This weekend, the Dallas Morning News ran a long investigative piece exposing for the first time an armed raid that state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office ordered on a Houston voter registration operation, Houston Votes, back in 2010. The aftermath played out like ACORN in miniature: Despite the fact that nobody at Houston Votes was charged with any wrongdoing, the organization folded under the pressure of Abbott’s investigation.
The story provides an interesting look at the mechanics of the GOP’s obsessive search for certain types of extraordinarily rare voter fraud in order to justify extreme measures making it harder to cast a ballot. And it also stars two people who have since become familiar names in the national effort to make it more difficult to vote: Abbott, who is now the GOP nominee for governor of Texas, and Catherine Engelbrecht, who now runs the national group True the Vote, but who got her start running a Texas Tea Party group called King Street Patriots.
The raid on Houston Votes was part of a larger campaign by Abbott to uncover what he calls an “epidemic” of voter fraud, in an apparent effort to build support for a restrictive Voter ID law in Texas. Abbott’s campaign hasn’t exactly been a success: According to MSNBC’s Zach Roth, “over the 13 years of Abbott’s tenure, his office can only cite two fraudulent votes that might have been stopped by the ID law.” In the meantime, Abbott’s effort has resulted in some strangely zealous prosecutions, including those of a group of Tea Party activists who tried to cast protest votes in a resident-less utility district.
Dallas Morning News reporter James Drew explains how a racially charged speech by Engelbrecht led to Abbot’s investigation of and raid on Houston Votes:
On an overcast Monday afternoon, officers in bulletproof vests swept into a house on Houston’s north side. The armed deputies and agents served a search warrant. They carted away computers, hard drives and documents.
The raid targeted a voter registration group called Houston Votes, which was accused of election fraud. It was initiated by investigators for Attorney General Greg Abbott. His aides say he is duty-bound to preserve the integrity of the ballot box.
His critics, however, say that what Abbott has really sought to preserve is the power of the Republican Party in Texas. They accuse him of political partisanship, targeting key Democratic voting blocs, especially minorities and the poor, in ways that make it harder for them to vote, or for their votes to count.
A close examination of the Houston Votes case reveals the consequences when an elected official pursues hotly contested allegations of election fraud.
The investigation was closed one year after the raid, with no charges filed. But for Houston Votes, the damage was done. Its funding dried up, and its efforts to register more low-income voters ended. Its records and office equipment never were returned. Instead, under a 2013 court order obtained by Abbott’s office, they were destroyed.
Fred Lewis formed Texans Together in 2006.
The nonprofit community organizing group used volunteers to register voters in 2008 under the name Houston Votes. It registered only about 6,000 people that year.
For the next big election, in 2010, Lewis wanted to register 100,000 new voters in Harris County. He knew he couldn’t hit that number with volunteers. Houston Votes decided to use paid workers.
By that summer, Houston Votes had come to the attention of the King Street Patriots, a Houston-based tea party group. At the group’s regular meeting in Houston, its leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, talked about the New Black Panther Party. She then played a Fox news clip of an unidentified black man saying: “We have to exterminate white people off the face of the planet.”
The clip was 5 years old. It came from a forum in Washington about media coverage of Hurricane Katrina. But after the clip ended, Engelbrecht showed a picture of a house in Houston. She said it was the office of the New Black Panthers, at Main and Dowling streets.
Dowling Street is infamous for a 1970 gun battle between police officers and African-American militants, one of whom was killed.
“Houston has a new neighbor,” Engelbrecht said. She added that a person outside the house appeared to be an employee of Houston Votes.
The house shown on the screen was the office of Houston Votes. It had nothing to do with the New Black Panther Party. And it was about 9 miles from Dowling Street.
Two weeks later, the King Street Patriots held another meeting. Paul Bettencourt, the former Harris County tax assessor-collector, was a guest speaker.
He said Houston Votes was worse at registering voters than ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Dozens of ACORN employees across the nation were convicted of voter registration fraud.
The next day, Bettencourt’s successor as tax assessor-collector, fellow Republican Leo Vasquez, held a news conference.
“The integrity of the voter roll of Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name ‘Houston Votes,’” he said.
Houston Votes had submitted about 25,000 voter registration applications. Vasquez said many were duplicates, or already registered. Only 7,193 were “apparently new voters,” he said.
Houston Votes later pointed to public records showing that at the time of the news conference, about 21,000 of the 25,000 who applied to register were already validated by the county and pending final approval by the secretary of state. Among those 21,000, the state had already given final approval to 7,193.
Vasquez announced he was referring the matter for “investigation and possible prosecution” to the Texas secretary of state and the Harris County district attorney.
The secretary of state, who advises local election officials on election laws, forwarded Vasquez’s information to the attorney general’s office on Sept. 14, 2010.
Abbott’s office opened a criminal investigation soon after.