Trump’s Racist Voter-Fraud Vigilantes

The group Trump is counting on to “analyze” his voter fraud claims has been trying to disenfranchise black voters for years.

Harris County Precinct 357 judge Irene Garcia (C) instructs a primary voter on how to use the voting machine March 4, 2008 in Houston, Texas.
Primary voters vote on March 4, 2008, at Harris County Precinct 357 in Houston. Alleged voter intimidation in the county led DOJ to send in election monitors in 2010.

Dave Einsel/Getty Images

On Friday, President Donald Trump woke up and tweeted about voter fraud. Specifically, he tweeted about the voter fraud monitoring app VoteStand and its founder, Gregg Phillips, who says that at least 3 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. “Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand,” Trump wrote. “We must do better!”

There’s no evidence whatsoever that mass fraud occurred in November’s election. Phillips, who it turns out was registered in three states, has claimed that VoteStand’s data will prove it did and replied to Trump with a tweet saying analysis of that data would be carried out by the group True the Vote.

True the Vote, a registered nonprofit putatively aimed at curbing voter fraud, claims to believe, like Phillips and President Trump, that millions of illegal votes were cast in November’s election. “True the Vote absolutely supports President-elect Trump’s recent comment about the impact of illegal voting, as reflected in the national popular vote,” the group said in a November statement. “We are still collecting data and will be for several months, but our intent is to publish a comprehensive study on the significant impact of illegal voting in all of its many forms and begin a national discussion on how voters, states, and the Trump Administration can best address this growing problem.” This statement, and Trump’s initial post-election comments on voter fraud, came after it had become clear that Hillary Clinton had beaten Trump in the popular vote.

True the Vote has been working to disenfranchise minority and Democratic voters under the guise of combating fraud for the past several years. The group was created in 2009 as an offshoot of the Texas Tea Party group King Street Patriots and was engaged in alleged voter suppression efforts in 2010 and 2012 that garnered widespread media attention. The group’s alleged intimidation of minority voters in Harris County, Texas, in 2010 proved to be such a nuisance that the Department of Justice sent in its own election monitors. That November, Abby Rapoport of the Texas Observer chronicled the group’s activities in Harris County’s majority black Acres Homes neighborhood:

[O]n Oct. 28, Gloria Alfred, a senior citizen with disabilities, needed her son’s help in order to vote. But the moment they entered the voting booth together, she says a poll watcher yelled out, “You can’t help her!” Her son said he explained that he’d been sworn in to assist, and the poll watcher backed off. What if Chris hadn’t known what to say? Gloria Alfred asked. “I might have been to the point where I couldn’t even have voted.”

By Oct. 28, Acres Homes already had seen seven separate complaints against the poll watchers, mostly for intimidation. It was easy to see how things could get tense. Around the lines of voting booths, ramps in the building created a mini-balcony, from which two older white male poll watchers looked down at the voters. Sometimes they wandered amidst the voting booths, crammed together. Since there was barely room for people standing in their rows, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one of the watchers could feel intrusive to a voter.

Also in 2010, Catherine Engelbrecht, leader of King Street Patriots and founder of True the Vote, provoked a campaign against a Houston voter registration group called Houston Votes that culminated in a raid and investigation by state officials. After Engelbrecht claimed the group was affiliated with the New Black Panther Party, Harris County’s Republican tax assessor-collector accused Houston Votes of submitting thousands of fraudulent registration applications In fact, the vast majority of the registrations submitted by the group had by then been validated and approved by county and state election officials. As the Dallas Morning News reported, by the end of the state’s inquiry into Houston Vote’s activities, the group had been forced to shut down its efforts to register low-income voters and had seen its records and office equipment destroyed. No charges were ever filed.

Engelbrecht and True the Vote’s profile grew in 2012 with the filing of lawsuits against officials in Indiana and Ohio for failing to update and maintain registered voter rolls, a tactic aimed at both undermining confidence in the states’ voter registration systems and justifying calls for the broad purging of voters. And in an effort called “Verify the Recall,” True the Vote challenged the legitimacy of the petition to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board reviewed True the Vote’s claims that roughly 63,000 signatures on the recall petition had been ineligible in findings that were excerpted by the New York Times:

The accountability board concluded that about 900,000 signatures were valid and, in a memorandum reviewing True the Vote’s work, criticized its methods.

For example: Mary Lee Smith signed her name Mary L. Smith and was deemed ineligible by the group.

Signatures deemed “out of state” included 13 from Milwaukee and three from Madison.

The group’s software would not recognize abbreviations, so Wisconsin addresses like Stevens Point were flagged if “Pt.” was used on the petition.

Signatures were struck for lack of a ZIP code.

The accountability board ultimately concluded that about 30,000 signatures on the petition had been ineligible and that about 97 percent of the petition’s signatures had been valid. The buses that Engelbrecht claimed arrived with out-of-state voters—from places like Detroit and Chicago—to subvert the Wisconsin election were also never found to exist.

By that fall, True the Vote claimed a presence in 35 states and was providing software and assistance to groups like the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, which challenged the registration of 53-year-old Teresa Sharp, a black American, and 380 others in Hamilton County. In Sharp’s case, the project falsely claimed that a vacant lot had been listed as her address. Sharp contested the challenge in court. From the New Yorker:

When Sharp heard her house described as a vacant lot, and learned that Marlene Kocher—the member of the Ohio Voter Integrity Project who had filed the challenge against her—had not bothered to visit her address, she exploded. “This lady has nothing else better to do?” she said. “I think she needs to get a life!”

[Hamilton Board of Elections member Caleb] Faux recalled that Kocher “apologized and kind of shrunk back.”

“We made a mistake,” Mary Siegel, a leader of the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, who has been involved in a local Tea Party group, told me. “We’re just here to protect the voter.”

In 2013, Breitbart ran a piece on Phillips and Engelbrecht’s claims that the Affordable Care Act was partially a front for the fraudulent registration of new Democratic voters. “They believe one of the underlying intents is to collect personal data and voter registration information and share it with the federal government,” Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle wrote, “which would in turn share it with left-wing groups—in Obamacare they are called ‘Navigators’—to conduct what is essentially a taxpayer-funded Get-Out-The-Vote operation for the Democratic Party.” 2013 was also the year Engelbrecht began claiming that True the Vote and her family businesses had begun receiving undue scrutiny from the IRS and other federal agencies after she had filed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit application for True the Vote. Stories in numerous right-wing outlets, from Breitbart to National Review, made scant mention of True the Vote’s previous controversies or how the group’s activities and affiliations could skirt the edge of the nonpartisanship required of 501(c)(3)s. Engelbrecht was simply cast as a victim of an unhinged administration looking to crack down on political dissent.

Engelbrecht went on to testify before the House in 2014 over accusations that other groups like hers had been targeted by the IRS and the Obama administration. A few months after the hearing, Phillips, then the managing director of a group called the Voters Trust, introduced a $1 million bounty, announced on Fox News by Engelbrecht, for evidence that the IRS had deliberately targeted conservatives.

In October 2015, the Department of Justice closed its investigation of the IRS’s handling of conservative groups without filing charges. But during her hearing, Engelbrecht performed defiance. “I will not be intimidated,” she said. “I will not ask for permission to exercise my constitutional rights.” Should President Trump make hay of whatever alternative facts she and Gregg Phillips generate about the prevalence of voter fraud in November’s election, he will be complicit in True the Vote’s ongoing efforts to undermine those very rights for minority and Democratic voters.