This year you've probably heard a number of different claims about the supposed vulnerabilities of November's general election: that foreign actors are attempting to sabotage the election through social media; that with fewer poll workers available, some polling locations might have to close; that mail-in ballots won't be delivered properly or counted correctly. But for one Houston-based organization called True the Vote, the main problem isn't systemic, it's individual: voter fraud.
True the Vote says it is dedicated to "securing" American elections, but it traffics more in the sort of fearmongering about voter fraud that is popular on the right than it does in actual efforts to ensure a free, fair, and secure election. It was born in 2009 out of the largely defunct Tea Party movement; Catherine Engelbrecht, the organization's current president, created True the Vote as an offshoot of an older organization called the King Street Patriots.
This year, True the Vote is recruiting hundreds of thousands of citizen volunteers to "protect" or "save" the election. The organization often parrots right-wing talking points in order to portray U.S. voting systems as vulnerable to tampering, and it actively encourages citizen activism as the solution to that tampering — something that has the potential to be dangerous or, at the least, suppress the vote particularly among underrepresented communities. Here's what you should know about this "advocacy" organization.
Its name is an action statement
True the Vote should be read as a directive — that is, the organization's efforts are about making the vote "true" by weeding out supposedly fraudulent voting efforts. The idea of "true-ing" the vote implies that there's currently something inherently untrue about elections and voting. The problem is that there isn't evidence to support this claim.
As Josh Silver, CEO and co-founder of RepresentUS, a political anti-corruption organization, tells Mic, implying that the vote is "untrue" is a way of implying that individual voters are engaging in fraudulent behavior. Moreover, Silver says, the phrase "True the Vote" could be a racist dogwhistle that links the veracity of one's vote with the color of their skin. After all, the sort of citizen vote-monitoring that True the Vote is calling for almost always slants toward attacking the eligibility of voters of color and under-resourced voters.
[Engelbrecht] fears the elections won't be "decided by the people, but rather by attorneys and bureaucrats."
"Fabricating vote-by-mail fraud certainly appears to have racist undertones," Silver says, and True the Vote's "name may comport with that."
It's based on a false claim about voter fraud
Engelbrecht has claimed that voter fraud is "rampant" and has used this fallacy to recruit volunteers to the organization's cause. "This year, we are specifically concerned with what seems to be a sort of engineered chaos architected to implode the process by which we cast and count votes," Engelbrecht told Mic in an email. She added that she fears the elections won't be "decided by the people, but rather by attorneys and bureaucrats," in an apparent reference to the fact that an extremely close vote count in the presidential race could end up throwing the decision before the House of Representatives or even the Supreme Court.
The thing is, voter fraud and voter impersonation are relatively non-existent. For instance, in 2016 — an election in which about 138 million ballots were cast — officials found just four instances of voter fraud. One study from 2014 concluded that there were zero instances of non-citizens attempting to influence elections with their vote.
Furthermore, a Washington Post analysis of elections data from 2000 through 2014 identified "31 credible instances" of voter malfeasance out of the nearly 1 billion ballots cast during that time period, which includes four presidential elections. Even with the infinitesimal numbers of cases involving voters casting ballots illegally, voter fraud has never impacted the outcome of a presidential election. Furthermore, according to The New Yorker, supposed anti-voter fraud efforts like voter ID laws — which True the Vote supports — are actually more likely to prohibit eligible voters from making their voices heard on Election Day. And given how extremely rare voter fraud is generally, it's unlikely that these instances impacted the outcomes of any state or local elections either.
True the Vote's claims also ignore the fact that two of the last three presidents won the election despite losing the popular vote, which is the direct voice of the people.
Its efforts might actually harm voter turnout
True the Vote is advocating that citizens monitor the vote in an official capacity by becoming a poll worker. They're also suggesting that citizens perform the less official type of surveillance known as "poll watching," which is a way for individual citizens to file formal complaints with a precinct captain or election judge about another voter's eligibility. Poll watchers are not inherently bad; they generally volunteer on behalf of a particularly candidate or party, but their role at a polling place is strictly nonpartisan, and they're there to ensure voters can cast their ballots safely.
A legal complaint ... claimed that True the Vote volunteers were intimidating voters by "shouting misinformation" and "following voters and standing behind them" when they tried to cast their ballot.
True the Vote, though, encourages its volunteers to watch the polls by looking for individuals whom they suspect are voting illegally. The practice becomes insidious when individuals use the guise of poll watching to intimidate or harass voters at their polling location, which is illegal — and which has happened previously with True the Vote.
When the organization was still known as King Street Patriots, True the Vote was sued by the Texas Democratic Party for "1960s-style" voter intimidation. As the Texas Tribune reported in 2010, a legal complaint presented to the Texas Ethics Commission claimed that True the Vote volunteers were intimidating voters by "shouting misinformation" and "following voters and standing behind them" when they tried to cast their ballot, the Texas Tribune reported.
The complaint also said that this took place in largely minority districts, which was an explicit part of the strategy, the Texas Tribune reported. Moreover, the vigilante method of watching voters for what could be read as "criminal" or "fraudulent" behavior is usually fueled by racist assumptions, says Silver. "There is no such thing as widespread voter fraud in the United States," Silver tells Mic. "It's a ruse and a solution in search of a problem."
Demos, a justice and equity think tank, wrote ahead of the 2012 general election that True the Vote is like a "bully" at the ballot box. Moreover, True the Vote succeeds in part because many states — often those with Republican-led legislatures — offer few legal protections against voter intimidation that masquerades as poll watching. "Even in states with clear legal boundaries for challengers and poll watchers, too often these boundaries are crossed," Demos wrote. "Laws intended to ensure voting integrity are instead used to make it harder for eligible citizens to vote — particularly those in communities of color."
Some of their tactics are rooted in legal, routine practices
One of True the Vote's goals is to make sure that everyone on a state's list of voters is actually alive and eligible to vote. Outdated voting systems and unsophisticated technology mean that people who literally cannot vote — such as the deceased — are sometimes still included on state voter rolls. Volunteers will comb through voter rolls, a time- and resource-consuming effort that many local and state boards of election don't have the bandwidth to do.
In theory, cleaning up the voter rolls to include only eligible voters is a helpful goal. But more often than not, purging names from voter rolls actually removes eligible voters' names without their knowledge. And here's the kicker: Voter roll purges often happen in places without same-day registration, so when a voter gets to their polling place only to find that their name has been mistakenly purged, there's no way to correct the mistake. This has happened many times in recent years, often in states where Black and brown voters would have tipped the scales in the Democratic candidate's direction.
One of the most widely criticized examples of this was during the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. Then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), who was overseeing his own election as a candidate for governor, purged 340,000 names from the voter rolls. Experts say this swung the election in his favor against Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams.
It claims to be non-partisan, but favors Republicans
Engelbrecht maintains that True the Vote is non-partisan. "We are glad to work with any person or group who shares an interest in the support of election integrity, regardless of their political affiliation," Engelbrecht wrote to Mic.
But in its early years, the organization hosted Republican candidates and donated money to their campaigns. As ProPublica reported in 2012, "It has co-sponsored events with Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, and collaborated with other nonprofits such as Tea Party Patriots in places from Colorado to Alabama to host 'Election Integrity' fundraisers and recruitment events."
This year, True the Vote is coming out against Democratic leaders. The homepage of True the Vote's website connects a delayed election result to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in Washington. "If the election is tied up in the courts up to the inauguration, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will choose for us," the website reads. This statement isn't exactly true, but its fear-baiting language does betray True the Vote's political leanings.
President Trump parrots True the Vote's talking points
During the first presidential debate last month, President Trump made an appeal for citizen poll watching, the same kind that's championed by True the Vote. "Interest in our work has been steadily increasing, so it doesn't really feel like we had a 'debate bump', but we were glad to hear President Trump ask people to serve as poll watchers," Engelbrecht told Mic in an email. "We were also glad to hear Vice President [Joe] Biden encourage people to vote in whatever way works best for them."
Trump has retweeted messages from True the Vote on his presidential Twitter page, though, further aligning the organization with the Republican Party. And at times it does seems that Trump and the organization are building off of each other's comments to stoke fear in the American electorate. "Universal mail-in voting leads to massive voter fraud," True the Vote claimed on Twitter, which is not true — but yet is one of the president's favorite refrains.