Less than a month before Election Day, the "election integrity" group True The Vote is battered, bewildered and disappointed. The upcoming election landscape will hardly resemble the "ground war" they were hoping for. Voter fraud as a thing has been exposed by civil rights watchdogs and a wide range of journalists as pure conspiracy theory. And civil rights legal advocates have at least temporarily blocked all of the most strict voter ID laws for which they fought so hard.
But while True the Vote is down, they're certainly not out. The group still hopes to make an impact in November, though they've downgraded their self-descriptors from "armies" prepared for "ground wars" to "grannies with clipboards." Besides their cheering for voter fraud billboards targeted in poor, black neighborhoods in Ohio, their last operative hope is to shake down states, including Ohio, that don't comply with their purging demands with frivolous lawsuits.
A true army encompassing journalists, lawyers, election protection volunteers, civil rights activists and the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will be watching the watchers throughout early voting periods and on Election Day. The real question now is, if things go awry with any of the clipboard grannies, will True the Vote have its volunteers' backs? And if recent news reports are any indication, it sounds like the volunteers True the Vote has recruited will be on their own.
True the Vote attorney Brock Akers told the American Prospect's Abby Rapaport that True the Vote has "no relationship with any other groups and [is] not aware of others describing themselves as 'empowered.'" Akers was flat out lying. Colorlines created a map that points to no less than two dozen groups True the Vote is aware of. One of those groups, the Virginia Voters Alliance, has a YouTube video posted where one of its leaders clearly spells out the training relationship, and also spells out why True the Vote told them not to use their name--"because of all of the lawsuits they had been getting in Houston," VVA's Reagan George explains.
This past weekend, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht presented in Arizona at FreePAC, a gathering of thousands organized by the conservative non-profit FreedomWorks for "grassroots training" on "best strategies" on topics like making "voter ID calls." Engelbrecht encouraged the fired-up crowd to sign up for True the Vote's poll training, for both poll worker and watcher positions. Two more FreePACs are scheduled this month in Florida and Illinois.
These kinds of associations place True the Vote's partisanship in further question--most recently, the non-partisan assertion was undermined when Facing South revealed a $5000 donation True the Vote made to the Republican State Leadership Committee. But the ties to FreedomWorks also show that True the Vote has continued access to the voluminous networks and resources of much larger conservative political action groups. In battleground states like Colorado and Florida, where they have sizable representation, that's enough to make an impact on elections there.
Whatever the size of True the Vote's volunteer brigade in November, there also remain serious questions about the quality of their training. In that Arizona speech, Engelbrecht described their trainings as a "one hour training, quick in-and-out, online experience." Such inadequate training appears to be yielding poor results. The Atlantic reported how Lou D'Abbraccio, a Wisconsin Republican poll watcher trainer, instructed volunteers with True the Vote, but then distanced himself from Engelbrecht's group after numerous complaints were filed against those trainees during Walker's recall elections. "It was clear that they didn't have a full understanding of the law," said D'Abbraccio.
When I asked Erin Anderson, then identified as True the Vote's regional director, about the Wisconsin complaints after this spring's recall election, she told me "We don't know 100 percent where the people that we trained -- we didn't deploy them. We had an online training, but a lot of people participated in it. ... We don't know where they ended up."
Colorado Voter Protection's head Jeff Kelly told me there was no contract or funding between his "empowered" group and True the Vote, and that for him "it is all about the tools and the training that they offer."
But the trainings appear to be lacking, as exemplified in Ohio where Secretary of State Jon Husted disowned and criticized True the Vote's volunteers, which prompted the ballot bullies to sue him. In a Twitter exchange with True the Vote's Election Integrity Project partner J. Christian Adams, I brought up Husted's "crying wolf" statement about their shoddy work. Adams responded that Husted "was talking about someone other than @TruetheVote."
That's true, sort of. Husted was referring to the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, a group that thinks it's been "empowered" by True the Vote, but whom Adams had no problem publicly throwing under the bus. Engelbrecht did state in a letter that True the Vote "stands by the well-intentioned citizens" of OVIP when the L.A. Times uncovered those "citizens" had inaccurately challenged thousands of names on voter rolls. But would True the Vote stand by them if OVIP ever ended up in court?
"This has never been an issue before," said Logan Churchwell, True the Vote's public relations director. "No legal action of any kind is justified when citizens are abiding by local and federal election regulations." But he would not commit to providing legal support to any volunteers who might end up court.
We do know that True the Vote is willing to go to court to capitalize off of OVIP's work. In its lawsuit against Husted, True the Vote is claiming that the secretary injured them "by causing it to divert resources away from other programs in order to devote those same resources to its list verification program." As a result, the group has "suffered irreparable injury" due to Husted's failure to comply with its purging demands, and hence it wants a judge to order Husted to pay "reasonable attorney's fees, including litigation expenses and cost."
In other words, True the Vote wants Ohio to use taxpayer money to pay it for the nuisance lawsuit it filed. OVIP is not once mentioned in the lawsuit, but one vital paragraph may allude to them:
"True the Vote trains volunteers to review voter lists and to compare those lists to other publicly available data. When a volunteer identifies registrations that appear to be duplicates or registrations of persons who are deceased, have relocated, or otherwise are ineligible to vote in a particular jurisdiction, those registrations are flagged and complaints are filed with appropriate election officials."
This describes OVIP's activities, which they've now suspended. True the Vote says in the filing that its volunteers' work is hampered by Husted's "poor list maintenance," and so now taxpayers need to pay for the "injury."
True the Vote has created an industry out of charging state and county election officials with list maintenance neglect under the flimsiest of evidence. The group and its "empowered" allies cite findings that there are more people registered to vote in a county than the current voting age population, or people registered in two states. But this does not mean that there is potential voter fraud or poor list maintenance. All it means is that some people have moved and changed residencies since being registered and the files haven't been updated yet.
When a voter moves to another county or state, that person is supposed to check in with the government to update voter records. But that often doesn't happen right away. In these cases, all the state can do under state law is send out a postcard to people believed to have moved, asking them to change their address. Husted did just that for 70,000 voters thought to have moved out of Ohio, and 300,000 who moved within Ohio. If voters don't send the postcard back with updated info, Husted can only legally purge their names if those persons have not voted in the last two federal elections. You can read about Husted's list maintenance activities here.
But True the Vote is not satisfied with this, saying earlier this month that "much more needs to be done."
Matthew McLellan, press secretary for Husted's office, tells me that Ohio's voter rolls "are in the best shape that they've been in years" and that "when Sec. Husted took office in January  he began work right away to improve voter rolls and make sure they contained accurate information."
McLellan said none of the state's current list maintenance activities are carried out in response to True the Vote's legal threats.
True the Vote filed a similar lawsuit in Indiana and has sent 160 "legal notices" to counties across the nation with the same more-registered-than-residing faux "problem." At FreePAC Arizona, Engelbrecht said "we have a federal government with a full-on assault on the states," but apparently her own barrage of lawsuits and legal notices don't count in that assessment.