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Progressive Journalist Steven Rosenfeld on Infiltrating GOP Voter Vigilante Project

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My guest today is author and political journalist, Steven Rosenfeld. You just got back from Denver where you infiltrated what you call "the GOP's voter vigilante project". Where did that idea come from?

  

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Hi. Thanks for talking to me. The idea was one that I had been thinking about for a while. I was encouraged by some voting rights attorneys to see what so-called GOP election integrity activists were doing at their training sessions. I had heard about True The Vote for a while, but living in California I did not think I would get to see them in action. I wanted to see what the grassroots activists were like, how much they really knew about election administration, and what their movement's 'public intellectuals' were presenting. I also didn't want to go as an announced press person, because I wanted to see what was being said unfiltered to activists. I was a little nervous going to Denver, but it actually worked out really well. There was no other press there. So the remarks from the podium were freely given and loose--and astonishing to me.  

Is this just a case of stirring up the masses to achieve further polarization or is there something else being accomplished as well? How much damage can this group do and who's really behind it? 

It was several things. At first glance, I felt the activists in the room -- mostly Tea Party types, retirees, a few local GOP officials, all white -- were motivated by the same things as the progressives I have met over the years. They wanted the electoral process to be fairer. They wanted it to be better. They wanted candidates to have real debates. They were not very impressed with Romney. They came to get educated about election administration issues. In contrast, the keynote speakers -- John Fund, J. Christian Adams, Scott Gessler -- had very political agendas. They had books and policies to sell. They were masters of telling people selective facts to demonize liberals, to blow so-called voter fraud problems way out of proportion, and to scare attendees into believing the worst things about the way elections are conducted are all intentional conspiracies to harm people like them. They had powerpoints with quotes from people and groups I know and respect--Tova Wang, Justin Levitt, DEMOS, Brennan Center, NAACP, etc--and were pretty vicious in attacking them, attacking liberals, etc. etc. There even was a guy, a former Air Force pilot and squadron commander and county GOP chair, who quoted the most deadly Nazi fighter pilot's philosophy of war, as a strategy to use against Obama. It was an amazing display of rhetoric, sophistry and contrasts--some incredibly sophisticated and others very naive.

Is this just a case of stirring up the masses to achieve further polarization or is there something else being accomplished as well? How much damage can this group do and who's really behind it?

Who's really behind it is a very good question. I can't tell you I know the full answer, because it seems to me that it is a confluence of right-wingers. In the first instance, True The Vote began as one of the pre-Tea Party efforts that was based around Harris County, Texas. They groups leaders came together in the summer of 2009 when you might remember that there were all kinds of disruptions at congressional town hall meetings where the then-still-proposed Obamacare was first attacked. That fed into the dismal 2010 midterms, when the Tea Party emerged as the big winner--because the Dems did nothing to turnout their 2008 base that elected Obama. And then, as you know, as presidential election years near, then there is all kinds of big money that is thrown at different grassroots groups to nationalize their efforts. I've been told that a bunch of wealthy Texans got behind True The Vote, which in turn drew on the participation of like-minded Tea Party chapters in other states. So hence, we have a local group morphing into a national GOP-friendly effort to police the polls.

Their focus is much bigger than voter ID. I see them being like the early phases of the Christian Coalition that targeted school board elections. They want to police many aspects of the voting process. They are focused on reviewing voter registration lists--according to their standards, which, very significantly, are NOT what's in law or what's used by county and state election administrators. Similarly, they want to review the 'veracity' of new voter registrations, not trusting local election offices to do so. That's one piece of their agenda. A second piece is policing the polls on Election Day in swing states. They are training 1000s of Tea Partiers to observe the process and question what they see as dubious, again, according to their perceptions. So they will be watching to see how IDs are checked, how people are given ballots, how disabled or elderly people are assisted. They are paranoid that poll workers will vote for the disabled, instead of trusting people. They are setting up a command structure to refer their complaints to lawyers who will take them to sympathetic high-ranking state officials (i.e., in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico). In some senses, they are copying the left's election protection organizations, but on the left there is no comparable push for poll watchers.    

So, on the one hand, it's positive that grassroots people are looking at how election really work. We can't be against people taking an interest in elections. But what their movement's public intellectuals are doing, is misguiding and miseducating their ranks to interpret everything that can and does go wrong as a Democratic-led political conspiracy. We can hope that after the election that they will realize that what's wrong with America's voting system has a lot more to do with human error, poor training, lousy equipment, volunteer poll workers, underfunding, lack of modernization, etc. etc. But Election Day is always passionate. And there's great potential for obstructing the process, or causing delays, or fomenting discord that can cast doubt on results, etc. 

Finally, it should be emphasized that they are focused almost exclusively on polling place voting--not voting by mail. That's a Democratic demographic more so than Republicans in swing states. And the GOP has always been better at getting out their vote via the mail, or absentee ballots. John Fund, tellingly, said there's no need to worry about absentee ballot fraud because people sign their names to these ballots. Well, of course, the same can be said about people signing voter registration forms and poll books at polling places. When you sign you are also doing so under penalty of perjury--which he handily omits. But only at polling places, he disingenuously says, is where so-called voter fraud happens. That's a typical example of the misinformation that's peddled.       

In your article, you mention Katherine Englebrecht and Plan B Firearms.   How do they fit in to this story?   

It is a curious detail that apparently is for real--according to corporate filings available online (that I linked to in my piece). According to Texans who have been following the Tea Party in that state and Englebrecht, there's a strain of Tea Party right-wingers that have begin to talk about "Plan B" if Obama gets re-elected. You may have seen that recent wire service piece about a Texas judge requesting that his office get a much bigger subsidy from the state for law enforcement efforts should Obama win. This is just crazy paranoid stuff. Well apparently Englebrecht and her husband, who own a successful oil services company worth millions, created a company called Plan B Firearms earlier this summer. I have no idea what it is or isn't, or what's likely to come of that 'business venture.' Obviously it's eyebrow-raising. Maybe it is a bit opportunist as well, seeking to cash in from her political activities. That would not be the first time that has happened.   

I didn't overly emphasize it because I thought it was more important to concentrate on the voting rights issues and election administration implications. But it does speak to the alternative 'facts' or 'universe' that is so common on the right. Indeed, in True The Vote's electoral programs, they scream fraud anytime they see something that looks suspicious to them. That is not the same as what's in law or state policy, which is a very critical point. There is a bit of Texas cowboy frontier justice at play here, i.e., guilty before proven innocent, and taking justice into one's own hands. That's where this vigilante mentality get dangerous. I think the Plan B Firearms, whatever it is or will be, underscores that sensibility.   

A bit unnerving, to be sure. How do calmer folks counteract the influence and effect of the voter vigilantes? 

Well, I'd mention a few things. First, we must remember that True The Vote is a young organization filled with rank-and-file people who largely are taking their first detailed look at election administration. So part of their hyperbole is discovering what many of us who have followed elections for years already know--that various stages of voting can be poorly managed, under-funded, inadequately equipped, etc. And that is because elections are poorly funded by state legislatures and local governments, are complex to execute--especially with new rules like voter ID laws, and rely on more on volunteer poll workers than trained professionals. My point is True The Vote's activists are going to be making mistakes with their fast accusations of fraud everywhere and that will undermine their credibility with election officials, polling place workers and with voters. 

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure (more...)
 
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