Bill Ouren, True the Vote’s national elections coordinator, is presenting before a group of about 50 recruits in Boca Raton, Fla. He stands beneath a banner bearing his organization’s name, alongside that of the Koch brothers’ SuperPAC Americans For Prosperity, and the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity’s "Citizen Watchdog," a rightwing group that teaches people how to become "investigative" journalists. He’s telling the story of how True the Vote grew from a small posse in Harris County, Texas, in 2009, to a deployed army of over 1,000 poll watchers across most of the state the following year. Ouren brags that the 2010 recruits reported "over 800 individual incidences of voter … irregularities."
Irregularities is not a common term in the True the Vote vocab. Usually, it’s just called fraud. Seeing that the wording change has brought confusion to some of his audience’s faces, Ouren offers an explanation. “I use the word ‘irregularities’ because we don’t know if people did it intentionally or if they just didn’t know better.” That kind of logic isn’t normal for the group either, so he immediately adds, “So for those people who say voter and election fraud doesn’t exist, I’ve got 806 answers to that. It absolutely does in one election.”
Ouren and Americans for Prosperity gathered these recruits in Boca Raton in July to instruct them on how they could become “empowered” vessels for True the Vote’s poll watcher program. True the Vote is most widely known for its advocacy of restrictive photo voter ID laws. But while that might garner headlines, the group’s real focus is on policing the act of voting itself. As Ouren declared during the group’s national summit in April, and repeated again in Boca Raton, his recruits’ job is chiefly to make voters feel like they’re “driving and seeing the police following you.” He aims to recruit 1 million poll watchers around the country.
That’s an ambitious goal, and it’s easy to conclude Ouren’s eyes are bigger than his organizing stomach. But when you consider all of the eyes in True the Vote’s rapidly growing network, the goal may not be so far-fetched.
True the Vote’s emergence wasn’t an isolated event. Its rapid rise occurred in harmony with hundreds of other Tea Party groups across the nation, dozens of which exist in Texas alone and many of which have been “empowered” by True the Vote for “election integrity” kibitzing. It has plugged itself into an existing infrastructure of influential far-right organizations hellbent on criminalizing abortion, banishing gun control, repealing the Affordable Care Act—and now, on intimidating would-be voters.
These alliances have helped expand True the Vote’s range of influence over election activities. Today it boasts having trainees in thirty-five states, people who’ll spot “irregularities” and chalk them up as “fraud” and then use that tally to justify new voting restrictions. As one strategy, the group buys voter rolls from states and counties, then disseminates the lists to thousands of largely unsupervised volunteers, who are urged to submit to election officials names from the rolls that may be improperly registered.
The group has involved itself in every high-stakes electoral drama this year, from the Wisconsin governor recall election to Florida’s controversial “non-citizen” purging. True the Vote now turns its attention to the main event this fall, gearing up for an Election Day showdown that its leaders hope will establish voter fraud, rather than voter suppression as a dire threat to democracy.