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Texas Group That Fueled Trump Voter Fraud Claim Scales Back 2016 Election Audit

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Gregg Phillips, a former Texas official with the Health and Human Services Commission, is the founder of Vote Stand.

The Houston-based organization that fueled President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of people voted illegally in the 2016 election says it’s scaling back its effort to catalogue the fraudulent votes it alleged.  

True The Vote, a watchdog group focused on “election integrity,” says it’s short on the cash needed to complete a forensic audit of the 2016 election — an effort Trump applauded in his first days in the White House.

“As it stands, we do not have the funding to do what we want to do. We’ve gathered 2016 voter rolls, we’ve gathered information from thousands of [Freedom of Information Act requests], but we’re limited by the lack of resources,” Catherine Engelbrecht, the group’s founder, said Tuesday in a video message to supporters. “Next steps up are for us to sort of pull back on the national audit, and focus on targeted investigations.”

Just days after his victory, Trump caused a stir by claiming — without evidence — that he would have won the popular vote in addition to the Electoral College “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Trump later confirmed the source for his claim had Texas ties: Gregg Phillips, a former Texas Health and Human Services Commission official who now works with True The Vote.

At the time, Phillips said his team had already verified more than 3 million non-citizen votes. When pressed for details, he said the group was still finalizing its audit. In January, Trump tweeted: “ Look forward to seeing final results.”

In March, Phillips told The Texas Tribune the final results were still forthcoming. But apparently, the audit is no longer taking shape. 

“We knew that this was a project that would take millions, but the major funding commitments haven’t materialized,” Engelbrecht said in Tuesday’s video.

Neither Engelbrecht nor Phillips responded to interview requests this week. 

A White House spokeswoman did not directly respond to True The Vote’s announcement, but told the Tribune in a statement: “President Trump has expressed concerns regarding possible voter fraud and he wants to ensure that the integrity of all elections, which are the cornerstone of our democracy, is preserved.”

The statement said Trump’s “Election Integrity Commission,” formed in May, would “assess the situation.” 

Election experts call proven cases of voter fraud rare, and civil rights groups fear Trump's commission — chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and vice-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has championed some of the nation’s strictest voting and anti-immigrant laws — will throw up roadblocks to voting in the name of fraud prevention.

Trump’s vow to root out voter fraud echoes an effort by President George W. Bush. Bush’s years-long crackdown found no evidence of organized efforts to taint elections, and led to a few dozen convictions — mostly of people who mistakenly filled out registration forms or expressed confusion about eligibility rules, according to media reports at the time.

In a study of the 2016 elections focused on 42 election jurisdictions in 12 states, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found officials flagged just 30 incidents of suspected non-citizen voting for further investigation or prosecution. About 23.5 million votes were cast in those jurisdictions.

“In California, Virginia and New Hampshire — the states where Trump claimed the problem of non-citizen voting was especially acute — no official we spoke with identified an incident of non-citizen voting in 2016,” the study said.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Jim Malewitz is an investigative reporter Tribune. He previously covered energy and environmental issues. Before arriving in 2013, he covered those issues for Stateline, a nonprofit news service in Washington, D.C. The Michigan native majored in political science at Grinnell College in Iowa and holds a master’s from the University of Iowa. There, he helped launch the nonprofit Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, where he currently serves on the board of directors. Jim also coaches the Texas Tribune Runoffs, which, sources say, is the scrappiest coed newsroom softball team west of the Mississippi.