Did 3 million people vote illegally in the 2016 election? There’s no evidence that’s true, but President Trump certainly believes so, making news his first week in the White House by ordering an investigation into that allegation. Even if only partly substantiated, it would probably be the single largest instance of voter fraud in American history. The source for Trump’s convictions seems to be a Twitter account run by Texan businessman and former public official Gregg Phillips, the founder of VoteStand, a mobile app designed to allow users to report incidents of voter fraud. Using data from conservative nonprofit True the Vote, Phillips claimed that he identified millions of illegal votes. Those claims went viral when published, were amplified by the conspiracy-theory website InfoWars, and ultimately reached the president himself. But those data have not yet been released, and questions about the credibility of their purveyor and his methods and claims abound. Even Phillips himself is now backing off the original 3 million number that sparked the president’s demand for an investigation, explaining that he needs more time before he’s willing to provide final numbers or release his raw data. “Over a hundred million people voted. Impacting a presidential election is probably less likely than impacting anything down-ballot,” Phillips said. “I’m not gonna be goaded into going faster than I want to. I’m not a government official, I don’t have protections, and if I accuse somebody of voter fraud, we have to be sure that what we’re saying is right. While I believe I’m right, it’s in my best interest and everybody else’s best interest to make sure this is right.”
Phillips expressed some reservations about using his own methods as ironclad evidence of voter fraud, or as evidence that fraud affected the 2016 election. “Our interest in not in uncovering anything that might somehow change any past election, because once those votes are certified, they’re certified and that’s over,” Phillips said. “The work that we’re doing could create a foundation for looking at elections moving forward.” The president, however, is still vowing to press ahead with a full investigation.
Until his bombshell tweet, Phillips maintained a relatively low profile. The Texan often discussed conspiracy theories about the Obama administration on Twitter, but the main target of his ire appeared to be any laws that could make it even moderately easier to vote. He criticized Obamacare not from the standard Republican context of health costs or government control, but because its expansion of instant Medicaid and welfare-eligibility verification might make it easier to register to vote, and harder to verify the identity of voters.
But Gregg Phillips isn’t just a Tea Party Twitter hero suddenly rising on the strength of a presidential cosign; rather, he’s a longtime Republican operative who has chased the specter of voter fraud for three decades. “Our first voter project I did when I worked for the GOP in Alabama back in the 1980s,” Phillips told me. “I’ve been involved off and on since then, and I’ve always said we need to ensure integrity in our systems.”