Houston, we have a (voting) problem
"The voting system is under attack now. The movements that are focused on voter fraud and the integrity of elections are crucial at this point. This really, this is a war."
So begins an ominous video on the front page of the website for True the Vote, a group founded this year by conservative tea party activists in Harris County, Texas -- the nation's third-largest county, whose 1.9 million Houston-area voters will be key to the outcome of the state's closely-watched gubernatorial race and other state elections.
Overheated election-year rhetoric? Maybe, but the electoral battle over Harris County may have already claimed its first victims: At 4:15 a.m. on August 27, a still-unsolved fire consumed a 27,800-square-foot warehouse storing most of the county's voting machinery. Over 10,000 pieces of equipment, including all of Harris County's Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines, were destroyed.
The Houston Fire Department says it could take "several months" before they figure out what caused the blaze: An initial search by arson dogs didn't turn up ignitable liquids typically used by would-be fire-starters, but they're not ruling out arson.
Yet the uncanny timing of the inferno -- and its location in a county considered crucial to Democratic candidate for governor Bill White, a three-term mayor of Houston -- has ignited allegations that saboteurs are to blame.
In the meantime, Harris County's election administrator, Beverly Kaufman has scrambled to fill the void, borrowing machines from 15 other Texas counties -- and even one in Colorado -- as well as printing paper ballots and buying other equipment. Kaufman predicts that by Election Day, Harris County will have up to 5,000 of the usual 5,700 machines they typically field, meaning that each of the county's 730 polling stations will be one machine short.
"IF WE LOSE TEXAS, WE LOSE THE COUNTRY"
Whatever the cause of the fire, it has brought new attention to the high stakes and growing battles for votes in Harris County, which makes up 15 percent of the Texas electorate.
The county's clout has also made it a key target of progressive-leaning voter registration drives, as well as conservatives raising allegations of voter fraud. The Texans Together Education Fund has launched an ambitious campaign to register 100,000 of an estimated 600,000 Harris County residents -- especially among the city's African-American, Latino and other people of color who make up two-thirds of the population -- who are eligible to vote but not registered.
On the other side of the spectrum is True the Vote and its parent organization, the King Street Patriots, a tea party group dedicated to fighting the "ongoing corruption of our elections." Like Texans Together, True the Vote also claims to be a "non-partisan" organization: Its website says they have "filed to be a section 501(c)(3) organization," a tax designation reserved for groups who refrain from partisan activity.
But True the Vote and the King Street Patriots are much more open about their partisan aims.
On Sept. 8, True the Vote featured a new video on its website, which opens with the battlefield imagery described above. (This video replaced one the group removed earlier this month after complaints that it included doctored photos from Democratic rallies).
Here's the clip:
The video features an all-white cast of unidentified speakers, including national conservative icon David Horowitz, who claims that President Obama is "very connected to ACORN," the defunct activist group. At one point, the video's soundtrack rises to a crescendo as the words "Our elections are being manipulated by the RADICAL LEFT" loom on the screen.
But the group's partisan interests are spelled out much more clearly in another segment, which features a man who appears to be a government official:
We have nine state senate districts touching the Houston area. In the legislature of Texas, there is a seven-vote majority conservative. What that means is, in the big picture, is if we lose Houston, we lose Texas ... And guess what: If we lose Texas, we lose the country.
The video closes with a rallying cry for support, including a call for "millions of volunteers" to descend on Harris County to work as polling staff and serve as volunteer election watchdogs.
Horowitz takes it one step further, saying that key to"getting involved in the battles over elections" is not only poll-watching to "ensure the integrity of elections," but also "the supporting of candidates, the choosing of candidates" -- something a non-profit, non-partisan organization is expressly prohibited from doing.
True the Vote's parent organization, the King Street Patriots, openly endorses Republican -- and opposes Democratic -- candidates on its Twitter account.
And True the Vote and the Tea Party Patriots clearly view their work of installing poll workers and mobilizing teams of election watchdogs as important to the outcome if this November elections. As Catherine Engelbrecht, co-founder of King Street Patriots, says in True the Vote's video:
If there's ever a time for it to happen, it's now. Because the stakes are higher than they've ever been.
Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.