In 2011, Catherine Engelbrecht appeared at a Tea Party Patriots convention in Phoenix to deliver a dire warning.
While volunteering at her local polls in the Houston area two years earlier, she claimed, she witnessed voter fraud so rampant that it made her heart stop. People cast ballots without proof of registration or eligibility, she said. Corrupt election judges marked votes for their preferred candidates on the ballots of unwitting citizens, she added.
Local authorities found no evidence of the election tampering she described, but Ms. Engelbrecht was undeterred. “Once you see something like that, you can’t forget it,” the suburban Texas mom turned election-fraud warrior told the audience of 2,000. “You certainly can’t abide by it.”
Ms. Engelbrecht was ahead of her time. Many people point to the 2020 presidential election as the beginning of a misleading belief that widespread voter fraud exists. But more than a decade before Donald J. Trump popularized those claims, Ms. Engelbrecht had started planting seeds of doubt over the electoral process, becoming one of 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 build a large network of supporters, forged alliances with prominent conservatives and positioned herself as the leading campaigner of cleaning up the voting system.
Now Ms. Engelbrecht, 52, who is riding a wave of electoral skepticism fueled by Mr. Trump, has seized the moment. She has become a sought-after speaker at Republican organizations, regularly appears on right-wing media and was the star of the recent film “2,000 Mules,” which claimed mass voter fraud in the 2020 election and has been debunked.
She has also been active in 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.
Her journey into the limelight illustrates how deeply embedded the idea of voter fraud has become, aided by a highly partisan climate and social media. Even though 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 such as Truth Social, Gab and Rumble.
Misleading memes about ballot boxes have soared. The term “ballot mules,” which refers to individuals paid to transport absentee ballots to ballot boxes, has surfaced 326,000 times on Twitter since January, up from 329 times between November 2020 and this January, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company.
Voting rights groups said they were increasingly concerned by Ms. Engelbrecht.
She has “taken the power of rhetoric to a new place,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s having a real impact on the way lawmakers and states are governing elections and on the concerns we have on what may happen in the upcoming elections.”
Some of Ms. Engelbrecht’s former allies have cut ties with her. Rick Wilson, a Republican operative and Trump critic, ran public relations for Ms. Engelbrecht in 2014 but quit after a few months. He said she had declined to turn over data to back her voting fraud claims.
“She never had the juice in terms 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 could no longer support Ms. Engelbrecht. They said that her early questions on voting were important but that they were confounded by her recent activities, according to a video of the donor meeting obtained by The New York Times. They did not elaborate on why.
“Catherine started out 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 would not give her a penny.”
Others said the questions that Ms. Engelbrecht raised in “2,000 Mules” about the abuse of ballot drop boxes had moved them. In July, Richard Mack, the founder of a national sheriff’s organization, appeared with her in Las Vegas to announce a partnership to scrutinize voting during the midterms.
“The most important right the American people have is to choose our own public officials,” said Mr. Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz. “Anybody trying to steal that right needs to be prosecuted and arrested.”
Ms. Engelbrecht, who has said she carries a Bible and a pocket Constitution as reminders of her cause, has scoffed at critics and said the only misinformation was coming from the political left. She said she had evidence of voting fraud in 2020 and had shared some of it with law enforcement.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been through this exercise and how my words get twisted and turned,” she said in a phone interview.
Ms. Engelbrecht has said she was just a P.T.A. volunteer and small-business owner with no interest in politics until the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. Concerned about the country’s direction, she volunteered at the polls. Her critique of the voting system caught the attention of the Tea Party, which disdains government bureaucracy.
In 2009, Ms. Engelbrecht created the nonprofit King Street Patriots, named after the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre, which fueled colonial tensions that would erupt again with the Tea Party uprising three years later. She also formed True the Vote. The idea behind the nonprofits was to promote “freedom, capitalism, American exceptionalism,” according to a tax filing, and to train 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 did not appear to be 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 “New Black Panthers.” She showed a video of an unrelated New 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 of the 50 political figures to watch. 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 time, 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 raise $7 million to investigate the election’s results in dozens of counties in Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, according to 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. Within 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 and then filed another that was dismissed in April 2021, did not respond 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 could detect cases of ballot box stuffing based on two terabytes of cellphone geolocation data that they had 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 film. The “2,000 Mules” title was meant to evoke the image of cartels that pay people to carry illegal drugs into the United States.
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” about 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 some 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.
According to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a True the Vote official said Mr. Phillips had turned over a hard drive with the data. 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 reveal the addresses of ballot “stash houses” and footage of voter fraud.
Ms. Engelbrecht did not divulge the data at the event. Instead, she implored the audience to look to the midterm elections, which she warned were the next great threat to voter integrity.
“The past is prologue,” she said.
Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting.