The FEC voted 3-2 against proceeding with an inquiry involving "election integrity" group True the Vote.
Two government watchdogs had accused the Georgia GOP of illegally coordinated with True the Vote.
Republican FEC commissioners said True the Vote did not act for the "purpose of influencing an election."
At a meeting in late 2020, the Georgia Republican Party acquainted itself with True the Vote, a nonprofit that describes itself as "the country's largest voters' rights organization."
The December meeting featured a discussion of True the Vote's "election integrity efforts," including training for verifying signatures and other information the nonprofit made publicly available online. An announcement followed in which True the Vote said it was "thrilled to partner" with the Georgia Republican Party to "ensure that the law is upheld and law-abiding voters have their voices heard."
Within days, True the Vote challenged the eligibility of nearly 365,000 registered Georgia voters under a process that required finding a resident in each of the state's 159 counties to contest ballots. Among the residents who helped were at least two prominent county-level leaders of the Georgia GOP, whom True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht thanked for leading "the charge in recruiting hundreds of volunteer challengers across the state."
Nonprofits government watchdogs Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause Georgia complained to the Federal Election Commission. And for the FEC's legal office, it warranted an inquiry into whether the Georgia GOP illegally coordinated with True the Vote — and failed to report the nonprofit's services as in-kind contributions — during the state's 2021 Senate runoff.
But in a 3-2 vote, the bipartisan FEC's three Republican commissioners blocked an investigation, rejecting a recommendation from the agency's general counsel to "find reason to believe" that True the Vote and the Georgia GOP violated federal campaign finance law.
Their reasoning: True the Vote's activities were not for the "purpose of influencing an election" as defined by campaign finance law.
'Equally available to all comers'
In a statement explaining their votes, two of the Republican commissioners said True the Vote made its services available to both political parties and would have undertaken its "voter integrity" efforts even without the meeting with the Georgia GOP.
"First, [True the Vote's] election integrity initiatives were equally available to all comers — it not only met with the Georgia GOP and contacted the Democratic Party of Georgia to provide information about its initiatives, it also offered these services to the public, for free," wrote FEC Chairman Allen Dickerson and Commissioner Trey Trainor. "Even more importantly, the record reflects that [True the Vote] was pursuing these initiatives — and would have continued to do so — regardless of Engelbrecht's meeting with the Georgia GOP."
A third Republican commissioner, Sean Cooksey, sided with Dickerson and Trainor but did not join in the statement explaining their vote. In the statement, Dickerson and Trainor said they were unmoved by True the Vote's public references to a "partnership" the Georgia Republican Party.
"That is because the record shows that the term 'partnership,' as used here, had a colloquial and not a legal significance," Dickerson and Trainor wrote. "Moreover, nothing in the record indicates that [True the Vote], in fact, undertook any of its activities 'in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of' the Georgia GOP."
The FEC's nonpartisan legal office reached a markedly different conclusion.
In a 56-page report recommending an investigation, the FEC general counsel pointed to past statements in which Engelbrecht said True the Vote's efforts were intended to "assist with the Senate runoff election process" and were motivated by "what happened in November," an apparent reference to the 2020 presidential election.
"True the Vote's efforts were undertaken in partnership with the Georgia GOP, a committee whose fundamental purpose is to help Republicans win elections in Georgia, and it appears that a goal of these particular efforts was to influence the election by challenging absentee voter registrations," the FEC general counsel's office said.
Representatives from True the Vote did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
'2,000 Mules' and Trump
From her platform as founder and president of True the Vote, Engelbrecht has emerged as a sought-after speaker in Republican circles.
She regularly appears on right-wing media and starred in "2,000 Mules," a debunked film that spread baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Former Attorney General William Barr described the film as "singularly unimpressive" in a closed-door interview with the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol and former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
More than a decade before Trump popularized those claims, Engelbrecht advanced ballot conspiracy theories and planted seeds of doubt about the election process — often without little proof.
In a recent profile, the New York Times reported that voting rights groups have grown increasingly concerned about Engelbrecht. And some of her former allies have cut ties with her.
"She never had the juice in terms of evidence," said Rick Wilson, a Republican operative and Trump critic, in an interview with the New York Times. "But now that doesn't matter. She's having her uplift moment."
Engelbrecht's activities have landed her in legal disputes beyond the FEC. As part of its self-described election security efforts, True the Vote sought more than $7 million to file lawsuits in connection with the 2020 presidential election.
Shortly after the 2020 election, True the Vote received a $2.5 million contribution. But the donor later sued True the Vote, alleging that the contribution was solely intended to investigate the 2020 presidential election and not for other election integrity efforts.
In the midst of that case, Engelbrecht submitted a declaration in which she asserted that voter fraud occurs in "Democrat counties" and "is suppressing legitimate results."
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