True the Vote board member Gregg Phillips claimed that 3 million people voted illegally in 2016, but hasn't released any evidence. Credit: CNN screenshot

The nonprofit group that inspired President Donald Trump’s quest to prove widespread voter fraud won’t answer basic questions about the canceled audit that was supposed to verify its claims.

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity began its work in earnest today with its first public hearing, but the effort took hold in January after a Trump tweet amplified the claims of a Houston nonprofit that claimed 3 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election.

The nonprofit, True the Vote, immediately fired off an email following Trump’s tweet soliciting donations to pay for a national forensic audit of the 2016 election and, specifically, more than 300 sanctuary cities. Founder Catherine Engelbrecht said it would cost at least $1 million.

“Our audit team will include world-class technologists, researchers, data miners, statisticians, scholars, analysts, and subject matter experts. This isn’t B team stuff. The integrity of our election is too important,” she wrote.

Trump had seen Gregg Phillips, a True the Vote board member, doing a combative interview on CNN immediately before tweeting his support for True the Vote’s efforts to root out voter fraud. During the interview, Phillips said he had evidence millions of people had voted illegally but couldn’t release specifics until he spent a few more months preparing a public report.

Six months later, with considerably less fanfare, Engelbrecht abandoned the audit in favor of what she called “targeted investigations.”

“We knew that this was a project that would take millions, and the major funding commitments haven’t materialized,” Engelbrecht said in a YouTube video announcing the shift.

Engelbrecht didn’t respond to phone calls and emails over the past week from Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting seeking an explanation.

Reached by phone, Phillips declined to comment on how much money True the Vote collected during its fundraising campaign, how far short of its fundraising goals the organization fell and what the money was spent on.

He maintained, however, that the audit wasn’t dead. Phillips said the group’s plan is to hold all of its findings close its chest and then make everything public in one fell swoop. That way, he insisted, anyone who wanted to test True the Vote’s conclusions could run the numbers themselves.

“We’re going to release it to the public before we release it to the media,” he said.

Phillips first made the claim that more than 3 million noncitizens had voted illegally three days after the 2016 presidential election in a pair of tweets that quickly went viral before he deleted them.

He was previously the managing director of the Winning Our Future super PAC, which took some $15 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to fuel Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential aspirations.

Echoing Trump’s comments at the commission today, Phillips said he is concerned that legitimate voters are being disenfranchised by illegal voters.

Scores of politicians and organizations have set off on similar quests to prove widespread voter fraud and have little to show for it.

At least 20 studies since 2009, including one by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, found in-person voter fraud to be extremely uncommon. The last time a presidential administration attempted to crack down on voter fraud, through George W. Bush’s Justice Department, the five-year effort resulted in under 100 convictions – most of which were honest mistakes by people who didn’t understand the rules, rather than intentional, systematic fraud.

Phillips dismissed that other research, which he asserted was largely compiled using survey data, as being insufficiently scientifically rigorous. He contrasted True the Vote’s work, which is based on the actual electoral rolls over 190 million registered voters that the organization had obtained through years of filing Freedom of Information Act requests. Unlike these academic studies, many of which had undergone peer review, True the Vote has yet to comprehensively show its work.

So far, it only has Phillips’ claims and the unfulfilled promise to provide the backup evidence.

Nevertheless, True the Vote assertions about the inability of America’s electoral system to repel in-person voter fraud have proven influential on the political right.

Two of the members of the presidential commission, Heritage Foundation scholar Hans Von Spakovsky and former Department of Justice employee J. Christian Adams, spoke at True the Vote’s 2012 convention in Houston. White House representatives did not respond to a request for comment about whether or not the commission has had direct contact with True the Vote. Phillips voiced frustration with the commission’s progress, but declined to comment regarding True the Vote’s involvement.

States across the country are following Trump’s lead.

This year alone, eight states have passed or are in the process of implementing stronger voter ID laws. Requiring someone show a valid government identification to vote, a UC San Diego study found, systematically disenfranchises racial minorities and “skew democracy in favor of white and those on the political right.”

With GOP leaders stoking fears about voter fraud, the current political environment seems primed for True the Vote’s cause. But, in the YouTube video where she announced True the Vote was giving up on the nationwide audit, Engelbrecht blamed the the group’s fundraising difficulties on “major donors cutting back drastically on their support of pro-liberty nonprofits due to the instability and confusion surrounding all things political.”

Instead, she is focusing on targeted investigations into elections in Pennsylvania, Florida, California and Nevada, although the specifics of those campaigns have not been made public.

Despite the secrecy, Phillips remained confident in his group’s eventual vindication. “For the first time in my life, and I’ve been involved in election integrity for decades, the question is no longer if there was fraud,” he said. “The question is: how many people were disenfranchised by illegal votes?”

He did not even give a ballpark date for when he would release the information proving there was fraud, let alone how much.

Aaron Sankin can be reached at asankin@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @asankin.

Aaron Sankin is a reporter for Reveal covering online extremism, election administration and technology policy. Before joining Reveal, he was a founding editor of The Huffington Post's San Francisco vertical and a senior staff writer on The Daily Dot's politics team. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Time, The Motley Fool, Mashable, Business Insider, San Francisco magazine and The Onion. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Sankin studied history and sociology at Rice University. His work at The Daily Dot was a finalist in Digiday's 2015 publisher of the year award, and a story he wrote about a Midwestern family being terrorized by a teenage hacker was labeled by The Atlantic as an essential piece of journalism for 2015. Sankin is based in Seattle.