HOUSTON, TEXAS — When you talk about conservatives who rail against the supposed scourge of voter fraud and support voter identification laws that many expert say depress turnout among Democratic-leaning constituencies, there’s a few big names that invariably come up.There’s John Fund, the Wall Street Journal columnist who wrote an entire book on the matter. There’s Hans von Spakovsky, the former Bush Justice Department official who supported allowing a voter ID law in Georgia to be cleared by the feds over the objections of career staffers in the Civil Rights Division voting section, who believed it could dilute the minority vote. There’s Andrew Breitbart, the conservative behind the series of “Big” websites, who helped promote the undercover videos by James O’Keefe that brought down the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN).
All of them were at the first national conference of True the Vote this weekend, held at the swanky InterContinental Hotel in Houston, Texas. True the Vote, which was started by a Texas Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots, made it clear they intended to help groups around the country monitor the polls and make anti-voter fraud efforts a major part of the political landscape going into 2012.
A few consistent themes emerged from the speeches at the summit (which this reporter watched via a live stream from outside the room): that their efforts to preserve the integrity of elections weren’t partisan, that they wanted everybody to be able to vote, and that suggestions that their efforts suppressed the vote of minorities were just unsubstantiated partisan attacks from the left. But the non-partisan theme was somewhat undercut by the partisan messages of the speakers and attacks on the Obama administration.
Starting Friday night and continuing through Saturday evening, a mostly middle-age and elderly audience toting bright orange “True the Vote” backpacks heard horror stories about how corrupt the voting system had become and how they could prevent elections from being stolen through fraud in their home state.
Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman (MN), whose loss to Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has been blamed on voter fraud in some circles, and former Alaska GOP Senate nominee Joe Miller, who raised questions about voter fraud after he lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who ran a write-in campaign against Miller to retain her Senate seat, also stopped by the conference.
The audience heard stories about ACORN being a front group for the Obama team from former employee Anita MonCrief who was fired from the group’s Project Vote for charging $3,000 in personal expenses on an ACORN credit card and has since become a regular on the anti-voter fraud circuit. There were tales of a politicized Obama Justice Department from J. Christian Adams, who was hired into the Civil Rights Division by a former DOJ official who was found to have improperly politicized the hiring process during the Bush administration by hiring people based on their conservative credentials. And there were proclamations by the head of the King Street Patriots that their efforts were “not about party or politics” but rather “principle.”
“Everybody with me?” Catherine Engelbrecht asked the crowd. “This is not a partisan thing.”
That’s a theme that von Spakovsky also touched on when he declared that they “want to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote gets to vote.” von Spakovsky continued: “But we also want to make sure that the votes of those individuals who were valid are not stolen by bogus votes being cast or ballot boxes being stuffed or the counting not being done the right way, the way it should.”
Adams, the former Justice Department lawyer who quit over the way the Civil Rights Division handled the high-profile civil voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party, suggested True the Vote and other groups needed to “privatize Eric Holder’s job” because the Attorney General wasn’t properly enforcing a provision of the law which requires states to clean up their voting rolls.
Adams said that there were people out there who thought that anti-voter fraud activists were as bad as the New Black Panthers and think of “our side” as vote suppressors (one of those such people, Adams said in reference to this TPM reporter, was “lurking out in the lobby”). He set the battle up as a “struggle as old as time” between those who follow the rules and those who don’t.
“I can guarantee you the government is not going to do it,” Adams said, also telling attendees that they were “all that’s left” to protect the voting system.
Speakers at the summit repeatedly emphasized that the attacks from liberals and the media that their efforts would suppress the turnout of minority voters were unfair.
“The left has a dozen organizations, all well funded, all with enormous amounts of money to do everything they can to fight against having integrity in elections,” von Spakovsky said. “We need organizations who will fight to preserve integrity in elections, and it’s citizen organizations that can do that.”
Von Spakovsky added that there was a “big urban myth” used by the left that voter ID laws will depress the vote of the poor, and minority and elderly voters, but said such allegations were “absolutely false.”
“There just aren’t enough conservatives … aren’t enough people who care about the integrity of elections working as election officials,” von Spakovsky said.
“We’re in the cause of civil rights, and we should throw that back at them,” said Fund.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman told TPM in the lobby of the hotel that he was going to emphasize “election integrity” in his speech but said he didn’t want to dwell on what happened in Minnesota.
“My mom always told me if you can’t change something, don’t complain about it, but fix it. So I’ll be talking about solutions moving forward, I’m not a guy who really looks back,” Coleman said.
In his speech before the group, Coleman talked about the importance of the work that True the Vote was offering.
“Democracy can’t flourish in places where citizens don’t have faith in the democratic process,” Coleman said. “It’s all about faith in the system. Maybe we voted for them, maybe we can’t wait for them to get out of office, but they’re ours.”
“This event, the work you can do when you get home is so important to help your fellow citizens have faith in the democratic process, and it underscores further the fact that we must use all reasonable means to protect the integrity of the democratic process,” Coleman said. “Every vote counts, every vote should be a legitimate vote.”
Breitbart’s speech near the end of the conference mostly focused on the broader cultural war that he sees happening in America rather than the specifics of the debate over voter fraud. He said that the Tea Party had been unfairly maligned as racist. He said in an interview with TPM after his speech that the applause he received when he endorsed a Republican presidential ticket of African-American conservatives Herman Cain and Rep. Allen West shows that the Tea Party isn’t racist.
Engelbrecht (the head of the King Street Patriots) said she aspires to have teams of people in every voting precinct in the country, bringing the total to about one million volunteers for the presidential election — an effort certain to raise concerns amongst Democrats and liberal voting rights groups due to some of the problems that were allegedly caused by poll watchers trained by True the Vote in 2010. Given that the Justice Department investigated allegations of voter intimidation by poll watchers who were allegedly trained by True the Vote, Democrats and voting rights organizations are sure to be watching True the Vote’s efforts very closely.
Closing out the summit after Breitbart’s speech, Engelbrecht took out a “belt of truth” (in reference to a passage of scripture) that was sent to her by a True the Vote supporter.
“If our elections are not truly fair,” Engelbrecht said, “we are not truly free.”