Alan Vera, a Republican operative in Harris County, Texas, had somewhat startling advice for conservatives training to become poll observers for the 2020 election.
“Here's a tip that I almost hate to have to tell you,” Vera said during an election observer training hosted online by True the Vote, an organization that he helped create in 2009. “But do not accept coffee from the election judge or any of the clerks. We've had too many instances in the past where laxatives had been hidden inside coffee and our poll watchers end up spending the day in the restroom, instead of in the poll, watching what's going on.”
That’s an indication of the level of mistrust conservative groups are ingraining in aspiring election observers who watch and read their material, in the lead up to an Election Day that’s already fraught with tension.
In Vera’s training and in other election observer training materials, groups like True the Vote are warning their election observers to prepare for battle with election workers around the country. These trainings, which are publicly available on YouTube and on the organizations’ websites, tell viewers to thread a line: get ready to be combative, but don’t get physically aggressive.
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True the Vote has been around since 2009. Ahead of the 2020 election, the group’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, says her group has trained 10,000 volunteers across the country. This election, it has a new, powerful ally: the president.
While many of these organizations predate the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, he has taken on and elevated many of their concerns. Like these groups, Trump often claims without evidence that widespread voter fraud is occurring in cities with large minority voting populations.
Recently, Trump turned his sights on Philadelphia, falsely claiming that Republican candidate Mitt Romney got "almost zero votes" there in 2012 and insinuating that fraud was to blame. Trump skeptically asked the crowd, "How do you get zero votes in a city?" Romney, in fact, got nearly 100,000 votes in Philadelphia, but still the president spoke to a feeling among many vote fraud truthers: You can’t trust America’s elections or the people who run them.
“Consider yourself on a patrol mission,” Vera told trainees.
True the Vote is asking its observers to report suspected fraud to their “Election Integrity” hotline. The organization also has a searchable database for what they say are cases of election fraud. On Thursday, True the Vote asked Texas officials to investigate their allegations that 5,902 voters voted twice and nearly 10,000 people voted without proving that they had been properly registered. In the past, election officials have dismissed the group’s findings as unsubstantiated after investigating. In the run-up to the 2020 election, the group has also launched the Pray the Vote Project, which is “praying for non-voting Christians to vote on Election Day.”
The Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina is providing its poll watchers with forms to document their allegations. The forms instruct observers to mail the documents back to the Voter Integrity Project’s headquarters — not to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the government agency tasked with handling allegations of voter fraud.
In their training, Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina founder Jay DeLancy referred to poll workers as “opponents.”
“People I don't trust, who will lie about all kinds of stuff, they will tell you … ‘We've seen no evidence of fraud,’” DeLancy said. “That's true, it's because they don't allow people like you to get into the polls and document it.”
DeLancy’s training starts off with psychological tips on how to deal with fear and anger and stay calm and focused on documenting voter fraud. DeLancy tells a story of seeing a voter who read their name and address off a piece of paper as an example of the kind of fraud observers should watch out for.
“Things are going to happen, if you're there long enough and if you’re at the right precinct, things are going to happen that will make you go boom,” he said in the training video.
DeLancy talks about times he lost his cool in previous elections and started yelling at polling place officials. Using military lingo, he says you can’t let your anger get the best of you, because “you become mission ineffective” when you do.
Training poll watchers for the 2020 election is just the latest endeavor by conservative organizations whose professed mission is to stop rampant voter fraud they say is occurring around the country, a problem elections experts say there is little evidence to support. Activists like Vera and DeLancy are part of a constellation of conservative voices who have taken up the mantle of “election integrity.”
The Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina and True the Vote did not respond to requests for comment.
True the Vote, which grew out of a Texas tea party group called King Street Patriots, started its operations in Harris County, Texas, home to Houston and its suburbs. The group was founded in 2009, just a year after Barack Obama became the first Democrat presidential candidate to carry the county since 1964.
The group has had volunteers comb through publicly available voter registration information to find potential fraud. Summarizing their allegations based on that search, Engelbrecht said, “Vacant lots had several voters registered on them.” She added that “An eight-bed halfway house had more than 40 voters registered at its address." In several states, volunteers can use that information, even if it’s not substantiated, to challenge the registration of an individual voter. Challenged voters then have to prove that they are in fact eligible to vote.
The Texas Democratic Party says the group hasn’t proven that actual election fraud has occurred but has succeeded at getting Black and brown voters improperly removed from election rolls based on inaccurate claims. In 2018, the Harris County voter registrar admitted that her office had suspended 1,700 voters who should not have been removed from the rolls after their registrations were challenged by Vera. Despite frequently being dismissed by election officials for peddling inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims, True the Vote has gone national and joined forces with other conservative organizations with shoddy track records of proving voter fraud.
True the Vote was a party in a 2012 lawsuit filed by J. Christian Adams, who would go on to be an outspoken member of Donald Trump's failed election integrity commission, disbanded by the president after a few months without securing any changes in election procedures.
Ohio settled that lawsuit and agreed to start purging more voters from the rolls. A Reuters analysis found that the program had canceled the registrations of voters from Democratic-leaning parts of the state at twice the rate that it had purged voters in Republican areas. Trump has since named Adams to the US Commission on Civil Rights, where he has used his position to lead the conservative election integrity effort.
“While he's a very good lawyer, some of his methods in the past have been exceedingly sloppy in attempting to suss out ostensible voter fraud,” said Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School. Levitt recently went up against him after Adams published the personal information of Virginia voters he said weren’t actually citizens.
“What got me agitated was seeing the signatures, Social Security numbers, names, addresses, and phone numbers of thousands of people posted online with an allegation that these people had committed federal felonies that seemed to me likely to be wildly inaccurate,” Levitt said.
Virginia's election officials and the voters themselves disputed Adams’s findings. Elections officials around the country have chided Adams and other conservatives for their haphazard efforts to suggest voter fraud is at play.
As for True the Vote, it has continued to try to place polling observers particularly at polling places that serve large nonwhite populations, including a failed attempt to get observers into majority Black precincts in Ohio.
While Levitt says these groups may not have proven that voter fraud is a rampant problem, they have changed the national conversation around the issue.
“They’re certainly having an impact on the narrative for those who are predisposed to believing the narrative,” said Levitt. “Unfortunately, right now that includes the president of the United States.”
Kendall Taggart contributed reporting for this story.