In recent weeks, Texas-based True the Vote has been subjected to growing scrutiny for its efforts to mobilize poll watchdogs across the nation this November. While the group says it wants to combat voter fraud, critics argue the effort's real aim is to intimidate Democratic voters.
Amidst the media coverage and controversy, True the Vote and its leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, have been vehement on one point: True the Vote is "nonpartisan."
In a recent New York Times story, Engelbrecht insisted the group's work had no partisan political aims: “It is not about party or politics; it is about principle." In its press releases, True the Vote describes itself as a "nonpartisan election integrity organization."
The bottom of the group's donation page also claims that "True the Vote is a non-profit corporation pending 501(c)(3) determination under the Internal Revenue Code." The IRS expressly prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political activity.
But in August 2012, True the Vote gave money to a group with unquestionably partisan goals: the Republican State Leadership Committee.
According to the committee's IRS tax filings, on August 17, 2012, True the Vote contributed $5,000 to the RSLC. Here is a pdf of the RSLC's August IRS report; below is a screenshot of the contribution record:
The Republican State Leadership Committee is a so-called 527 political organization that describes itself this way: "The RSLC is the largest caucus of Republican state leaders and the only national organization whose mission is to elect down ballot, state-level Republican office-holders."
In 2010, the RSLC raised a war chest of nearly $30 million, largely from corporate donors, which it spent on successful campaigns to win over or solidify GOP leadership in state legislatures in places like North Carolina.
In a recent dispatch, RSLC president Chris Jankowski -- a GOP political operative -- said "Republicans are once again in a position to make history on a state level," and the group is on pace to amass $36 million for targeting 13 legislative chambers.
Legally, True the Vote's gift to the RSLC would appear to disqualify the group from being a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Tax lawyers who specialize in election law consulted by Facing South said that, because a 527 group is by definition oriented towards political activity, it would likely be impermissible for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to make such a contribution.
True the Vote's tax status has been a source of ongoing controversy. In their 2010 tax returns, True the Vote and the Houston-based tea party group that founded it, King Street Patriots, claimed to be a 501(c)(3) organization. However, the IRS doesn't consider either group to be a 501(c)(3), a fact which the True the Vote website implicitly admits by saying its 501(c)(3) status is "pending."
In 2011, a Texas judge ruled that neither group could be considered a nonprofit. That same year, True the Vote was forced to return a $35,000 grant from the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, because, according to The New York Times, "it was given on the premise that True the Vote would be granted tax-exempt status by the I.R.S., which Ms. Engelbrecht said has not happened despite several attempts."
In any case, the group's donation to the RSLC seems to undermine True the Vote's claims to nonpartisanship, which have been shaky from the beginning. An early video posted by the group in 2010 featured a Republican official saying of the upcoming elections, "If we lose Texas, we lose the country."
Last week, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) launched an investigation into what he called True the Vote's "horrendous record” of filing inaccurate voter registration challenges across the country. Cummings' letter read in part:
At some point, an effort to challenge voter registrations by the thousands without any legitimate basis may be evidence of illegal voter suppression. If these efforts are intentional, politically-motivated, and widespread across multiple states, they could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights.
UPDATE: Ryan Reilly, a reporter for Talking Points Memo, followed up on this story and asked True the Vote's Catherine Engelbrecht about the donation. She said they are "looking into" it.
Story updated 10/12 1:45 p.m.
IMAGE: Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote speaking at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore