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The Ballot Cops

The Atlantic

The afternoon before early voting began in the 2010 midterm elections, a crowd of people gathered in the offices of a Houston Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots. They soon formed a line that snaked out the door of the Patriots’ crumbling storefront and down the block, past the neighboring tattoo parlor. The volunteers, all of whom had been trained by the Patriots to work as poll watchers, had come to collect their polling-place assignments. As they waited, the group’s chief trainer, Alan Vera—a mustachioed former Army ranger who likens poll observers to commandos who “jump out of airplanes” and “blow things up”—walked the line, shaking hands. As he would later recall, he then launched into a drill-sergeant routine.

“Are you ready?”

“We’re ready!”

“Strength and honor! Remember your mission! Your mission is the vote!”

The next day, King Street Patriots—many of them aging white suburbanites—poured into polling places in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods around Houston, looking for signs of voter fraud. Reports of problems at the polls soon began surfacing in the Harris County attorney’s office and on the local news. The focus of these reports was not fraud, however, but alleged voter intimidation. Among other things, poll observers were accused of hovering over voters, blocking lines of people who were trying to cast ballots, and, in the words of Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke, “getting into election workers’ faces.”

The Patriots’ alleged activities touched off a furor. The county attorney’s office, which received some 50 complaints of voter intimidation, launched an investigation. The head of the local chapter of the New Black Panthers went on TV to warn that the group would “not tolerate any intimidation.” The Texas Democratic Party blasted the Patriots for what it called “1960s style” tactics and filed a lawsuit challenging the group’s tax-exempt status. Undaunted, the group’s founder, a suburban soccer mom and small-business owner named Catherine Engelbrecht, addressed a boisterous crowd at the group’s headquarters the next week. “The nation is ready for something like this,” she said. In the months that followed, she began laying out plans to recruit and train 1 million poll watchers around the country by Election Day 2012.

Conservative anti–voter fraud fervor first arose around the same time as two turning points in American politics. The first was John F. Kennedy’s narrow presidential win in 1960, which many Republicans attributed to voter fraud in Illinois and Texas. The second was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which, by banning discriminatory voting practices, stoked fear in some quarters about the rising power of black voters. During the run-up to the 1964 presidential election, the Republican National Committee launched Operation Eagle Eye, the nation’s first large-scale anti–voter fraud campaign. As part of the program, the RNC recruited tens of thousands of volunteers to show up at polling places, mostly in inner cites, and challenge voters’ eligibility using a host of tools and tactics, including cameras, two-way radios, and calls to Republican-friendly sheriffs.

After this, anti-fraud campaigns became commonplace, but they could backfire, as the RNC learned in 1981. That year, the party hired a swashbuckling 29-year-old named John Kelly to organize “ballot security” for New Jersey’s gubernatorial election. Kelly, who turned up in the state wearing cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, arranged to have hundreds of thousands of sample ballots mailed to voters in black and Latino neighborhoods. His team then compiled a list of people whose ballots were returned as undeliverable, and allegedly tried to have them struck from the rolls. This technique, known as caging, is controversial because it can purge eligible voters. In this case, an outdated address roster was used—meaning that an unusually large share of the people on Kelly’s list may have been wrongly targeted.

Kelly and his associates also recruited squadrons of men—many of them off-duty police officers—to descend on black and Latino precincts around New Jersey on Election Day. Wearing National Ballot Security Task Force armbands, walkie-talkies, and in some cases guns, the men posted signs warning in large red letters that the areas were being patrolled. They then stationed themselves around polling places and allegedly tried to stop those whose names appeared on the caging list from voting.

According to a Republican Party lawyer who was on the scene that day, before the polls closed, Kelly hightailed it out of the state in a Chevy Impala, armbands and signs stuffed in the trunk. When the Essex County prosecutor’s office launched a statewide criminal investigation the following week, he was nowhere to be found.

In the end, prosecutors didn’t bring charges—no would-be voters stepped forward to say they had been blocked from casting ballots—but the Democratic National Committee filed a federal lawsuit accusing Kelly and the RNC of violating the Voting Rights Act. To settle the case, in 1982 the RNC signed a consent decree, agreeing to end all “ballot security” programs targeting minority precincts. Four years later, the RNC was caught caging minority voters in Louisiana, an effort that was intended to “keep the black vote down,” according to an internal RNC memo. The DNC filed suit again, and a chastened RNC agreed to a modified decree requiring it to submit all plans for anti–voter fraud campaigns to the court for approval.

At which point, the RNC mostly abandoned its anti–voter fraud programs. While state parties and individual candidates continued to launch scattered ballot-security efforts, national attention to voter fraud faded. That is, until the 2000 presidential election. Tova Wang, who was on the staff of the 2001 National Commission on Federal Election Reform and is now a fellow at the public-policy think tank Demos, says that after Bush v. Gore, political strategists took a new interest in the mechanics of elections. “Partisan activists began trying to alter the rules and tinker with election administration to gain partisan advantage,” she told me recently.