From a continuing series of articles, Who Can Vote? , a News21 investigation of voting rights in America. The series began with the article, New database of voter fraud finds no evidence that photo ID laws are needed.
By AJ Vicens and Natasha Khan
Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.
As Jamila Gatlin waited in line at a northside Milwaukee elementary school gym to cast her ballot June 5 in the proposed recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, she noticed three people in the back of the room. They were watching, taking notes.
Officially called “election observers,” they were white. Gatlin, and almost everyone in line, was black.
“That’s pretty harassing right there, if you ask me,” Gatlin said in the hall outside the gym. “Why do we have to be watched while we vote?”
Two of the observers were from a group based more than 1,000 miles away, in Houston, Texas, called True the Vote, an initiative that grew out of the Houston branch of the Tea Party known as the King Street Patriots. The stated goal of True the Vote is to prevent voter fraud, which the group and founder Catherine Engelbrecht claim is preventing “free and fair” elections.
Back in April, at True the Vote’s second national summit in Houston, more than 300 people from 32 states were transfixed by Engelbrecht and an array of conservative speakers.
“You have all been chosen because you are all warriors,” the 42-year-old mother of two said to cheers at the Sheraton Houston Brookhollow Hotel.
Who can vote? A national News21 investigation of voting rights in America.
A few people wore $20 True the Vote T-shirts showing Martin Luther King Jr.'s image over the quote, "Peace if possible, truth at all costs." The quotation is widely credited online to 16th century theologian Martin Luther, not the civil rights icon. However, Mark Edwards, senior adviser to the dean of the Harvard Divinity School, told News21 he could not be sure the quote was Martin Luther's.
Few minorities heard Engelbrecht say “the time has come for a national call for election integrity,” but about 100 minority protesters were outside, protesting True the Vote and a national trend of tougher voting regulations.
The protesters, mainly blacks and Hispanics from a coalition of Texas minority rights groups, came to the Not In My Houston protest with their mouths covered in bright blue tape and holding signs that read, “We will not be silenced" and "Stop voter suppression!"
A protester from the "Not in My Houston" campaign, a coalition of civil rights groups, stands outside the Sheraton Brookhollow Hotel in Houston where True the Vote held its second national summit in April. The groups accused True the Vote of trying to silence minority voters by sending observers across the nation to minority polling places.
In just three years, True the Vote has moved beyond Texas and established itself as one of the political right's fastest growing and most controversial groups.
With its model of poll-watcher training and voter-roll analysis used in at least 20 states, True the Vote is part of a national movement to tighten regulations on early voting and voter registration and to require that voters show ID at the polls in the name of fighting voter fraud.
Since 2010, 37 state legislatures have passed or considered such laws, championed by conservative activists, including True the Vote. Critics claim these new restrictions could suppress the votes of millions of people, especially minorities, across the country.
Engelbrecht testified in favor of the photo ID law in the Texas Legislature in 2011. The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division blocked the measure in March, claiming it could disproportionately suppress Hispanic votes. A three-judge district court panel in Washington heard arguments in the Texas case in July.
“For every fraudulent vote that is cast, a valid vote is disenfranchised,” Engelbrecht told News21, saying that the only way to trust elections is to make sure “only legitimate votes are counted to begin with.”
While Engelbrecht says her group is about fighting election fraud, Democrats and civil rights activists say True the Vote and related organizations target black and Hispanic polling places to hold down minority votes.
“You don’t have to beat up people up or chain them to keep them from voting,” said Terry O’Rourke, an attorney in the Harris County, Texas, Attorney’s Office in response to the King Street Patriots and True the Vote’s 2010 activities.
Engelbrecht and her supporters can point to little evidence of voter fraud prosecutions, relying on anecdotes and news reports alleging fraud.
Still, she says True the Vote will train 1 million poll watchers nationwide, leaving “no polling place unmanned” to stand guard against election fraud in November.
Labor, civil rights and voting rights groups, including the AFL-CIO, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, also are coordinating poll watchers.
Others, including Demos and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, plan to educate election officials on what poll watchers can do.
With President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and civil rights groups expected to mobilize their own armies of lawyers and poll watchers, and True the Vote’s efforts, thousands of poll watchers could face off in November.
“We are concerned about groups that exaggerate claims of voter impersonation in order to organize efforts that can lead to intimidation of eligible voters,” said Eddie Hailes, managing director at the Advancement Project, a Washington D.C., civil rights group.
True the Vote was active in Wisconsin for weeks before Walker and five Republican officials faced a labor-backed recall after the state limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees. True the Vote trained about 500 poll watchers, mainly through Web sessions, and recruited volunteers from across the country.
A week after Walker beat back a labor challenge to keep his office — which True the Vote called “a victory” — the group joined with conservative government watchdog Judicial Watch to sue Indiana elections officials over the state’s alleged failure to maintain accurate voter rolls according to federal law.
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Through multiple email blasts, True the Vote urged support for Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s effort to remove thousands of suspected non-citizens from the state’s voter rolls. What has become known as the “purge” faced several lawsuits that claimed Florida tried to strip eligible voters, predominantly minorities, of the right to vote. The group also joined Judicial Watch in a federal suit backing Florida against the federal government.
The activities of the King Street Patriots and True the Vote have attracted two lawsuits and a state ethics complaint in Texas since 2009. In a lawsuit brought by the Texas Democratic Party, a judge ruled in March that True the Vote was acting as a political action committee, violating state campaign finance law by providing illegal contributions to the Republican Party in the form of trained poll watchers and Republican-only candidate forums.
Texas Democratic Party general counsel Chad Dunn said he doesn’t buy the group’s grassroots image.
“Nobody gets to know what they are doing. They are the one and only political operation in Texas that isn't disclosing its donors,” he told News21.
Engelbrecht said her groups raise most of their money by passing around an old felt cowboy hat at weekly meetings at King Street’s headquarters.
The group raised $64,687 in 2010, according to federal tax documents, reporting it all as gifts, contributions and grants. After initially offering to provide its 2011 tax records to News21, Engelbrecht later declined.
Engelbrecht ran a small oil-field services company with her husband Brian, out of public view, until 2009, when she got into politics after hearing CNBC personality Rick Santelli’s call for a Chicago tea party.
Wanting to do more direct action than other Houston-area tea party groups, Engelbrecht formed King Street Patriots in 2009, naming it for the Boston site of a bloody confrontation between British troops and American colonists in 1770. True the Vote, formed next, is the poll-watcher training and voter-roll purging effort.
Engelbrecht, who has called poll watchers the “eyes and ears of the republic” who “preserve a free and fair process,” has been working hard: True the Vote already has hosted two national summits and drawn thousands into its work.
True the Vote grew out of the Houston Tea Party, also known as the King Street Patriots. The organization sold $20 T-shirts with images of Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr., promoting the group's mission of "free and fair" elections during a national summit in Houston in April.
She has surrounded herself with influential conservative advisers including former Justice Department lawyer J. Christian Adams, who accused his agency of bias against whites for failing to pursue voter intimidation criminal charges against the New Black Panthers in 2008. Another adviser is the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, one of the right’s leading voter ID advocates.
Lawyer James Bopp -- who successfully argued the Citizens United case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed unlimited spending on campaigns by corporations — is one of the attorneys representing the King Street Patriots and True the Vote in the Texas Democratic Party lawsuit.
Engelbrecht and True the Vote volunteers, in interviews at the group’s summit in April 2012 in Houston and in Wisconsin, describe themselves as the front line in a war against voter fraud.
Engelbrecht’s poll watchers claimed to witness election workers telling voters how to vote in Houston in 2010, and submitted 800 reports of irregularities to the Harris County Clerk’s office in Houston. Nothing came of the complaints.
“Just being in the poll and having a presence in the polling place is a deterrent,” said Cathy Kelleher, a Maryland real estate agent who started poll watching and voter-roll inspection efforts after getting involved with True the Vote in 2011. “We’re there so people don’t try to do anything fishy.”
Kelleher also takes part in True the Vote’s other initiative, which allows volunteers to scour voter registration records for irregularities. True the Vote provides volunteers with a database to compare voter rolls with other public records, and any potential problems are forwarded to local election officials for investigation.
True the Vote won’t discuss the quality of its database, and volunteers have to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Kelleher said she’s used the database extensively in Maryland with her group, Election Integrity Maryland. In a little more than a year, she claims to have found thousands of cases of people who’ve left the state but still are on voter rolls, and dead people listed as active voters.
“We’ve made no assertions thus far that voter fraud has been committed,” Kelleher told News21. “All we’re saying is that there has been nothing done to prevent it.”
Alisha Alexander, the elections director in Prince George’s County, Maryland, said Kelleher could be helpful if she understood legal requirements for removing people from voter rolls.
“I’m not sure that this group does understand the state law,” Alexander said. “Because a group comes out and says these individuals (should be off the rolls) based on research from Facebook and LinkedIn, that’s just not an acceptable source.”
Kelleher said some of her volunteers have used social media, but only after using other public records and websites such as whitepages.com, veromi.net and peoplefinders.com.
“Certainly, based on (Facebook and LinkedIn), we don’t expect someone to be taken off the voter rolls,” Kelleher said. “But we do expect the Board of Elections to do more than they’re doing now.”
Texas Democrats accused Engelbrecht’s poll watchers of intimidating minority voters during the 2010 election in Harris County. The county attorney's office and the U.S. Department of Justice looked into the allegations,but no charges were brought, according to O'Rourke and Douglas Ray, another attorney in the office.
The U.S. Department of Justice won’t discuss specifics but a department official told News21 that federal monitors were present during the 2010 election and the May 2012 Texas presidential primary.
Engelbrecht, who said True the Vote has not harassed or intimidated anyone, insists it is nonpartisan and does not target minority voting areas.
“When you look at where there is need for people to go and work at the polls,” she told News21 in a phone interview, “the fact of the matter is, there are fewer volunteers working in minority locations.”
True the Vote claims its volunteers are diverse. However Engelbrecht denied News21 requests for a demographic breakdown of her volunteers.
Voting rights groups say white poll watchers in minority areas can have a disenfranchising impact even if there’s no direct interaction.
“In a community where voter participation is not very high and where folks are not as politically active, any barrier that prevents you from getting to the polls or that discourages you from getting to the polls is potentially a problem,” said Nic Riley of NYU's Brennan Center.
Chandler Davidson, a professor for nearly 40 years at Houston’s Rice University and an expert on minority voting rights in Texas, sees the King Street Patriots and True the Vote’s activities in a historical context.
“We have a long and sad history of efforts by the white majority in the state of Texas to prevent or cut down on the ability of minorities to vote and to elect candidates of their choice,” Davidson told News21.
If it isn’t racism, Davidson said, the goal is to suppress Democratic votes.
Ray, of the Harris County Attorney’s Office, has talked with the King Street Patriots about rules governing poll watchers, and has heard complaints about them from the community. He said there’s no problem if Engelbrecht and her groups follow the law and respect people’s right to vote.
But, Ray said, the way True the Vote goes about its mission creates tension.
“The problem is not the actual act, but what the act is representing,” Ray said, citing that the group’s advisers, speakers at its summits and language on its website.
“If you listen to all their rhetoric, it's clear what their intent is,” Ray said. “Their intent is to try to act out on this belief ... they have that the only reason Barack Obama got elected is because a bunch of ‘those’ people cheated on their ballot.”
Echoing the reaction to True the Vote at the northside Milwaukee polling place and the Houston protest, Ray said, “If you have people standing around and falsely accusing you of doing things that are innocent, then you quickly come to the conclusion that there’s one reason that they’re doing that.
"I mean why aren’t they going to" a white part of town "and doing the same thing over there?”
AJ Vicens and Tasha Khan were Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellows this summer at News21.
Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.