This article also appears in the May 28 edition of The Nation magazine.
One of the first sights to greet attendees of the True the Vote national summit was the face of Martin Luther King, printed above the quote “PEACE if possible. TRUTH at all costs,” on t-shirts for sale in the hotel lobby. Of course, King didn’t actually say those words; the quote is from Martin Luther, the German theologian who predates King by about three centuries. But that was besides the point for True the Voters, who gathered in Houston on a late April weekend to rally against a darker “truth” only they seemed privy to: a major epidemic of voter fraud that has taken over the American electoral system.
A spin off of the King Street Patriots Texas Tea Party, a group who gained notoriety during the 2008 and 2010 elections for harassing and intimidating Houston voters, True the Vote supports the voter ID laws championed by ALEC and other right-wing groups. But their primary role in the effort to suppress the vote will manifest on Election Day. By then, True the Vote hopes to have trained a million poll watchers around the country to crackdown on cases of voter fraud–people voting on behalf of dead citizens, undocumented immigrants attempting to vote and people voting twice.
It is an article of faith among True the Voters that such cases are legion and marred recent elections in Texas, for example. But as the San Antonio Express reported, “fewer than five ‘illegal voting’ complaints involving voter impersonation were filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office from the 2008 and 2010 general elections in which more than 13 million voters participated.” Nationwide, the prevalence of voter fraud is similarly freakonomically low; in 2007, after a five year effort to prosecute voter fraud, George W. Bush’s Department of Justice reported just 120 charges and 86 convictions.
This lack of evidence, however, didn’t seem to disturb True the Vote’s National Elections Coordinator Bill Ouren, who one day hopes to have at least two sets of poll watchers at every polling station in America. At the summit, Ouren described how voters should feel while under the gaze of True the Vote observers: “Like driving and seeing the police following you.”
In his presentation, Ouren outlined the distinction between offical election workers and poll watchers–and then gave guidance about how to blur such lines. He encouraged the activists to “build relationships with election administrators” and their political party leaders because “they control access to the vote.” He then asked Harris County (Houston) poll workers and watchers in the audience to stand; almost half the room did. Ouren also singled out Harris County clerk Stan Stanart for a round of applause.
According to Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney with The Advancement Project who tracks the advocacy of partisan election groups including True the Vote, such fraternization between vigilante poll watchers and government officials is cause for concern. For example, The Advancement Project has documented True the Vote’s practice of obtaining voter lists from elections officers to identify voters they believe should be purged. True the Voters also gets lists from election officials of voters who have moved jurisdictions and then sends mailings out to see which ones come back as undeliverable. The activists then use that information, says Lieberman, to create lists for challenging voters on Election Day, a process called “voter caging.”
There was quite a bit of talk at True the Vote about “protecting minorities” from voter fraud. The conference heard from African-American speakers like former ACORN staffer Anita Moncrief and former Congressman Artur Davis, who blamed his loss in the 2010 race for Alabama governor on corrupt black political machine leaders. There were plenty of statements about helping African Americans and Latino Americans comply with new, restrictive voter ID laws.
But there was one thing conspicuously missing from the summit–any mention of expanding voter participation among voters of color. No one said “I want more African Americans and Latino Americans registered to vote, and I want higher voter turnout among those parts of the electorate”–a particularly galling absence given that Texas has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation. In fact, groups that work to increase minority turnout–the Brennan Center for Justice, the Advancement Project, the NAACP, MALDEF, ACLU, the Department of Justice–were frequently named throughout the conference as organizations that undermine the integrity of elections.
“You are the true heirs to the civil rights movement, not your opponents,” said former DOJ employee J. Christian Adams, who crusaded at the summit against the New Black Panther Party and the Eric Holder Department of Justice, claiming that both strive to intimidate white voters. Indeed, all throughout the summit, True the Voters attempted to cloak their cause in the language and iconography of the civil rights movement, as if wearing Martin Luther King t-shirts would obscure their real agenda. It’s a logic as faulty as the t-shirts.