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The Tea Party and Narrowing the Franchise

Over the past two years, the Tea Party movement has changed the American political and social landscape.  It has given a megaphone to unfounded fears of an imaginary white dispossession and resentment.[2] It has helped reshape the anti-immigrant movement.[3] It has helped enforce measures to limit trade union rights.[4] It has unseated Republican Party moderates such as Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, and elevated anti-choice Republicans such as Cong. Paul Ryan.[5] None of the accomplishments threaten the very fabric of democracy, however, in the same way as Tea Party efforts to suppress the vote. 

In previous reports, IREHR has documented the existence of Tea Party national leaders opposed to voting rights for people without property, and Tea Party leaders who advocate the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment, and equal rights before the law promised by it.  IREHR has pointed out some of the most prominent white nationalists in the Tea Party ranks, and those Tea Partiers who simply act like racists and bigots. In this report, the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights details voter suppression efforts in North Carolina.

Pre-eminent among the Tea Party “poll watchers” is King Street Patriots and KSP True the Vote. King Street Patriots began as a chapter of Tea Party Patriots in Houston, Texas. Both are led by Catherine Engelbrecht, who has made herself and True the Vote ubiquitous in Tea Party circles. 

Although Engelbrecht claims that the two organizations are separate and distinct, IRS Form 990s for the year 2010 show that both organizations share the same small three-person board of directors, and both operated out of the same post office box number.[6] King Street Patriots filed as a non-profit membership corporation, 501c4 on December 30, 2009. Six months later, in June 2010, KSP-True the Vote filed as a non-profit educational charity.[7] Both types of organizations need not reveal their donors.

In 2010, Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint with the Texas ethics commission that read, in part, “KSP/True the Vote violated the state’s prohibition on corporate contributions to political parties and candidates.”[8] And the complaint cited multiple instances where Engelbrecht’s organizations worked directly with Republican Party candidates, and recruited “poll watchers” for them out of Tea Party ranks.  KSP responded in typical Tea Party form, claiming they were being bullied by a “George Soros funded organization.”[9]

On Aug 26, 2011, Engelbrecht changed KSP-True the Vote’s corporate name to “True the Vote Inc.”[10]

A second case, filed as a lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party, claimed essentially the same thing.  And a Travis County district judge ruled in March 2012 that King Street Patriots was not a non-profit organization but a political action committee that must operate by PAC rules and reveal its donors.[11] Engelbrecht said she would appeal the judge’s decision, and the Liberty Institute is King Street Patriots’ legal representation. The appeal is still pending.

Despite its legal troubles, Engelbrecht’s organizations have grown and prospered.  In Ohio, True the Vote joined Judicial Watch in filing suit against election officials. In Arizona, Engelbrecht gave one of the biggest speeches at a Tea Party Patriots convention. In Colorado she did something similar at a Heritage Foundation sponsored event.  And she has done the same at dozens of other venues.

In 2011, True the Vote seized the national limelight inside the Tea Party movement with its first national summit, held in the hometown of Houston. The conference attracted delegates from 27 states and laid the foundation for state-level election year efforts.At this conference, True the Vote (TTV) staff rolled out their plan to block the vote. The slickly-packaged campaign pinpoints vulnerable spots in the voting process, and instructs activists in tactics on how to overload elections officials, slow the vote, and block participation. 

In an orientation video, TTV founder Catherine Engelbrecht innocently explained the organization’s focus as “work at the polls,” “researching the registry,” and helping “fix what needs fixing.”[12]

Researching the registry means that True the Vote has purchased voter rolls from states and counties, then circulated the lists to their gaggle of unsupervised volunteers, who are urged to challenge the registrations of voters that think may be improperly registered. The True the Vote “work at the polls” entails training volunteers to be “poll watchers” – people to go to the polls on election day and aggressively challenge the registration, the identity, or the eligibility of prospective voters. 

To “fix what needs fixing” True the Vote has also pushed legislative efforts to further restrict access to voting, including stringent new voter identification laws.

In practice, the TTV strategy has deterred people from registering to vote, created an atmosphere that frightens voters from showing up at the polls, overloaded election officials with baseless challenges, and slowed the vote by gumming up the process.

Out of the 2011 True the Vote Summit, the strategy to create state level groups helped spawn groups in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina. Englebrect encouraged the groups to adopt independent sounding names to disguise their relationship and free themselves from the True the Vote “baggage.”[13]

At the 2012 True the Vote Summit, regional coordinator Vickie Pullen told the crowd that her organization had already added the voter rolls of nineteen states to its database: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. She added that California, Oregon, Washington state, and Colorado would soon follow.  At that point in May 2012, she also noted that the group had already done over 120 training sessions for various groups.

At the same event, Catherine Engelbrecht, explained some of her point of view: it is all about “us,” the white redeemers of the election process, she said: “I believe we can see a restoration, not only of our elections and our process, but I think it will be the beginning of a wave of restoration. Because once we assign priority to the polls, once we elect representatives who have come to us by the way of legal, lawful elections, then those representatives go on to carry that credo of truth. And very soon you see a process that is no longer unrecognizable. It’s one that truly reflects us, because it is of us. Because we started the ball rolling to begin with. Because we said it was important enough to show up.” [14]

As a result of True the Vote’s activities, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D. MD), the ranking Democrat of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has launched an investigation of Catherine Engelbrecht and her organization.  Rep. Cummings’ October 4, 2012 letter to Engelbrecht cited True the Vote’s record of “challenging the registration of thousands of legitimate voters based on insufficient, inaccurate, and faulty evidence.”[15]  He requested copies of its correspondence, copies of its training materials used for volunteers and affiliates, copies of its computer programs, all contracts and memoranda of understanding, and much more.

A number of news reports about Rep. Cummings’ letter claimed the voter suppression group was under investigation for a possible “criminal conspiracy.” It should be noted that if there is, in fact, an investigation of criminal conspiracy, Ms. Engelbrecht and others are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Engelbrecht agreed to meet with Rep. Cummings, but refused to hand over any of the materials, in a letter full of the usual Tea Party protestations.


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Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

Author Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

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