Politics

What I Learned From Training to Be a Right-Wing Poll Watcher

Rule No. 1: Don’t let the Democrats slip you laxatives.

A U.S. map is seen with speech bubbles hovering over it, each featuring text: "Fraudulent Votes," "Unexplained Miscounts," "Bungled Ballots," "Illegal Registrations."
True the Vote’s “Election Observer Training” video. Via True the Vote training session

Alan Vera, ballot security chairman for Texas’ Harris County GOP, wants prospective poll watchers to keep an eye on their coffee.

“Here’s a tip that I almost hate to have to tell you, but: Do not accept coffee from the election judge or any of the clerks,” he warns early in a training video for volunteer poll watchers. “We’ve had too many instances in the past where laxatives have been hidden inside coffee and our poll watchers end up spending the day in the restroom instead of in the polls watching what’s going on.”

Advertisement

This first rule of poll watching speaks to the bigger lesson I learned from sitting through hours of conservative poll watching training videos over the past several weeks: These programs are more about instilling paranoia in the Republican Party faithful than about actually teaching them to successfully suppress votes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Vera’s laxative lecture was part of a training I took from one of the country’s most influential conservative vote-monitoring groups, True the Vote. True the Vote grew out of a Houston Tea Party group accused of intimidating voters of color in 2010 and has since expanded its reach beyond Harris County. Qualifications for poll observers vary from state to state, but as of September, True the Vote claimed to have trained 10,000 poll observers it hoped to push into the field around the country. (You generally have to sign up to be a poll observer through party officials, which was easy enough for me to do in California.) Groups like True the Vote also lobby states to pass laws making it harder to vote. They create court challenges that threaten the franchise. And Donald Trump is already promising to weaponize their tactics against a full ballot count.

Advertisement

True the Vote had planned to recruit Navy SEALs to watch the polls, as the Intercept reported, and there were fears that “Trump’s army” of observers would be 50,000 strong. But the threat of intimidation has largely fizzled. The actual poll watching training programs themselves are infused with a constant sense of paranoia that borders more on ludicrous than frightening. Take True the Vote’s training course for poll watchers in Texas, its flagship program. While True the Vote is ostensibly nonpartisan, the training is run by Vera, the Harris County Republican official. Vera’s two-hour session, in which he narrates a slideshow presentation, is focused almost entirely on how to prevent Democratic voting officials from making mistakes in obeying the state’s voting rules, the most onerous in the country, or doing what he characterizes as “fraud.” The goal of preventing mistakes in election law enforcement seems innocent enough. But True the Vote is fixated on possible mistakes as signs of intentional Democratic malfeasance, which the group and others use for the partisan goal of pushing for harsher and harsher voting restrictions.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Vera himself often seems more like the Wile E. Coyote of voter suppression than an anti-democratic mastermind. Take an episode from the 2018 election reported by HuffPost, during which Vera “put on a patriotic necktie, walked into the voter registration office in Houston and challenged the registrations of some 4,000 voters.” These voters, Vera claimed, no longer lived at the addresses the state had on file and should be purged from the rolls. In the end, 1,700 voters who lived exactly where the files said they lived had their registrations mistakenly suspended because of Vera. It also turned out that Vera’s voting challenge was unlawful—according to Texas law, you need personal knowledge of the voters’ address changes, which in these cases did not exist.

Advertisement

If Vera is Wile E. Coyote, then the training is an Acme Toolkit he is sharing with you. Hence the earnest warning in his prerecorded video that one of the biggest dangers to poll watchers is laxative-armed Democrats.

I emailed Vera multiple times to ask if he could provide any confirmed examples of Democratic Texas voting officials—who are elected—poisoning a True the Vote poll watcher or poll watcher from another group with which he is affiliated. As of press time, he had not responded. A Google search for laxative poisonings at the polls yielded a couple of examples from the 1880s, including poisoned sardines and crackers in a Mississippi county in 1880. The most recent mention of a laxative poisoning during the voting process I could find came in a 1962 issue of Life magazine, in which a Baltimore election official described officials being “slipped a mickey, usually a high-powered laxative, in his coffee so that he is indisposed several minutes at a time at frequent intervals.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Much of the rest of the program entails a fairly straightforward recitation of the rules and obligations for Texas poll watchers, but the gist seems mainly to teach volunteers how to annoy election officials and get away with it. Vera’s world is filled with hostile election clerks and judges who will try to intimidate or deceive the poll observer into not fulfilling their duties. For Vera, those duties include following the judge after voting has ended to ensure that she delivers the ballots to the county authority without committing vote felonies. “Now a lot of judges are going to try to trick you,” Vera warns. “They’re going to say, ‘Aw, y’all have been so great, here’s 10 bucks from me, go out and have a nice dinner, we’ll close this up without you.’ Don’t fall for it. Stay until the judge leaves.” At this point, Vera says, you should consider following the judge as she delivers the ballots.

Advertisement

“He or she is required to drive in a safe manner that allows you to follow him or her safely,” Vera adds, suggesting the elected judge is going to try to drop your tail.

Another “very important slide” explains what to avoid doing so you don’t get “kicked out of the polling place as a poll watcher.”

Advertisement

“If a clerk gets fed up with you because you’re doing your job and the clerk tells you to talk to the judge,” Vera says, Texas election law says you can no longer talk to the clerk. “Now the way I’ve gotten around this is, if a clerk gets angry with me or annoyed with me and refers me to the judge, I then start asking the judge about everything the clerk’s doing. And it’s not long before the judge says, ‘Please talk directly to the clerk.’ ” Checkmate, election officials.

Advertisement

The assumed villains are always Democrats. “Don’t let any Democratic judge intimidate you and cause you to give up [your] rights,” Vera warns at one point.

Vera also advises hovering over the clerk’s shoulders, because “you have the right to sit or stand wherever it’s convenient to observe what’s going on.

“They hate this, because the best place to see most of the problems that come up in elections is right behind the clerks at the check-in table where the voters come to check in,” Vera says. “You have the right to stand behind those clerks and see everything. Now many Democrat judges will take that table, the check-in table, and move it back against the wall so it’s very difficult for you to stand behind the clerks and see what’s going on. Don’t let them get away with it.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The general takeaway is that Democratic officials cannot be trusted. “Do not leave your notes with the Democrat presiding judge or clerks,” he said. “You’ll never see them again.” So, if you have to go to the restroom because one of the Democratic officials has poisoned you with laxatives, at least take your notes with you.

True the Vote was one of the pioneers pushing the myth of widespread voter fraud. But its definition of fraud is itself pretty flexible. Democratic officials will make mistakes in implementing the rules, Vera said, and when they do, it’s actually fraud. “Where does fraud happen in a typical Texas polling place?” Vera asks. “Well, 80 to 85 percent of the fraud is taking place up front at the check-in table.” Vera then lists a litany of potential mistakes in enforcing strict, recently enacted voting rules as evidence of “fraud.” “It’s failure to check a driver’s license,” he says. “It’s a mistake entering the wrong voter. It’s forgetting to confirm the voter’s address. It’s not requiring the voter to do the statement of residence form when the poll book says it’s needed.” True the Vote, of course, helped push for many of these voter verification laws, which are the most onerous in the country.

Advertisement
Advertisement

What is the goal of all this “fraud” prevention? To force as many voters as possible into having to submit provisional ballots, which, ideally, never get counted. “Provisional ballots are great in that the votes are not counted. They can be taken out of the holding pen and never counted in the election if the voter doesn’t qualify,” Vera says. “However, if a provisional ballot voter mistakenly gets a regular ballot code, his vote counts and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

What other fraud should you be on the lookout for? “Every once in a while, you take a peek in the parking lot and see who’s handing out sandwiches or dollars,” he says, warning that Democratic voters may be bribed. There’s nothing a poll watcher can do in these hypothetical situations aside from write down what they see. But the point is not to do something. The point is to gum up the works as much as possible without getting kicked out.

Advertisement

The methods aren’t necessarily effective at preventing fraud—or even at gumming up the process that much—but they instill an aura of illegitimacy over elections and vote counting. As True the Vote has grown, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from conservative groups, it has put on a sunshine-y, nonpartisan face to sell the lie that our elections are rife with fraud, despite zero evidence. Another training, a cartoon set to Schoolhouse Rock–style imagery and music, declares, “True the Vote is a nonpartisan initiative developed by citizens for citizens to develop and equip volunteers for involvement at every stage in our electoral process and to actively protect the rights of legitimate voters regardless of party affiliation.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Five animated people are seen in front of the True the Vote logo and a drawing of a ballot box.
Via True the Vote training session

“True the Vote isn’t concerned with which political party you’re a part of or which candidate you support, but we’re very concerned about the integrity of our elections,” the training continues. It all sounds great. Within a minute of the video, though, you get to an image of older cartoon woman in pearls at a polling location glancing sneakily around the room before kicking an extension cord connected to a voting machine out of its power socket.

Advertisement
A drawing of an older woman in front of a voting booth
Via True the Vote training session

“When election laws are not followed properly, or the laws are vague, it leaves the process open to manipulation,” the narrator intones.

Advertisement
A foot is seen near a socket with a plug in it.
Via True the Vote training session

The lesson I took from these trainings was that the organizers are not necessarily hatching a nefarious plot to overtly and violently threaten peaceful voters. The point is to instill a deep-seated suspicion of voting—not just voter fraud—in the Republican Party faithful. It’s that erosion of faith in the vote that now threatens our entire democratic system.

Advertisement

Once you are in the True the Vote community, you will get fundraising emails. You will also get heavily partisan campaign messaging, such as materials from sister programs, Pray the Vote and Intercessors for America, devoted to getting people to pray effectively for safe and secure elections. What do you see when you get to Intercessors for America’s homepage? Stories about Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop, headlines warnings that “Dems Threaten Impeachment of Amy Coney Barrett” and “Soros Triples Election Spending,” and various other right-wing conspiracy theories.

This is in keeping with the broader message of the True the Vote organization. In September, the group’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, appeared in a six-figure ad campaign warning of violent Marxism looming in the United States. “Cambodian leaders killed a quarter of their population in four years,” Englebrecht warned. “Think this can’t happen here? It can. In fact, I think it’s already begun.” That violent Marxism, she says, is evident when Democratic officials like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez try to make it easier to vote.

“A Marxist playbook is not about winning an election. It is about ending them altogether,” Engelbrecht says in the ad. “This is engineered chaos, and the outcome is that we are not going to know who our president is on Nov. 3. Our country’s gonna still be buried under a mountain of mail ballots that states and counties cannot handle. And the longer it goes, the more lawsuits there will be. Remember Bush v. Gore? Imagine that times 50.”

That’s something to really be afraid of.

Advertisement