As Jamila Gatlin waited in line at a northside Milwaukee elementary school 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 else 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 Houston-based group called True the Vote, an offshoot of the Houston tea party known as the King Street Patriots. Their stated goal is to prevent voter fraud, which the group and founder Catherine Engelbrecht claims is undermining free and fair elections.
The national anti-vote fraud movement represented by groups such as True the Vote is one of the most hotly debated issues of the 2012 election. Proponents say it’s about preserving the integrity of the electoral process, while critics contend that the movement is more about voter intimidation and vote suppression in Democratic strongholds and minority communities.
Engelbrecht and True the Vote volunteers describe themselves as the front line in a war against voter fraud.
Engelbrecht’s poll watchers claimed to have witnessed 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.”
Voting rights groups say white poll watchers in minority areas can have a disenfranchising impact even if there’s no direct interaction, and as a result the debate has unfolded largely in a racial and partisan context.
“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 New York University’s Brennan Center.
In just three years, True the Vote has established itself as a key 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, D.C., heard arguments in the Texas case in July.
The group is hosting its 2012 summit Saturday in Ohio, a critical swing state. At True the Vote’s national summit in Houston this spring, Engelbrecht laid out the group’s mission in fighting terms for more than 300 people from 32 states. “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.
With President Obama’s reelection 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 D.C.-based civil rights group.
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 grass-roots image.
“Nobody gets to know what they are doing,” he told News21. “They are the one and only political operation in Texas that isn’t disclosing its donors.”
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.
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. Justice Department looked into the allegations,but no charges were brought, according to O’Rourke and Douglas Ray, another attorney in the office.
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.”
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 the poll watchers 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.
“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.”
AJ Vicens and Natasha Khan were Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellows this summer at News21.