One of the fundamental rights in our constitutional republic is the right to vote. But just as importantly, our free society is built on the idea of voter integrity: one person, one vote. When the validity of a vote, or the voting process, is called into question, both the legitimacy of the government and society as a whole suffer.
Voter integrity has always been an issue in America. If you’ve seen the movie Gangs of New York, set in the 1860s in New York City, there are scenes of the Irishmen voting, then having their hair cut to alter their appearance so that they can be sent back to vote again. In recent times, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has been charged with voter fraud. In 2008, the bipartisan Elections Board of Lake County, Indiana, actually stopped processing a stack of about 5,000 applications delivered by ACORN just before the October 6 registration deadline after the first 2,100 turned out to be phony. And of course there was the famous incident in Nevada where authorities raided ACORN headquarters on October 7, 2008, after a month-long investigation. Some of the fraudulent voter registrations seized included the Dallas Cowboys’ starting lineup.
That same year in Houston, Harris County tax assessor Paul Bettencourt found that nearly 10,000 of the 30,000 forms turned in by ACORN were invalid. All of this behavior led to questions about the integrity of our electoral process. But instead of sitting and doing nothing about it, someone did stand up, and in the true can-do spirit of what would become the Tea Party, took the bull by the horns.
That someone was Catherine Engelbrecht, the president of a high-precision oil field machine shop that she and her husband had started in the Houston area. As a mother, a small business owner, a board member of her church, and an officer of her children’s PTO, she’d had very little direct political involvement. But now her eyes were opened to a wide array of problems, not just voter fraud but the general direction of the country toward destructive statism. “I watched the gorging of our government but didn’t really process the enormity of the problem until 2008,” Engelbrecht says. “I was only one of a sea of Americans who unplugged from the matrix at about the same time.” In the spring of 2009 she attended her fist Tea Party rallies, but something about them bothered her: “I saw that the rallies were very well intentioned, but that there was no plan to move meaningfully beyond complaining. I had an overwhelming sense that we were wasting time, so I stepped away to figure out what else I could do.”
Soon enough she founded the King Street Patriots, an organization that would move beyond protesting. But the real “what-to-do” dawned on Engelbrecht in the fall of 2009. There was a need for people to work at the polls, so she and 20 others decided to volunteer as alternate judges and clerks. The experience was an eye-opener. “When we worked, we saw big problems. Not only were polls run like the typical government agency, inefficient and confusing, they were also very vulnerable to fraud, which we saw time and again,” she says. “There were people being allowed to vote without showing any identification, people who’d say ‘I don’t know who to vote for,’ at which point an election judge would jump up, escort them to the voting booth, dial in the vote, and tell the voter to ‘press here.’ ”
Engelbrecht walked away knowing something had to be done, which led the King Street Patriots to launch True the Vote. The project has one aim: to restore integrity to the American system of electing its leaders. With True the Vote, the King Street Patriots have, as she described it, “deconstructed the entire process, focusing on educating voters, examining the registry, recruiting, training and mobilizing election officials and poll workers, collecting data all along the way, then used the data to shape government action and legislative agendas to support desperately needed election code reform.”
AT THE HEART OF True the Vote is the goal of training people in everything from how to do the job of a poll watcher to how to serve as an alternate judge. Last fall, Engelbrecht says, there was such an outpouring of interest in the True the Vote program that in the weeks leading up to the elections the King Street Patriots were doing four packed trainings a week and streaming the training sessions live on the Internet. On Election Day, there were 1,000 trained and mobilized poll watchers in Harris County alone, though Engelbrecht admits that even she was not aware of the program’s scope and reach. On Election Day she received a call from a poll watcher unable to find his polling place. After he mentioned a precinct she was unaware of, she realized the gentleman was in New Jersey; he had been trained online by King Street Patriots and wanted to do his part in his state.
Since last November’s elections, True the Vote has expanded into a national program. “We currently have participation in 45 states,” Engelbrecht says. “Our goal is to equip leaders to true the vote in their own communities; examining their own processes and following the necessary steps to improve it.”
Despite attacks from the left, Engelbrecht and the King Street Patriots keep marching on. As she explains, “The True the Vote story confounds the left because it is simple and true. Simple and true presents a problem, because no one gets to manipulate it.” She adds, “True the Vote shouldn’t be something we take sides on. It should just be. The rules are the same no matter party or color. It’s not about politics, it’s about principle. If our elections aren’t truly fair, we are not truly free.”
People across the country are beginning to notice Catherine Engelbrecht and the King Street Patriots’ work. They recently won the Ronald Reagan Award at the CPAC event in Washington, D.C., and are working on trainings and summits across the country in preparation for 2012. It’s been an amazing journey for Engelbrecht, from small business owner to Tea Party organizer to recipient of national attention. But I have a feeling there’s a lot, lot more to come.