Amid complaints and DOJ investigation, King Street Patriots has national plans for True the Vote
Already the target of litigation by the Democratic Party and ethics complaints by a watchdog group — and with the U.S. Department of Justice investigating alleged voter intimidation by poll watchers in Harris County — Houston tea party group King Street Patriots has plans to expand its True the Vote initiative across the country.
“It is time to call for a national referendum on election integrity,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of King Street Patriots (KSP) and KSP/True the Vote (KSP/TTV) during a conference call Oct. 5 with more than 100 activists in 25 states.
A conservative nationwide organization professing a mission of “election integrity” is a potential cause for concern, said Chandler Davidson, a scholar of minority voting rights and Rice University professor of sociology emeritus.
“It’s interesting because the Republican Party, I would think, would be hesitant to do something like that because it is just so blatantly in the tradition of Republican vote suppression under the guise of ballot security,” he said. “But a different organization, which may not be worried about that, they might feel that they have the potential to really put together an ongoing national vote suppression organization, and that’s fascinating.”
“We were, as we like to say, part of sort of the Tea Party spirit,” Engelbrecht said. “We were at the rallies. We were doing all of the sign-making, and the standing out, venting our frustrations, but quickly we arrived at a place where we needed to do more.”
In the days following national publicity surrounding KSP/TTV’s challenge of thousands of Harris County voter applications in late August, more than 600 people from 44 states contacted the Houston group for guidance on how to establish similar initiatives in their locales, Engelbrecht said on the call hosted by KSP/TTV.
Engelbrecht emphasized the importance of recruiting poll watchers for the upcoming November elections, and that KSP/TTV would help activists locate and organize potential volunteers. Looking beyond the 2010 elections, Engelbrecht proposed a nationwide True the Vote summit–to take place early next year in Houston–that would mark the launch of the national initiative. The group is also working on a centralized information database that is not yet complete.
Those on the conference call also received invitations to attend a webinar broadcasting a KSP/TTV training session and were directed to resources on KSP/TTV’s website.
“This type of movement is already out there, but it has lacked that kind of coordination,” Davidson said.
During the call, Engelbrecht touched on tactics employed by KSP/TTV’s poll watcher training program, which she said had a goal of recruiting 1,000 volunteers for Election Day voting.
Engelbrecht said KSP/TTV-trained poll watchers are being deployed in teams of three to targeted polling places –what she called “high-risk precincts” with “a history of problems,” she said.
Factors to consider when determining a “high-risk precinct” include places where equipment fails routinely, inconsistencies in the number of votes and ballots cast, polls that stay open too long or precincts in the center of “hotly contested races,” she said.
Engelbrecht said poll watchers should dress professionally. She emphasized the importance of sending poll watchers out in teams of three if possible, saying having one person at a polling place was better than nothing, but not ideal.
Davidson questioned KSP/TTV’s strategy of having three poll watchers in each targeted precinct, rather than attempting to have at least one poll watcher in every precinct.
“No. It’s not the standard for poll watching,” he said. “It does bear a certain similarity to patterns of voter intimidation that have been employed almost exclusively by the Republican Party at least since the 1950s, which continue up to the present.”
During the conference call, Engelbrecht advised activists to get in contact with a group authorized to designate poll watchers –for example, a party, candidate or county government–whatever is the “fastest, cleanest” point of entry, she said.
Engelbrecht has said that KSP/TTV has an agreement with the Harris County GOP to train Republican poll watchers, but not with the Democratic Party.
In and of itself, a 501(c)3 such as KSP/TTV having an agreement with any political party raises questions about possible violations of nonprofit tax code, said J. Gerald Hebert, executive director and director of litigation at The Campaign Legal Center.
“501(c)3′s are organizations that are supposed to exist for charitable purposes. They are supposed to be engaged in nonpartisan, nonprofit activities. They really shouldn’t be involved with partnering with any political committee,” Hebert said.
He said a 501(c)3 should not even be in a situation where it’s partnering with both parties, much less just the GOP, or just Democrats.
“They shouldn’t partner with anybody,” he said.
On Wednesday, Texas Democratic Party attorney Chad Dunn sent a letter to KSP and KSP/TTV demanding that the tea party group allow Dunn to inspect its books and records on either Thursday or Monday, citing public records laws concerning nonprofit corporations and the availability of financial records. KSP was incorporated in December 2009, while KSP/TTV was incorporated in June 2010, according to the Texas Secretary of State.
“The King Street Republicans are failing to comply with the law that requires them to disclose basic information about their organization. They are hiding records that show who is funding their efforts and what correspondence they’ve had with Republican political groups,” Dunn said in a statement. “The Texas Democratic Party will find out who these shadow donors are and make sure all those who acted in concert with the King Street Republicans group, including Republican candidates, oppressive ‘poll watchers,’ and all their donors are held responsible for their actions.”
KSP and KSP/TTV’s counsel has not responded to a Texas Independent request for comment. In a statement on the True the Vote website, the organization denies engaging in any form of voter intimidation: “True the Vote exists to protect the right to vote and the integrity of the election process. Claims by partisan operatives and bloggers with an agenda that voter intimidation was conducted by True the Vote are false and libelous, and they should be retracted immediately. True the Vote has never, and will never, condone or promote voter intimidation at a polling place,” according to the statement.
Hebert said he had received reports, during the first two days of early voting, of poll watchers talking directly to voters in at least four Houston polling places — which would appear to violate Texas law. He’s been in communication with Harris County and federal authorities about alleged incidences of voter intimidation, he said.
“The Justice Department is very much aware of this and appears to be looking at it from the viewpoint of a systematic effort to intimidate voters, to intimidate minority voters in particular, which would violate federal law,” he said.
A Harris County spokesman told Texas Watchdog that county officials had looked into reported incidences of voter intimidation and had found no evidence to support the allegations.
Hebert expressed doubts that the Texas Attorney General would pursue claims of voter intimidation and said that, as of a few years ago, he would have similar doubts about the DOJ getting involved.
“From 2000 until 2008, the Justice Department was nowhere to be found when it came to investigating allegations of voter intimidation. I and other members of the civil rights community filed a number of complaints with the Justice Department over those years, and not a single action was taken. We didn’t even get the courtesy of a response,” he said.
However, Pres. Barack Obama’s DOJ has already acted more robustly in this case than it had in previous years under the administration of Pres. George W. Bush, Hebert said, “Just by calling us and saying, ‘Hey we’d like to get more info, tell us what you know and send us any details.’”
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Liberty Institute, told the Quorum Report that the poll watchers could not be KSP/TTV members, because King Street Patriots, a 501(c)4, and True The Vote, a 501(c)3, are not membership organizations. Each is a non-membership nonprofit corporation filed with the Texas Secretary of State.
“The King Street Patriots don’t have any registered poll watchers,” Sasser told the Houston Chronicle. “Registered poll watchers work for either a party or a candidate.”
In comments to the media and on the conference call, Engelbrecht has consistently stated that her group’s goal is to ensure everyone’s right to free and fair elections, and that poll watchers are there–not expecting fraud, but prepared to address problems if they arise. The mere presence of poll watchers is often enough to deter potential fraudsters, she said.
Engelbrecht reiterated several times on the conference call: “Observation changes things.”
(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Tor Lindstrand)