I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. … His sense that his political passions are un-selfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1964
Last month the San Diego branch of the Election Integrity Project held its first training session at the Serra Mesa Library. Ruth Weiss, the local coordinator, was busy greeting attendees and distributing handouts for the 2012 ballot processing observer training. The forty people who sat in a circle were predominately white, older and women. Many of them knew each other and chatted amiably among themselves.
I had been following the efforts of True the Vote, a Tea Party fueled national organization created to root out purported voter fraud and was curious to see if their presence had extended beyond the swing states which have become the electoral battleground. A search led to the Election Integrity Project, a for- profit headquartered in the Santa Clarita Valley with an active group here in San Diego.
The Election Integrity Project, although it defines itself as non-partisan, operates as a platform for the conservative Heritage Foundation, the right wing Breitbart.com, and the Tea Party groups True the Vote and the non-profit iCaucus. Their website raises the ubiquitous fearful specter of voter fraud; their intent is to police the act of voting itself, to assure that “every lawfully cast vote [is] accurately counted.”
While the restrictive voter laws enacted after the Republicans gained power in 2010 have the impact if not the explicit intent to suppress the vote of communities of color, the young and the elderly who tend to vote Democrat, True the Vote and its offshoots not only support those efforts but have also assumed the role of election vigilantes at the polls and registrar offices.
Certain that busloads of foreign looking people have been driven to the polls to vote, that dead people routinely vote, and that mass in-person voter fraud has or could swing election results, they do not see their challenges and presence as intimidation. They are merely protecting your vote, whether you feel a need for that protection or not, or whether the facts support their belief, which they don’t.
I have been concerned that my racially diverse and economically poor community of City Heights with its large refugee and immigrant population would become a target for voter suppression efforts. Initial research of the local leadership and local True the Vote affiliate activities revealed a clearly partisan bent. They have also been establishing their presence since 2010 and in June of 2012, the local iCaucus/Tea Party ran a slate of candidates that hewed to their right wing ideology.
Ruth Weiss’s greatest challenge would be to carefully construct a veneer of non-partisanship in the training sessions while maintaining the essential dog whistles and coded allusions which would resonate with the Tea Party base. That base is aware of her commitment “to work very hard to attempt to stop what Obama and the Pelosi thugs are going (sic) to destroy this country in every way.”
Weiss was clearly energized during that first training session. She had already presented the material on numerous occasions to fellow Tea Partiers and conservative groups and she knew enough of the people at the Serra Mesa Library that day to feel confident that she was addressing a receptive audience.
The session provided ballot processing observer training to assure that “every vote is accurately counted.” During the two hour session, which included a powerpoint presentation, the focus was on what happens at the Registrar of Voters office in terms of verifying the voter rolls, handling ballots by mail and counting the votes cast on election day.
Weiss provided a brief background of the Election Integrity Project (EIP). She described it as a grass roots organization that depends on donations. It is worth noting that as a for-profit entity, we will never know who has donated to this grass roots cause. Weiss continued that EIP is an extension of the True the Vote effort that was present in only one state in 2009 and now has a presence in thirty- two. She claims that 80% of all California voters now live in an area with an EIP presence.
Weiss described how that presence has been perceived as a threat– the California headquarter computers had been hacked, and their consultant maintains that it was a sophisticated attack that could only have been accomplished by a government-like agency. A voice in the group whispered “DNCC.” That set the stage for what was the ultimate take-away for my two companions and myself–the deep suspicions and paranoia that shaped the context for the session.
The Registrar of Voters was praised for its good job of voter roll cleaning, but it was unclear whether the local EIP has engaged in challenges as they have elsewhere. Weiss’s main concern was the integrity of voting by mail. She said that 50% of California voters do so by mail and asserted that “We know fraud happens. We know it happens big time.”
Weiss never showed that this fraud happens “big time,” but a poster of Stalin with the quote that “it is unimportant who casts the vote; what is important is who counts the votes” was flashed on the screen. Heads nodded throughout the room, and I wondered whether Deborah Seiler, the County Registrar, sees her role as protecting us from a totalitarian menace, Bolshevik style.
All of the potential threats posed by mail ballots were enumerated– they can get lost in the mail or easily stolen; mail ballots are susceptible to Union influences; your secret ballot is handled by at least seven different people in the registrars office and they can make mistakes or even engage in malfeasance; the signature verification process is construed liberally in favor of the voter; and signature verification may be handled by temporary workers without adequate training.
The other potential source of voter fraud according to Weiss is the provisional ballot. She expressed concern that in the June primary, 90% of provisional ballots were accepted, which she viewed as prima facie evidence of fraud. Another source of potential fraud arises from voters who are active in more than one state, using the example of people with homes in New York and Miami. She did not use the most obvious example- Governor Romney, who has homes in a number of states, including California.
Weiss threaded the needle very carefully by stating numerous times that clerical errors on the part of the Registrar of Voters aren’t common, but if we take the time to check our grocery bill for accuracy, why aren’t we checking our electoral process for accuracy? She urges a respectful rule abiding presence but emphasizes that same presence as a deterrent.
I attended the second training session on how to be a poll observer a few weeks later at the La Jolla Riford Library. There were only thirteen of us in attendance and all of us were white. I was struck by the degree to which Weiss had become much more restrained in her delivery.
In this session she described EIP as a non-partisan citizen oversight effort. Although she said that there are electoral laws and procedures that open the door to potential fraud, she described the poll observer goal in toned down rhetoric. Volunteers would not be looking for fraud but rather assuring that the law is followed with minimal mistakes.
I do not know whether the presence of Deborah Seiler as an audience member a few days earlier had resulted in feedback which resulted in modifications to Weiss’s presentation, or whether it was simply that Weiss understood that EIP had received the attention of citizens not aligned with the Tea Party, but her ability to convey the potential threats for fraudulent behavior were somewhat muted in her attempt to maintain a non-partisan position.
This group was not wholly compromised of the Tea Party choir. When Weiss stated that Gary Kreep was heading up the local legal team, one woman exclaimed that Kreep is a birther and another wanted to know how he could assist EIP as an elected judge. Weiss skirted the issue of Kreep’s birtherism completely by calling it non-germane and assured us that because he will not be seated as judge until January, it is quite legal for him to participate in the interim as legal counsel.
Weiss expressed concern that the number of EIP volunteers had dropped since the June 2012 election, pointed out the donation box at the check-in table and asked for monetary support. In the next hour and a half, attendees were shown a video that pinpointed potential irregularities at the polls and how poll observers should handle these situations.
Once again she noted the use of provisional ballots, which EIP believes should be the last resort because they are counted last and can result in delays; they are handled by a lot of people; and they often need research which increases the potential for human error. Weiss encouraged particular attentiveness in observing the use of provisional ballots.
She went on to point out other areas of concern beginning with assisted voters who could be subject to illegal assistance from an agent of their employer or union. The flip side of this illegal voter assistance is the attempt to curb voters, “Chicago” style. This was described as persons who present themselves as members of an election assistance team and mislead voters.
Weiss did address the issue of voter intimidation, which she described as being a slim occurrence in an overt way. She did point out a more subtle psychological discomfort and intimidation that can occur. She gave an example of the picture of the president, which is often displayed in schools and other polling places as a potential subtle coercion to voters. These kinds of visual representations are required to be removed.
Poll observers were asked to be alert to problems, but not attempt to solve the problems. They should use incidence reports to record what they observe, provide witness statements when called for, respect the voter bill of rights, and be courteous but firm in their challenges.
The issue about where volunteers should observe the polls was raised. Weiss felt that the central area of the city would be best served because of the mayoral race, which brings me back again to my City Heights community, which lies in that central area and whose residents are precisely the kind of folk who seem to generate suspicion among the True the Vote stalwarts.
The EIP appears to have two goals. The first is to amass and provide data, for the first time in the State, regarding ballot processing irregularities and the extent of voter fraud. Ballot processing observers are provided with a Signature Verification Tally Sheet. Poll watchers were given Incident Reports. Both had an area for comments.
While Weiss instructed volunteers to only formally challenge the most blatant irregularities, it remains unclear what data will ultimately be used. While the formal challenges may provide a factual trail that can be corroborated with the Registrar of Voters, the inclusion of observations in the data is clearly less likely to do so.
The other EIP goal is to mount legal challenges in the state. Weiss alluded to a group of lawyers prepared to assume those efforts with Gary Kreep assuming a lead position locally. It is clear that mail ballot and provisional ballot provisions are in the cross-hairs. While neither will be challenged in toto, attempts will no doubt be made to nibble around the edges.
What remains so disconcerting about the EIP efforts is that a search for voter fraud in San Diego county turned up nothing but a recent North County Times article about a Mexican man who was deported decades ago for drug trafficking who pleaded guilty to living illegally in Escondido and fraudulently voting in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The Registrar of Voter site does not contain an advisory about voter fraud.
While the paucity of voter fraud is reassuring to me, the fact that an instance has occurred is enough to generate the belief by EIP members that that occurrence alone is evidence of widespread fraud that has simply gone undetected. The whole attempt to broaden the electoral base and voter participation via mail ballots, provisional ballots, handing out registration forms at the DMV, welfare and Social Security offices, and online registration are all suspect to EIP members.
The training sessions that Ruth Weiss presented below to a Tea Party group exemplify the contradictory, paranoid reasoning that reflects the diffused anger of an aggrieved white minority group. Catherine Englebrecht, True the Votes’ leader explains “Then in 2008, I don’t know, something clicked,” she said. “I saw our country headed in a direction that, for whatever reason-it didn’t hit me until 2008–this really threatens the future of our children.”
Ruth Weiss Tea Party Presentation Part I
Ruth Weiss Tea Party Presentation Part II
The EIP website does not describe the chaos unleashed by incompetence and disregard for the law on the state registrar level in Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania as a threat, nor the official notices sent out in Maricopa County, AZ with the wrong election date. These systemic assaults upon the electoral process have gone unnoticed along with voter roll purges, restrictive voter ID’s, and early voting.
Weiss may want us to believe “It’s not about who won. It’s about counting every vote,” but I’m not buying it. I take her at her word when she says that she is doing everything possible to “stop what Obama and the Pelosi thugs are going (sic) to destroy this country in every way.” The question is the degree to which the “non-partisan” EIP efforts will also advance that goal.