In 2011, Catherine Engelbrecht appeared at a Tea Party Patriots convention in Phoenix to deliver a dire warning.
While volunteering at her local polls within the Houston area two years earlier, she claimed, she witnessed voter fraud so rampant that it made her heart stop. People forged ballots without proof of registration or eligibility, she said. Corrupt election judges marked votes for his or her preferred candidates on the ballots of unwitting residents, she added.
Local authorities found no evidence of the election tampering she described, but Ms. Engelbrecht was undeterred. “When you see something like that, you possibly can’t forget it,” the suburban Texas mom turned election-fraud warrior told the audience of two,000. “You actually can’t abide by it.”
Ms. Engelbrecht was ahead of her time. Many individuals point to the 2020 presidential election as the start of a misleading belief that widespread voter fraud exists. But greater than a decade before Donald J. Trump popularized those claims, Ms. Engelbrecht had began planting seeds of doubt over the electoral process, becoming one among the earliest and most enthusiastic spreaders of ballot conspiracy theories.
From those roots, she created a nonprofit advocacy group, True the Vote, to advance her contentions, for which she provided little proof. She went on to construct a big network of supporters, forged alliances with outstanding conservatives and positioned herself because the leading campaigner of cleansing up the voting system.
Now Ms. Engelbrecht, 52, who’s riding a wave of electoral skepticism fueled by Mr. Trump, has seized the moment. She has change into a sought-after speaker at Republican organizations, often appears on right-wing media and was the star of the recent film “2,000 Mules,” which claimed mass voter fraud within the 2020 election and has been debunked.
She has also been energetic within the far-right’s battle for November’s midterm elections, rallying election officials, law enforcement and lawmakers to tighten voter restrictions and investigate the 2020 results.
“We’ve got to be ready,” Ms. Engelbrecht said in an interview last month with a conservative show, GraceTimeTV, which was posted on the video-sharing site Rumble. “There have been no substantive improvements to alter anything that happened in 2020 to stop it from happening in 2022.”
Her journey into the limelight illustrates how deeply embedded the concept of voter fraud has change into, aided by a highly partisan climate and social media. Despite the fact that such fraud is rare, Mr. Trump and his allies have repeatedly amplified Ms. Engelbrecht’s hashtag-friendly claims of “ballot trafficking” and “ballot mules” on platforms equivalent to Truth Social, Gab and Rumble.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
With the primaries winding down, each parties are beginning to shift their focus to the overall election on Nov. 8.
Misleading memes about ballot boxes have soared. The term “ballot mules,” which refers to individuals paid to move absentee ballots to ballot boxes, has surfaced 326,000 times on Twitter since January, up from 329 times between November 2020 and this January, in line with Zignal Labs, a media insights company.
In some places, suspicions of vote tampering have led people to establish stakeouts to stop illegal stuffing of ballot boxes. Officials overseeing elections are ramping up security at polling places.
Voting rights groups said they were increasingly concerned by Ms. Engelbrecht.
She has “taken the ability of rhetoric to a recent place,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of voting rights on the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s having an actual impact on the way in which lawmakers and states are governing elections and on the concerns we now have on what may occur within the upcoming elections.”
A few of Ms. Engelbrecht’s former allies have cut ties together with her. Rick Wilson, a Republican operative and Trump critic, ran public relations for Ms. Engelbrecht in 2014 but quit after just a few months. He said she had declined to show over data to back her voting fraud claims.
“She never had the juice by way of evidence,” Mr. Wilson said. “But now that doesn’t matter. She’s having her uplift moment.”
Cleta Mitchell, Ms. Engelbrecht’s former attorney and now a lawyer for Mr. Trump, and John Fund, a conservative journalist, told Republican donors in August 2020 that they might not support Ms. Engelbrecht. They said that her early questions on voting were vital but that they were confounded by her recent activities, in line with a video of the donor meeting obtained by The Recent York Times. They didn’t elaborate on why.
“Catherine started off and was terrific,” said Ms. Mitchell, who herself claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump. “But she got off on other things. I don’t really know what she’s doing now.”
Mr. Fund added, “I’d not give her a penny.”
Others said the questions that Ms. Engelbrecht raised in “2,000 Mules” in regards to the abuse of ballot drop boxes had moved them. In July, Richard Mack, the founding father of a national sheriff’s organization, appeared together with her in Las Vegas to announce a partnership to scrutinize voting in the course of the midterms.
“An important right the American people have is to decide on our own public officials,” said Mr. Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz. “Anybody attempting to steal that right must be prosecuted and arrested.”
Ms. Engelbrecht, who has said she carries a Bible and a pocket Structure as reminders of her cause, has scoffed at critics and said the one misinformation was coming from the political left. She said she had evidence of voting fraud in 2020 and had shared a few of it with law enforcement.
“I can’t let you know how again and again I’ve been through this exercise and the way my words get twisted and turned,” she said in a phone interview.
Ms. Engelbrecht has said she was only a P.T.A. volunteer and small-business owner with no real interest in politics until the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. Concerned in regards to the country’s direction, she volunteered on the polls. Her critique of the voting system caught the eye of the Tea Party, which disdains government bureaucracy.
In 2009, Ms. Engelbrecht created the nonprofit King Street Patriots, named after the location of the 1770 Boston Massacre, which fueled colonial tensions that may erupt again with the Tea Party rebellion three years later. She also formed True the Vote. The concept behind the nonprofits was to advertise “freedom, capitalism, American exceptionalism,” in line with a tax filing, and to coach poll watchers.
Conservatives embraced Ms. Engelbrecht. Mr. Fund, who wrote for The Wall Street Journal, helped her obtain grants. Steve Bannon, then chief executive of the right-wing media outlet Breitbart News, and Andrew Breitbart, the publication’s founder, spoke at her conferences.
True the Vote’s volunteers scrutinized registration rolls, watched polling stations and wrote highly speculative reports. In 2010, a volunteer in San Diego reported seeing a bus offloading people at a polling station “who didn’t look like from this country.”
Civil rights groups described the activities as voter suppression. In 2010, Ms. Engelbrecht told supporters that Houston Votes, a nonprofit that registered voters in diverse communities of Harris County, Texas, was connected to the “Recent Black Panthers.” She showed a video of an unrelated Recent Black Panther member in Philadelphia who called for the extermination of white people. Houston Votes was subsequently investigated by state officials, and law enforcement raided its office.
“It was a lie and racist to the core,” said Fred Lewis, head of Houston Votes, who sued True the Vote for defamation. He said he had dropped the suit after reaching “an understanding” that True the Vote would stop making accusations. Ms. Engelbrecht said she didn’t recall such an agreement.
Her profile rose. In 2012, Politico named her one among the 50 political figures to observe. In 2014, she became a right-wing hero after revelations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative nonprofits, including True the Vote.
Around that point, Ms. Engelbrecht began working with Gregg Phillips, a former Texas public official also focused on voting fraud. They remained largely outside the mainstream, known mostly in far-right circles, until the 2020 election.
After Mr. Trump’s defeat, they mobilized. Ms. Engelbrecht campaigned to boost $7 million to research the election’s ends in dozens of counties in Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, in line with a lawsuit by a donor.
The donor was Fred Eshelman, a North Carolina-based drug company founder, who gave True the Vote $2.5 million in late 2020. Inside 12 days, he asked for a refund and sued in federal court. His lawyer said that True the Vote hadn’t provided evidence for its election fraud claims and that much of Mr. Eshelman’s money had gone to businesses connected with Ms. Engelbrecht.
Mr. Eshelman, who withdrew the suit after which filed one other that was dismissed in April 2021, didn’t reply to requests for comment. Ms. Engelbrecht has denied his claims.
In mid-2021, “2,000 Mules” was hatched after Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips met with Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative provocateur and filmmaker. They told him that they might detect cases of ballot box stuffing based on two terabytes of cellphone geolocation data that they’d bought and matched with video surveillance footage of ballot drop boxes.
Salem Media Group, the conservative media conglomerate, and Mr. D’Souza agreed to create and fund a movie. The “2,000 Mules” title was meant to evoke the image of cartels that pay people to hold illegal drugs into america.
In May, Mr. Trump hosted the film’s premiere at Mar-a-Lago, bringing attention to Ms. Engelbrecht. Senator Mike Lee, a Republican of Utah, said after seeing the film that it raised “significant questions” in regards to the 2020 election results; 17 state legislators in Michigan also called for an investigation into election results there based on the film’s accusations.
In Arizona, the attorney general’s office asked True the Vote between April and June for data about a few of the claims in “2,000 Mules.” The contentions related to Maricopa and Yuma Counties, where Ms. Engelbrecht said people had illegally submitted ballots and had used “stash houses” to store fraudulent ballots.
In keeping with emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a True the Vote official said Mr. Phillips had turned over a hard disk with the information. The attorney general’s office said early this month that it hadn’t received it.
Last month, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips hosted an invitation-only gathering of about 150 supporters in Queen Creek, Ariz., which was streamed online. For weeks beforehand, they promised to disclose the addresses of ballot “stash houses” and pictures of voter fraud.
Ms. Engelbrecht didn’t expose the information on the event. As an alternative, she implored the audience to look to the midterm elections, which she warned were the following great threat to voter integrity.
“The past is prologue,” she said.
Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting.