Training to protect the vote, or to suppress it?

Updated
FEATURE_34
FEATURE_34

Ed. note: In an effort to learn more about groups that purport to protect against the “threat” of voter fraud, #nerdland South correspondent Sara Kugler decided to investigate exactly what these groups tell themselves. Here is her report.

Amongst claims of voter intimidation and suppression, True the Vote President Catherine Engelbrecht has stuck hard by her organization’s line: True the Vote is a “nonpartisan” entity. As someone concerned with the integrity of our democratic process, I signed up as a volunteer with True the Vote to discern for myself whether its efforts seemed nonpartisan. Through my experience going through the organization’s initial training process, it didn’t take long to become disillusioned about its allegedly nonpartisan nature. But I also finished the training worried that voter suppression is not the organization’s actual endgame.

There is one specific way in which an organization declares itself to be nonpartisan – to file as a 501C3, making it a nonprofit corporation and legally barred from involvement in political campaigning. While True the Vote claims itself as a 501c3, that status is a point of controversy; especially since last year a Texas judge ruled the entity can not classify itself as a nonprofit. Yet True the Vote is still proudly advertising its “pending 501c3” status on its website, promoting itself as a nonpartisan entity.

It also promotes itself as a colorblind organization. In the face of accusations of racially motivated voter suppression and intimidation, Engelbrecht has responded, “The race card doesn’t work anymore. It’s not true.” And if you watch the True the Vote training videos, you can understand her sentiment. The videos feature a happy multiracial cast of characters who are all working together to protect U.S. democracy.

The video depiction of efforts to combat election fraud features a black woman with natural hair and hoop earrings challenging the authenticity of a cross-dressing white male voter sporting bicep tattoos. It is a calculated presentation of how obvious voter fraud is, and also how unproblematic the group’s methods are: by depicting a multiracial coalition of volunteers, True the Vote veils the criticisms levied against it of racial profiling.

Any carefully crafted pretense of a nonpartisan agenda stops short of True the Vote’s “News” page. The news section is primarily sourced with articles from the blog “Election Law Center,” whose tagline reads, “more red then the ivory tower.” Besides “Election Law Center,” the organization’s other preferred news source is Fox News, which merits its own forum as “Important News.”

The difficultly of organizations being “nonpartisan” is that they are populated by partisan human beings, funded by partisan money and used with partisan interests. True the Vote doesn’t have to release its donors– but it’s easy to guess that people like George Soros isn’t on the list. Yet the group impresses on its trainees that voter fraud is primed to occur anywhere. Despite True the Vote’s image of what voter fraud looks like, its training sessions suggest that poll workers are equally, if not more likely, to be complicit in voter fraud. Which begs the question- what guarantees that the True the Vote trainees will be any less partisan or apt to “cheat the system” than the poll workers?

ThinkProgress has recently released internal documents from the Romney campaign, training poll watchers in Iowa and Wisconsin to mislead voters. These videos tell poll watchers to contact the legal team anytime someone votes without showing photo ID – even though showing photo ID is not required in these states. Is True the Vote going to be ones to put a stop to that type of activity? Unlikely. While its training videos remind the trainee their state’s rules may differ, they also pepper images of photo IDs when they discuss voter check-in. Voter ID laws, still very much the exception, suddenly seem to be standard practice. Similarly, True the Vote emphasizes how to challenge voters, but only quickly explains that “in some states Election Observers can challenge voters” and “in some, they can’t.”

True the Vote’s name sounds strange because it uses “true” as a verb rather than as an adjective.  This odd usage reflects the viewpoint of the organization: don’t assume anything to be true. You, the individual, and us, the organization, will be the ones actively making truth.  While voter suppression is clearly a key in True the Vote’s strategy, its real endgame is likely being able to challenge the results of the election, if it’s not a favored outcome on Nov. 7. If the president wins re-election, that will not be what is “true.” Rather, True the Vote has poised itself to “true” the election results by compiling what may be hundreds of thousands of voter challenges and incident reports. These citizen-compiled “incident reports” are submitted by each volunteer about any suggestion of an infraction committed,  and could be used to present a challenge to the election outcome, both for the president and down the ballot.

The training sessions instruct you to “observe and document all activities,” and they are serious; most of the training is spent explaining what those activities will be, so you know what to look for. Amongst others, I was instructed to draw a diagram of the polling location, take down the names of all the poll workers, and confirm a zero count on the voting machines. I was asked to write an incident report at any moment if anything seemed amiss. Are all the correct signs posted? Are workers comparing signatures on record with ID signatures? (Never mind the 19 states where no type of ID is required).

Is the poll supervisor repeating people’s information when they check in, loudly enough for me to hear? Did the poll close exactly on time? What do I do if I’m prevented from seeing any part of the process or asked to leave? “It’s critical to see and hear everything,” I was informed.

The videos emphasized the importance of keeping notes throughout the day. “You represent a candidate or party,” the video stated. “Safeguarding your notes is safeguarding their interests.” Especially if those notes can be used as “evidence” to dispute an unfavorable electoral college count. True the Vote already advocates that each observer make a note of the final vote tallies at the end of the night to collect a “citizen’s count” of the vote.

On Election Day, True the Vote will certainly play a role in voter suppression and voter intimidation. Trainees are instructed to “position themselves close enough to observe but not see the ballot.” Trainees are also taught how to challenge voters- by verbally stating a challenge to a voter before they case their ballot and “announcing challenges loudly enough so that all election workers can hear.” We are instructed that “challenging a vote is a very sensitive issue” but not given real explanations about what merits a challenge. It’s unlikely that a man will cross-dress to vote fraudulently as a woman, as in their overtly obvious depiction. So what are the actual cues that True the Vote observers will be using to determine who and why to “challenge” voters?

I suspect whichever party wins the election, True the Vote will still advertise how much voter fraud was evident. If Mitt Romney wins, I imagine that fraud will have been “prevented” thanks to the group’s efforts. If President Obama wins re-election, I anticipate a True the Vote challenge. The organization’s training videos close by saying “thank you for standing up to help ensure the integrity of our elections.” I came away feeling that participating would do the opposite.

Sara Kugler is the program coordinator at the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, which is headed by our own Melissa Harris-Perry. Find them on Facebook, and on follow them on Twitter at @AJCProject.

Election Day update: True the Vote was shut out of Ohio’s Franklin County – home to the Ohio State University – “after it was found by election officials to have submitted irregular signatures in a bid to gain access to the polls.”

Training to protect the vote, or to suppress it?

Updated