is still very active in Houston, said Bill Brannon, director of the Texas Democratic Party.
“They have had a number of trainings. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them in Dallas; it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in Fort Worth,” he said, but he believes that voter intimidation in Texas will probably stay restricted to Harris County.
Before 2010, Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, heard the term “pollwatcher” rarely, if ever. Then minority polling places were suddenly “inundated” with them, he said.
“The bottom line is that Republicans know they’re about to lose Harris County,” Lewis said. “That’s what redistricting isabout. That’s what voter ID is about. All of it.”
Voter fraud, for all the fuss, is as common as vegans at a barbecue.
A seven-month national investigation by News21, a collaboration of 500 journalism students based at Arizona State University, found 2,068 cases of alleged election fraud since 2000, 104 of them in Texas. Only a small number of those were voter impersonation, the kind of fraud that voter ID laws and pollwatching are meant to prevent.
A bipartisan commission at the U.S. Justice Department found few cases of extensive fraud and concluded that voter impersonation fraud is effectively non-existent, even though the commission simultaneously recommended voter identification laws.
There is one kind of voter fraud for which there is a good amount of evidence: abuse of absentee ballots. But it’s not the kind of thing restricted to Democrats. The most recent examples of absentee voting abuses come from the Republican Party, and one of them is almost literally in the backyard of True the Vote’s president.
Using absentee ballots, a Republican precinct chairman running for the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court cast votes in both Texas and Pennsylvania in the last three federal elections, The Houston Chronicle reported in October.
Engelbrecht lives in the same precinct as the Republican official.
Democrats didn’t miss the opportunity.
“While local and national Republican leaders were tilting at the windmills of imaginary voter fraud, real voter fraud was taking place under their noses,” Fort Bend County Democratic Chairman Steve Brown said.
On a larger scale, the Republican leadership was backpedaling in early October after Strategic Allied Consulting, a for-profit voter registration company that worked for the party in Florida and elsewhere, was caught turning in more than 100 bogus registration forms.
The man who runs the group, Nathan Sproul, had a history of absentee ballot fraud but was hired by the Republican National Committee anyway.
Of course, none of this means the Republican Party and True the Vote have any intention of backing away from voter ID laws or policing voters at the polls.
Civil rights activists expect to be fighting the same battle for years to come.
A pleasant male voice narrates the cartoonish online training videos for True the Vote, telling viewers that citizens across the country are “becoming aware of critical issues with our elections.”
Gypsy jazz sets the mood, a clarinet happily humming over the chug-a-chugging of the guitar. At one point, the short introductory video shows a hairy, unshaven man dressed as a woman trying to vote. Behind him, another cartoon character, this one serious-looking, scribbles on her clipboard.
It’s made clear that this is an example of voter fraud, though you have to wonder if the video’s producers have ever seen a transvestite.
“When election laws are not followed properly or the laws are vague, it leaves the process open to manipulation by those with partisan agendas,” the voice says.
Then the video trots out some numbers: Polls show 64 percent of Americans think voter fraud is a problem. It’s been prosecuted in 46 states since 2000. More than 23 million voter registrations are inaccurate.
“It’s a big problem, and it affects us all,” the voice says.
Those scary-sounding numbers don’t reflect the national investigations of voter fraud that turned up little evidence that it’s actually happening.
Slowly, there’s been pushback.
Federal courts have struck down some voter ID laws, including in Texas, because civil rights groups successfully argued that they disproportionately affected minority voters, who are less likely to have a photo ID or to be able to travel a long distance to pay for one. As Haltom reminded Democrats, Texas voters won’t need one come November as a result of the ongoing litigation.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, confronted True the Vote about its pollwatching efforts. In October he sent a letter to Engelbrecht asking for documents related to their voter purging efforts, mostly scouring voter registration rolls and then demanding that thousands of people be removed.
“At some point, an effort to challenge voter registrations by the thousands without any legitimate basis may be evidence of illegal voter suppression,” Cummings wrote.
Cummings has since been accused of “playing the race card,” and True the Vote has not turned over any of the documents.
Dennis Arens, the Tarrant County leader for True the Vote, insists that the organization is nonpartisan. As the group’s local coordinator, he said, he receives phone calls from both Democrats and Republicans volunteering to protect the elections process. He puts them in touch with whichever political party they want.
“There are a number of folks on both sides that are concerned,” h––e said. “Most of them don’t know who to call or what to do.”
Arens said he’s never seen any animosity at Tarrant County polling places or even heard of the accusations of voter intimidation in Houston. Polls show that most Americans support laws protecting the integrity of the elections process, he pointed out. And he’s right, though it’s kind of like asking Americans if they think puppies should be protected from wolves.
What happens among pollwatchers, election workers, and voters on Election Day may not always look like the color-blind, nonpartisan citizen police force that True the Vote and its Republican supporters have been marketing around the country.
Whether or not it’s racism, the reality is that in the South, minorities tend to vote Democratic, and that’s where conservative white pollwatchers are showing up. Now Democratic pollwatchers will be there too.
It’s hard enough getting people out to vote without making a polling place feel like airport security.
“Who hasn’t felt that lump in your throat when you see a police car following you?” said Stuart Clegg, who worked as a Democratic campaign manager for Domingo Garcia. “Voting ought to make you feel good. It shouldn’t scare the crap out of you.”