WASHINGTON-Harris County, the third-largest county in the country and the largest in Texas, appears to have fraud-filled voter rolls, but the federal government didn't uncover it: A local group funded by "passing the cowboy hat" did.
Catherine Engelbrecht, now the president of the watchdog group True the Vote, used to run Engelbrecht Manufacturing, a company that cranks out manufacturing parts. But she has set that life aside, perhaps permanently. With no legal background, she and a team she dubbed "Excel spreadsheet pros" spent the last year investigating voter fraud and released a report in August detailing thousands of fraudulent registrations-information that the county voter registrar has now submitted to the district attorney.
The report drubbed Houston Votes, a group headed by Service Employees International Union employee Sean Caddle, finding that out of 25,000 voter registrations the group submitted, only 7,193 were legitimate new voters. County voter registrar Leo Vasquez said the county appeared to be "under an organized and systematic attack" from Houston Votes. Caddle reportedly fired about 30 employees as a result of the revelations.
The sprouting of grassroots groups monitoring fraud follows more than a year of controversy over federal enforcement against fraud and voter intimidation, which began when the Justice Department essentially dropped a clearcut case of voter intimidation in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008 involving the New Black Panther Party and continued as it allegedly failed to pursue cases to purge state voter rolls ("Justice undone," July 31, 2010).
"All of us being completely green-we were really going at this with the most common sense that we could," Engelbrecht told me by phone as she was picking up her children at school. "We had a lot of failed efforts. We revised our processes along the way. We didn't have to turn over every stone. We just had to show patterns."
Since the group released its findings, Engelbrecht said she has had calls from other groups in 40 states, asking for training on how to do the same thing. Already the group has trained volunteers to oversee polling places on Election Day.
"If the government isn't going to do the job, and we know the federal government is not, then I think it a good thing when citizens take their own initiative," J. Christian Adams told me. "Most states have laws that both allow and encourage this sort of private citizen initiative." Adams resigned as a lawyer in the Justice Department's voting section in May, exasperated with what he testified has been unequal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. He told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that lawyers were instructed not to bring cases against minorities, and he alleged that the agency refused to require states to purge voter rolls.
In the fallout of the New Black Panther Party case, Justice Department officials transferred Christopher Coates, originally a Clinton appointee and former voting section chief, to the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina. Defying the department's orders not to testify, Coates on Sept. 24 answered the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's subpoena and confirmed Adams' testimony that DOJ officials instated a policy not to pursue cases against minorities. He also echoed Adams in alleging that the department has refused to pursue cases against states that aren't updating their voter rolls.
"They'd rather leave 100 people on that are ineligible than run the risk of taking one person off who was eligible," Coates testified.
The agency has refused to admit any mistakes or wrongdoing. Spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler called the investigation into the section "thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric." In her statement, she said the DOJ is correcting the "politicization" of the Bush administration's Civil Rights Division. "We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people's civil rights, and it is clear that not everyone supports that." Contrary to Coates' testimony, she said all enforcement decisions are based on "the merits, not the race, gender, or ethnicity of any party involved."
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the only Virginia lawmaker to vote for the Voting Rights Act in 1981, has been one of the few lawmakers to dog the agency about the allegations, but he has received no communication from the agency since early summer. "It's a cover-up. They won't respond to the Congress, they won't respond to the Civil Rights Commission," he said.
Wolf asked Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to look into the alleged cover-up but he refused, according to Wolf's staff working on the issue.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., however, did send a letter to the agency in July, saying it should not have dropped the New Black Panther Party case and urging it to re-file charges. The Justice Department's inspector general has launched a broad investigation into the voting rights section.
Voting fraud experts say that anywhere with a close midterm race is vulnerable to fraud, particularly areas that rely on paper ballots. The threat of fraud on Election Day 2010 has grown in Harris County, Texas. On the morning of Aug. 27, the warehouse that holds the county's election equipment burned, destroying 10,000 machines. Local officials have had to scramble to put in place a new election system with borrowed and newly purchased machines as well as paper ballots. The cause of the fire, which cost about $40 million in damage, remains a mystery, and local investigators haven't ruled out arson. In addition to Houston, ballot watchdogs are eyeing areas in Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles as well as nearby Orange County.
Most of the watchdog groups have conservative ties: True the Vote sprang out of a Tea Party group, the King Street Patriots. Another conservative group that has dug up fraud is Minnesota Majority, which reported bloated voter rolls in the 2008 elections. After the elections, the group reported that eight counties recorded more ballots than they had registered voters.
Engelbrecht started True the Vote with like-minded Tea Party members, who volunteered at polls during the city council elections in 2009. "We saw fraud. Not fraud at every single polling place, but at enough of them to make you question how secure any of them ultimately are," she said. "Once you see that and choose to do nothing about it, you're an accessory to the crime."
Because of the group's conservative ties, they've been accused of trying to push out Democratic voters. And the group's report does focus on a low-income minority area in Houston. Engelbrecht explains that this was based on numbers: In each of the county's seven congressional districts, the group looked at the number of addresses that had six or more registered voters. In the three majority Republican districts, there were about 1,800 of those addresses on average. In the majority Democratic district they focused on (which also houses their office), there were about 20,000 addresses with more than six voters registered.
Engelbrecht finds it reasonable that low-income areas would have higher numbers of people at an address, but by that much? "That was way outside any margin that was reasonable," she said. The group ran background checks, compared driver's licenses with voter registrations, visited flagged addresses, and snapped photos.
The group has investigated other districts' voter rolls, but found it would have to file any challenge to the voter rolls 75 days before the election, so it turned in completed information from the one district only. Engelbrecht says the group will report any instance of fraud in Republican districts too.
Citizen watchdog groups could be dismissed for their political leanings, acknowledged John Fund, an expert on voter fraud at The Wall Street Journal, who wrote the book Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy. "The Houston group that uncovered fraud has many partisans, but their facts spoke for themselves," he wrote in an email. "Just knowing people are watching does reduce fraud because then it is no longer a completely risk-free activity."
Less than one of every three voters registered by Houston Votes turned out to be legitimate. In addition to Houston, ballot watchdogs are eyeing suspect registration practices in:
• Los Angeles, Calif.
• Orange County, Calif.
• Philadelphia, Pa.