The conservative activist behind Trump's bogus 'millions of illegal voters' claim

The Twitter profile of Gregg Phillips, the conservative activist who appears to be the source for President-elect Donald Trump's claim that millions of people voted illegally in the recent election.

This week Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who's trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by over 2 million votes nationwide, sparked controversy when he took to Twitter to claim that he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

Trump's wild claim about a massive illegal voting crisis was immediately debunked by fact-checkers. The Tampa Bay Times' Politifact website rated his statement "Pants on Fire," noting that it "found zero evidence for Trump's charge … and a lot of reasons to conclude that it didn't happen."

Where did the bogus information come from? Politifact traced it back to the Twitter account of one Gregg Phillips:

Tweets by Phillips on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 said that "we have verified more than 3 million votes cast by non-citizens" and that Phillips had "completed analysis of database of 180 million voter registrations. Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million. Consulting legal team."

Phillips refused to discuss his claims in detail with Politifact, saying he's not yet ready to release his supporting information publicly. When asked by the British online newspaper The Independent to discuss his evidence, Phillips refused. "We will release it in open form to the American people," he said. "We won't allow the media to spin this first. Sorry."

So who is Phillips?

A resident of Texas with a business degree from the University of Alabama, he's the chairman and CEO of AutoGov, an Austin-based company that makes software to help hospitals, nursing homes and other health care organizations decide whether to admit Medicaid patients. He founded the company in 2004 following an 18-month stint as executive deputy commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees Medicaid and SNAP food benefits. Phillips played a key role in crafting 2003 legislation to privatize parts of the Texas safety net and came under fire for conflicts of interest and cronyism there and in a similar position he held in Mississippi, as the Houston Chronicle reported.

Phillips was involved in mainstream Republican politics back in the 1980s and 1990s, serving as finance director of the Alabama Republican Party in 1989, finance director of Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice's successful 1991 election campaign, and executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party in the mid-1990s, according to his LinkedIn profile. He went on to become the managing director of Winning Our Future, a super PAC founded to support the unsuccessful 2012 presidential run of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

But Phillips told a conservative talk radio show back in 2013 that while he once identified as a "Reagan Republican" he came to feel "less like a Republican and more like a conservative." Since then, much of his political work has focused on drawing attention to alleged voter fraud, even though study after study after study has found it to be exceedingly rare.

Phillips frames the issue of election integrity as a partisan problem. As he told the same radio show, "I'm an aficionado of the way these Democrats commit voter fraud."

Close ties to True the Vote

Phillips serves on the board of True the Vote, a Texas-based group with roots in the conservative tea party movement. While its stated objective is stopping voter fraud, True the Vote's poll monitoring activities have raised concerns about voter intimidation. The group also promotes voter roll purges and voter ID laws, which disproportionately restrict racial minority groups' access to the ballot.

In 2010, poll watchers with the King Street Patriots — the Houston-based tea party group that later became True the Vote — were accused of "hovering over" voters, "getting into election workers' faces" and blocking or disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots during early voting, as TPM Muckraker reported. The incidents happened primarily at polling places in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods.

In 2012, True the Vote's national election coordinator told poll watching recruits in Boca Raton, Florida, that their job was to make voters feel like they're "driving and seeing the police following you."

True the Vote's national election coordinator told poll watching recruits in Florida that their job was to make voters feel like they're "driving and seeing the police following you."

True the Vote is a charitable nonprofit under IRS regulations, which means it's not supposed to engage in partisan political activity. However, as Facing South reported, the group appears to have violated that rule in 2012 by contributing $5,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports GOP legislative candidates.

Also raising questions about True the Vote's charitable status was its involvement in the 2012 "Verify the Recall" effort in Wisconsin, in which the group recruited tea party volunteers nationwide to enter petitions calling for the recall of controversial Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) into an online database and analyzing the signatures for fraud. True the Vote's efforts were fraught with problems, as ProPublica reported:

Using its own methodology, True the Vote concluded that more than 63,000 signatures were ineligible. It also identified 2,590 names that were "potentially false" based on a predetermined list of names the group believed would be used fraudulently on the petition. Organizers declined to share this list with state officials.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, a non-partisan state regulatory agency consisting of six former state judge appointees, later discounted much of the group's findings and methodology, concluding they were "significantly less accurate, complete, and reliable than the review and analysis completed by the G.A.B." and that they "would not have survived legal challenge."

Phillips joined True the Vote's board in June 2014. Four months later, the group announced it was releasing VoteStand, a free smartphone app that allows voters to report cases election irregularities and fraud to the organization.

Phillips' Twitter profile says he's VoteStand's founder. The app was initially released in 2012 by the Gingrich super PAC.

Justifying more voter suppression?

Though Phillips is not talking to the press about his allegations of widespread voting irregularities, True the Vote used the uproar over Trump's tweeting about them to double down on the claims.

This week the group released the following statement:

True the Vote absolutely supports President-elect Trump's recent comment about the impact of illegal voting, as reflected in the national popular vote. We are still collecting data and will be for several months, but our intent is to publish a comprehensive study on the significant impact of illegal voting in all of its many forms and begin a national discussion on how voters, states, and the Trump Administration can best address this growing problem.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 with its ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case out of Alabama, elected state officials nationwide have purged voters from the rolls, cut early voting, shuttered polling places, adopted strict voter ID laws and imposed restrictions on voter registration drives.

Voting rights advocates are worried that claims of voter fraud like those promulgated by Phillips and amplified by Trump signal that the incoming administration will take steps at the federal level to make it more difficult for some groups of people to vote.

Voting rights advocates are worried that claims of voter fraud like those promulgated by Phillips and amplified by Trump signal that the incoming administration will take steps at the federal level to make it more difficult for some groups of people to vote.

Those concerns have been heightened by Trump's pick for attorney general: U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican with a long record of hostility to voting rights. In addition, Trump has pledged to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, which could lead to votes to further dismantle the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont discussed the dangers of the bogus voter fraud claims during an appearance this week on Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show.

"When [Trump] says that, he's really sending a signal to Republicans all over this country, Republican leaders, and what he's saying is we have got to suppress the vote, we have got to make it harder for poor people, people of color, immigrants, elderly people to participate because they may be voting against us," Sanders said. "And that's scary stuff."