The man who has stoked fear about impostors at the polls.
-By Jane Mayer
October 29, 2012- Teresa Sharp is fifty-three years old and has lived in a modest single-family house on Millsdale Street, in a suburb of Cincinnati, for nearly thirty-three years. A lifelong Democrat, she has voted in every Presidential election since she turned eighteen. So she was agitated when an official summons from the Hamilton County Board of Elections arrived in the mail last month. Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, is one of the most populous regions of the most fiercely contested state in the 2012 election. No Republican candidate has ever won the Presidency without carrying Ohio, and recent polls show Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost even in the state. Every vote may matter, including those cast by the seven members of the Sharp family—Teresa, her husband, four grown children, and an elderly aunt—living in the Millsdale Street house.
The letter, which cited arcane legal statutes and was printed on government letterhead, was dated September 4th. “You are hereby notified that your right to vote has been challenged by a qualified elector,” it said. “The Hamilton County Board of Elections has scheduled a hearing regarding your right to vote on Monday, September 10th, 2012, at 8:30 A.M. . . . You have the right to appear and testify, call witnesses and be represented by counsel.”
“My first thought was, Oh, no!” Sharp, who is African-American, said. “They ain’t messing with us poor black folks! Who is challenging my right to vote?”
The answer to Sharp’s question is that a new watchdog group, the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, which polices voter-registration rolls in search of “electoral irregularities,” raised questions about her eligibility after consulting a government-compiled list of local properties and mistakenly identifying her house as a vacant lot.
The Sharp household had first been identified as suspicious by computer software that had been provided to the Ohio Voter Integrity Project by a national organization called True the Vote. The software, which has been distributed to similar groups around the country, is used to flag certain households, including those with six or more registered voters. This approach inevitably pinpoints many lower-income residents, students, and extended families.
True the Vote, which was founded in 2009 and is based in Houston, describes itself as a nonprofit organization, created “by citizens for citizens,” that aims to protect “the rights of legitimate voters, regardless of their political party.” Although the group has a spontaneous grassroots aura, it was founded by a local Tea Party activist, Catherine Engelbrecht, and from the start it has received guidance from intensely partisan election lawyers and political operatives, who have spent years stoking fear about election fraud. This cohort—which Roll Call has called the “voter fraud brain trust”—has filed lawsuits, released studies, testified before Congress, and written op-ed columns and books. Since 2011, the effort has spurred legislative initiatives in thirty-seven states to require photo identification to vote.
Engelbrecht has received especially valuable counsel from one member of the group: Hans von Spakovsky. A Republican lawyer who served in the Bush Administration, he is now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. “Hans is very, very helpful,” Engelbrecht said. “He’s one of the senior advisers on our advisory council.” Von Spakovsky, who frequently appears on Fox News, is the co-author, with the columnist John Fund, of the recent book “Who’s Counting?,” which argues that America is facing an electoral-security crisis. “Election fraud, whether it’s phony voter registrations, illegal absentee ballots, vote-buying, shady recounts, or old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing, can be found in every part of the United States,” they write. The book connects these modern threats with sordid episodes from the American past: crooked inner-city machines, corrupt black bosses in the Deep South. Von Spakovsky and Fund conclude that electoral fraud is a “spreading” danger, and declare that True the Vote serves “an obvious need.”