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Tea party group seeks voter roll purge ahead of 2016

A group is helping election officials in North Carolina to remove thousands of duplicate registrations from the voter rolls.
\"I Voted\" stickers are seen ready to distribute to all who exit the voting booths, Aug. 4, 2015. (Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
\"I Voted\" stickers are seen ready to distribute to all who exit the voting booths, Aug. 4, 2015.

A group with ties to the tea party and a Koch brothers-founded organization is helping election officials in North Carolina to remove thousands of duplicate registrations from the voter rolls ahead of next year's elections. And it says it wants to do the same thing nationally.

The effort, announced early Monday by Houston-based True the Vote, is aimed at removing duplicates—when a voter’s name mistakenly appears twice. True the Vote has been accused by critics in the past of using intimidating tactics and stoking unwarranted fear about voter fraud.

True the Vote said it sent each of North Carolina’s 10 largest counties lists of potential duplicate registrations, based on similarities in the names, ages or addresses listed. It said five of the counties have told them they’re processing the data, and one, Guilford, has already removed 655 names from its rolls.

True the Vote said it’s currently compiling similar data for the 10 largest counties in two other 2016 swing states, Ohio and Colorado.

Charlie Collicutt, the elections director for Guilford County, N.C., told MSNBC that the data True the Vote provided was helpful and largely accurate. He said his office used it only as a tool, conducting its own checks by looking at names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers and voters’ signatures. No specific number of pieces of data had to match for a name to be removed, Collicutt said, but he stressed that staff erred on the side of caution, leaving a name on the rolls if there was any doubt about whether it was a duplicate.

“We did not just automatically go and start taking the names off that they provided,” Collicutt said. “If we felt that there was any reason to believe that it was different people, we didn’t do it.”

RELATED: What do two failed GOP candidates have in common? Voter ID

Guilford’s process appears to have been relatively careful. And almost everyone agrees that America’s voter rolls are riddled with duplicates and errors, which can prevent eligible voters from casting ballots and lead to long wait times at the polls.

But as important as they are, even well-intentioned efforts to clean up the rolls carry the risk that some legitimate voters will be wrongly purged—as occurred in Florida before the 2000 election, perhaps decisively, and again in the same state in 2012. That’s why most election administration experts say compiling data for use in removing names from the rolls should be done by impartial experts. Twelve states, plus the District of Columbia, participate in ERIC, a respected data-sharing program funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts aimed at making voter rolls more accurate. 

North Carolina has adopted legislation to join ERIC but has not yet done so. "Without commenting on True the Vote and the quality of its work, we do encourage states to join so they do the matching themselves rather than reacting to matching done by private groups that may be viewed as having a political agenda," said John Lindback, the group's executive director.

A similar program run by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an outspoken advocate for stricter voting and voter registration rules, has caused more controversy. Last year, Florida and Oregon dropped out of the program, citing unreliable data.

True the Vote, which was launched in 2009 as an offshoot of a Houston tea party group, King Street Patriots, has a record that arguably inspires even less confidence. A 2012 New York Times editorial described the group’s M.O.:

In an ostensible hunt for voter fraud, a Tea Party group, True the Vote, descends on a largely minority precinct and combs the registration records for the slightest misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls, and though almost every challenge is baseless, the arguments and delays frustrate those in line and reduce turnout.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, have reportedly sponsored meetings featuring True the Vote president Catherine Engelbrecht and other True the Vote speakers. Americans for Prosperity has said it's not focused on voting issues.

At a 2010 meeting, Engelbrecht falsely suggested that a new voter registration group working in inner-city Houston, Houston Votes, had ties to the New Black Panther Party. Not long after, the state opened an investigation of Houston Votes that included a police raid, according to The Dallas Morning News. The probe severely hampered the ability of Houston Votes to register new voters, but never led to charges.

True the Vote supports strict voting laws like voter ID. Citing the threat of fraud, it’s currently working to oppose a bill passed by California lawmakers that would establish automatic voter registration in the state. One True the Vote leader told volunteers at a conference that they should aim to make the experience of voting like “driving and seeing the police following you.”

RELATED: Voter registration at the center of partisan voting war

Still, the group appears to be gearing up to play a key role in shaping the voter rolls that get used in next year’s election.

“From a national perspective, we’re just getting started,” Engelbrecht said in a statement Monday.

But one Ohio lawmaker, told that the group plans to inspect her state's voter rolls, suggested its focus is misplaced.

"If True the Vote looks at Ohio's voter rolls, it will find that Ohio purges way too many voters and throws out too many votes," state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat and an outspoken advocate of protecting access to the ballot, said in a statement. "To actually true the vote, we need to reverse this process and put those voters back on the rolls and make sure those voters' ballots are counted. Our elections lack integrity when we throw away voters and their ballots."