Religious right in drive to police election amid dubious voter fraud claims

Religious right and social conservative groups are training thousands of volunteers in key 2020 battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to watch for alleged fraud with the expansion of mail-in ballots, plus filing lawsuits to block more voting by mail, which they claim with scant evidence will lead to sizable election fraud.

Texas-based True the Vote, a central player in the right’s anti-vote-by-mail drives, has trained about 10,000 volunteers in areas including handwriting analysis who are expected to volunteer in key counties such as Allegheny in Pennsylvania and Las Vegas in Nevada to detect voting fraud by mail and at the polls, said True the Vote’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht.

True the Vote, which has Tea Party roots, has done training sessions with several national religious and social conservative groups such as Intercessors for America, the Thomas More Law Center and Eagle Forum, as well as a few dozen smaller local groups nationwide, said Engelbrecht.

“I’m particularly concerned about mail-in voting fraud,” Engelbrecht said, though there has been little evidence produced that mail-in voting fraud has ever been a significant problem in American elections.

For Engelbrecht, however, the mission to police the 2020 electoral process is almost a religious one. That message was palpable on a 1 May monthly prayer call hosted by Intercessors, when Engelbrecht called the fight to curb mail-in voting a “spiritual battle” for “control of the free world”, according to Right Wing Watch, which tracks conservative groups for the liberal People for the American Way.

Dave Kubal, the Intercessors president who participated in the prayer call, reportedly said that Engelbrecht had been “anointed” by God for her current work, and hailed her as a “warrior for liberty”.

As part of its 2020 battle plan to monitor both mail-in voting and the polls for fraud, Engelbrecht said that True the Vote is recruiting thousands of military veterans including from the American Legion and the Seal community, to join its “Continue to Serve” program. “We’re reaching out to veterans groups and first responders.”

True the Vote says it is promoting “free and fair elections” but independent election law experts say that historically the group has backed measures to curb minority voting – including voter-ID laws and voter-roll purges – and organized election observers who have been charged with intimidation.

“True the Vote is a misnomer,” said Gerry Hebert, a leading voting rights lawyer who worked on the issues for 21 years at the justice department. “They should be called Suppress the Vote.”

While True the Vote’s volunteer training this year has been heavily focused on the risks of mail-in voting fraud, Engelbrecht noted that since NBA teams have opted to deploy some arenas for in-person voting, True the Vote has begun volunteer training plans to monitor these large voting sites.

Engelbrecht said that the majority of True the Vote’s election training was being done with small local groups in a few dozen counties in swing states nationwide, but she declined to name any of the local groups.

To help coordinate its training with local groups and some national ones, True the Vote intends to launch a “command center” later this month to advise and respond to questions from people interested in working in different counties.

The religious right’s battle to thwart mail-in voting overlaps larger poll monitoring and legal drives by the Republican National Committee and Donald Trump’s campaign, which have spread unfounded claims about the risks of mail-in voting and the need to monitor polls for fraud. The RNC has said it planned to recruit 50,000 poll watchers and was budgeting $20m for election legal fights.

Trump himself has made numerous specious claims that large expansions of mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud, and attacked Democrats for seeking to boost mail-in voting in light of Covid-19. In June, Trump tweeted without evidence that “millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries and others,” creating the “scandal of our times”.

And at a North Carolina rally this month, Trump even urged his followers illegally to vote twice – by mail and at the polls – to test the system for fraud.

The specter of mail-in voting fraud is fueling other religious conservative projects.

True the Vote joined a coalition in late August that is backing the Amistad Project of the Thomas More Center in lawsuits accusing Michigan’s governor and secretary of state of endangering the integrity of the election and silencing political speech through emergency orders and actions spurred by pandemic health concerns.

One Amistad lawsuit filed in a MIchigan claims court challenges the secretary of state’s moves to expand access to mail-in and absentee voting, which the lawsuit claims endangers election integrity. The Amistad Project is run by the ex-Kansas attorney general Phill Kline, whose law license was suspended indefinitely several years ago after a Kansas agency found he committed 11 ethical violations in investigations of abortion providers.

This week, True the Vote also sued Montana’s governors for offering counties the option to conduct universal mail-in voting in this year’s elections.

Election law experts warn that True the Vote and its allies’ drives, coupled with Trump’s blistering attacks against expanding mail-in voting, will fuel voter suppression.

“True the Vote is not interested in preventing fraud,” said election lawyer Hebert. “They’re interested in perpetrating it, by denying and obstructing the rights of minority voters to cast their ballots.”

But Engelbrecht seems to see her battle against mail-in voting in apocalyptic terms to judge by her 1 May prayer call with Intercessors, according to Right Wing Watch.

Vote-by-mail supporters “want to cause chaos, and they’re going to spread it across the country like a virus,” Engelbrecht said. “We know that this is from Satan.”