Bill Ouren, True the Vote’s national elections coordinator, is presenting before a group of about 50 recruits in Boca Raton, Fla. He stands beneath a banner bearing his organization’s name, alongside that of the Koch brothers’ SuperPAC Americans For Prosperity, and the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity’s “Citizen Watchdog,” a rightwing group that teaches people how to become “investigative” journalists. He’s telling the story of how True the Vote grew from a small posse in Harris County, Texas, in 2009, to a deployed army of over 1,000 poll watchers across most of the state the following year. Ouren brags that the 2010 recruits reported “over 800 individual incidences of voter … irregularities.”
Irregularities is not a common term in the True the Vote vocab. Usually, it’s just called fraud. Seeing that the wording change has brought confusion to some of his audience’s faces, Ouren offers an explanation. “I use the word ‘irregularities’ because we don’t know if people did it intentionally or if they just didn’t know better.” That kind of logic isn’t normal for the group either, so he immediately adds, “So for those people who say voter and election fraud doesn’t exist, I’ve got 806 answers to that. It absolutely does in one election.”
Ouren and Americans for Prosperity gathered these recruits in Boca Raton in July to instruct them on how they could become “empowered” vessels for True the Vote’s poll watcher program. True the Vote is most widely known for its advocacy of restrictive photo voter ID laws. But while that might garner headlines, the group’s real focus is on policing the act of voting itself. As Ouren declared during the group’s national summit in April, and repeated again in Boca Raton, his recruits’ job is chiefly to make voters feel like they’re “driving and seeing the police following you.” He aims to recruit one million poll watchers around the country.
That’s an ambitious goal, and it’s easy to conclude Ouren’s eyes are bigger than his organizing stomach. But when you consider all of the eyes in True the Vote’s rapidly growing network, the goal may not be so far-fetched.
True the Vote’s emergence wasn’t an isolated event. Its rapid rise occurred in harmony with hundreds of other Tea Party groups across the nation, dozens of which exist in Texas alone and many of which have been “empowered” by True the Vote for “election integrity” kibitzing. It has plugged itself into an existing infrastructure of influential far right organizations hellbent on criminalizing abortion, banishing gun control, repealing the Affordable Care Act—and now, on intimidating would-be voters.
The 2008 ACORN “scandal,” where ACORN was found with thousands of falsified voter registration forms, is partially what inspired Engelbrecht to form the King Street Patriots. Even though no fraudulent votes were cast, Engelbrecht’s King Street Patriots lionized the ACORN tale and used it as a mobilizing tool to recruit hundreds of volunteers for 2009 Election Day poll watching, mostly in black and Latino districts. The Patriots came out of that experience convinced that election workers in Harris County were letting non-citizens vote and enabling fraud.
Only a handful of fraud cases were tried after the election, and none led to full convictions. Still, the King Street Patriots spun off as “True the Vote” and came out again for the 2010 elections—bulkier with more recruits, again at black and Latino polling places. A local Houston newscast noticed the bulge in poll observers and reported, “As the number of poll watchers have increased, so have the number of complaints.” A video True the Vote circulated at the time contained doctored photos of black people falsely pictured as advocating for voter fraud.
The electoral reforms True the Vote pushed, and the High Court fight they spawned, would have never become law if not for the relationships the group built with Texas elected officials and election administrators. As far back as early 2010, the group was hosting events in a mall office that drew county clerks, state legislators, members of Congress and a wide net of Tea Party and Patriot groups across the state. (Read a list of them and see their pictures here.)
These relationships with elected officials are perhaps the most troubling ones in the impressive national network that True the Vote has since built. The group claims non-partisanship, which is an important assertion to avoid legal entanglement. But that’s dubious given its affiliations and activities.
True the Vote often explains to recruits that they can’t dispatch them at polls in many states; they can only offer training. In Florida, for instance, the political parties and their candidates must select and place poll watchers. So if a volunteer wants to be considered by the parties for Election Day, “we can help facilitate those connections,” Engelbrecht told recruits at the Americans for Prosperity summit in Boca Raton.
Such facilitation means relationships with people in government. That was apparent at True the Vote’s national summit this year, when Republican Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who helps manage elections, was asked to stand and given applause. He’s been a regular at True the Vote events since their inception. Also in attendance were True the Vote regulars U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, infamous for quoting a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizardon the House floor in 2007, and state Rep. Jim Murphy, both Republicans. Gov. Rick Perry wasn’t present, but he wrote a letter of congratulations to Engelbrecht saying he looks “forward to working with you and True the Vote in the coming weeks and months ahead.”
A year before the conference, Gov. Perry was the guest speaker when the King Street Patriots opened their new headquarters, an upgrade from their mall office. The King Street Patriots were working so closely with the Republican Party—hosting fundraisers and providing resources for their candidates—that a judge ruled this year that the group’s electioneering violated its 501c4 status and declared them a political action committee.
But the relationship with the Republican Party goes beyond Texas.
At a Heritage Foundation-sponsored panel in July, Engelbrecht shared the stage with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, both of whom are involved in a multi-state program Kobach created for purging voters using dubious methods. Under the Interstate Cross Check Project, 15 states (not including Texas) have been enlisted to share voter registration data under the premise that they will root out “non-citizen” voters. It’s an outgrowth of Kobach’s Secure and Fair Elections [SAFE] law, one of the strictest voter ID laws passed in 2011, particularly for its requirement that voters show proof of their citizenship when they first register. It was fueled by claims that felons, dead people and “illegal aliens” were voting and stealing elections. There is scant evidence for any of those claims. But Engelbrecht told the Heritage crowd that Kobach’s SAFE was “the model” the rest of the nation should follow.
Englebrecht’s Heritage Foundation panel was actually a rogue’s gallery of election administrators. The same week of the panel, Colorado’s Gessler tried to force local elected officials to accept changes to poll monitoring and canvassing rules; the locals protested loudly. At the panel Gessler, who’s embroiled in lawsuits over a directive to county clerks not to mail ballots to people who skipped the 2010 elections, said he is busy checking databases for “illegal immigrants” on ICE holds, and asserted he found 185 of them were registered to vote.
This is how True the Vote has been building its poll-watching army: recruiting from one far-right confab after another.
Ouren has a five-point recruitment strategy: Plan. Mobilize. Train. Deploy. Follow-up. Election workers, poll judges, clerks, machine operators and other elections staff are “under immense pressure to do the wrong thing,” Ouren told recruits at the Boca Raton training. “Your monitoring gives them cover to do the right thing.”
Recruits sign up at True the Vote’s website for online trainings and gain access to voter registration lists in their counties. They look through the lists for names to submit to election officials for purging. This process isplaying out now in Tampa, where True the Vote’s reputation for voter intimidation has followed the RNC to a state already notorious for reckless purging. Come Election Day, they’ll deploy to the polls.
There have, however, been ample complaints about True the Vote intimidating voters. During Wisconsin’s recall election, students complained that True the Vote volunteers harassed them. The group’s regional director Erin Anderson told me the charges were false, but acknowledged that they couldn’t account for every volunteer they had in the state. “We had an online training, but a lot of people participated in it,” said Anderson. “We know who they are but we don’t know where they ended up.”
Of course, if there’s doubt that True the Vote’s zealous promotion of poll monitoring is about more than “election integrity,” suspicions are confirmed every time Tom Fritton of Judicial Watch speaks to the recruits. At least twice he’s been a featured guest at True the Vote events and both times he’s delivered the same message: “We are concerned that Obama’s people want to be able to steal the election in 2012” with the “illegal alien vote” and a “food stamp army.”
Judicial Watch is crusading to force states to carry out voter-roll purges like the one that has subjected Florida to multiple lawsuits. Together with Judicial Watch, True the Vote formed the 2012 Election Integrity Project, launched in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Through the Election Integrity Project, the group has sued to allow Florida’s purge program to commence, and has sent letters threatening lawsuits in Indiana and Ohio to do the same.
CPAC, meanwhile, rewarded True the Vote’s efforts in 2011 with one of its highest honors, the Ronald Reagan Award, which no doubt ingratiated them with even more activists on the political far right.
All of this further betrays the idea that True the Vote is a nonpartisan organization with an agenda that won’t harm the civil rights of African American and immigrant voters. “Their organization knows they broke the law in 2010 by coordinating with only one political party while enjoying nonprofit status,” says Rebecca Acuna, communications director of the Texas Democratic Party.