In an election season with a whole lot of memorable videos, the King Street Patriots have one of the most watchable. (Check it out on the right.) The video’s best quality—its epic soundtrack—feels straight out of those climactic scenes from the last Lord of the Rings movie. Only instead of returning the ring to Mordor, the people in the video have more complicated goals. They want to stop voter fraud. And get people involved. And keep Houston “conservative.” And keep out ACORN’s “radical army.” It’s a multi-faceted message, I guess.
But not everyone was as inspired by the concerned face of Catherine Englebrecht, one of the group’s founders, telling viewers that when “you get an imbalance of our checks and balances, you get our country hanging by a thread.” In fact, the group now faces legal action from both the Texas Democratic Party and Texans for Public Justice.
No one appreciates a good soundtrack these days.
The TPJ case is a little convoluted, but worth the effort to understand. Simply put, nonprofit corporations in Texas, like King Street Patriots, don’t have to list their funders, but also may not participate in partisan activity. To support a party or a candidate, they must create a political action committee, known as a PAC; PACs can be political actors but they also must list their donors. According to TPJ, King Street Patriots and their “True the Vote” effort to recruit poll watchers amounts to political action by a nonprofit corporation. If true, that would make the group’s actions equivalent to political donations from a corporation. That also would make it illegal under Texas law.
“They could talk generally about voter fraud,” says Craig McDonald, spokesperson for TPJ. ”When they start to recruit people and volunteers to do something about it through the political parties, then it becomes illegal.”
TPJ filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission and alerted the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.
Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party is adding the Patriots (not be confused with your average small “p” patriots) to their suit, already in progress, against the Green Party—an effort to make both groups produce their donor lists.
In both cases, the question comes down to whether or not the group is acting as a political entity. King Street Patriots has sponsored several candidate forums, which would be fine if they’d invited candidates from both parties. According to TPJ, however, the group only invited Republicans.
As the video shows, the group isn’t exactly impartial. “There is a seven vote majority conservative” in the Texas Legislature, explains one man in the video. “What that means is in the big picture is if we lose Houston, we lose Texas…if we lose Texas, we lose the country.”
Currently the Patriotic website touts that “The True the Vote project has filled well over 600 polling place positions, which is fantastic, but we still need more Poll Watchers.” Clearly these people are revolutionaries when it comes to capitalization and verbiage. But only parties and candidates can make such appointments, says McDonald, and that would likely mean the Patriots are spending money to recruit poll watchers for the Grand Old Party—the equivalent of a contribution.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots disagree with TPJ’s assessment. The group has some heavy legal artillery—the Liberty Institute, a conservative legal group that works on First Amendment issues (think ACLU for conservatives.) The Patriots referred me to a Liberty Institute press release on the lawsuits which calls the efforts an attempt to “bind and gag citizens from speaking out during an election.” It admonishes the Democrats for “censoring citizens” and dismisses the TPJ suit as an attempt “to bully and intimidate.”
Still, the defense may be busy. Anthony Gutierrez, a spokesperson for the Democratic party who oversees its Houston operation, says the party will likely file complaints of voter intimidation against the group, based on its members actions on Monday, the first day of early voting. “Judging from the calls we’ve been getting, it’s upwards of ten [cases of intimidation] at least,” Gutierrez says, noting the complaints all come from heavily minority parts of Houston.
Meanwhile, the Patriots say in their press release that the lawsuits themselves basically amount to “Trying to bully and intimidate citizens into silence.” Says a very concerned looking Catherine Englebrecht, one of the group’s founders, in their video, “ Texans “have to jump in at the bottom level and true it all the way up.”