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Citizen watchdogs

Politics | As concern mounts about lapsed Justice Department enforcement of voting rights laws, local groups step up to monitor voting themselves

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

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.

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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.

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