Politics

A Trump Ally Is Building a Right-Wing Army of Poll Watchers

A Trump supporter stands behind a barrier holding a sign that says "STOP THE STEAL" and a pin that says "Poll Watcher"
Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2020. Reuters/Mark Makela

Cleta Mitchell, a Republican lawyer connected to Donald Trump, has made it her mission to tell “Stop the Steal” supporters to lay down their signs and apply to be poll workers and poll watchers. According to New York Times reporter Alexandra Berzon, it’s part of a concerted effort of GOP-aligned groups to harness the energy around the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen and redirect it toward future elections. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Berzon about who Cleta Mitchell is and how her work could affect the 2022 midterms and beyond. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Alexandra Berzon: Cleta Mitchell actually started as a Democratic representative in Oklahoma and then had become a very conservative Republican attorney and has been involved with a number of conservative causes over the years, including a lot around elections. She was particularly involved in Georgia. She was on the call with Brad Raffensperger where Trump was saying, can you just find these votes?

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Since then, she’s continued taking a very prominent position in elections. And she’s gone on to work for the Conservative Partnership Institute, which is a think tank that also involves as senior partner Mark Meadows, who was Trump’s chief of staff. And that is the group that is now kind of housing this effort, what she’s building now with these elections activists. It’s called the Election Integrity Network.

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Mary C. Curtis: When you say election integrity, who could be against that? We all want our elections to have integrity. But I want you to talk about who are these people being recruited and if they have an agenda involved.

Right. What we found is that in a number of the cases, the people involved in these trainings and in the coalitions that are coming out of them are groups that already have decided that the 2020 election was stolen or there was something very seriously wrong with it, which of course has been discredited numerous times. And they’re coming from that perspective.

For example, there was a RNC effort to recruit poll workers. That group was recruiting people from a coalition of activist groups listed on a website that included the LaRouche PAC, which seems to be associated with Lyndon LaRouche, who is deceased but is a known conspiracy theorist. So there’s a lot of examples where the people who are part of this are coming from a kind of conspiratorial or just misinformation kind of perspective, especially about the 2020 election and about elections in general.

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What are Republican-affiliated groups recruiting people to do, exactly?

They talk about getting involved in your election apparatus, so that would mean being a poll watcher and being a poll worker. And they talk about how being a poll worker is even better than being a poll watcher because you’re more directly involved. They also talk about being much more engaged in your local elections office, so researching the backgrounds of the people who are working there, showing up there, asking lots of questions, going to board meetings. They talk about doing voter roll work, where you collect information about who’s actually on the voter rolls and try to find people where they’re not accurate. In order to do that, they talk about collecting affidavits from residents and mailing letters to try to identify potential bad addresses. They talk about groups having tech-savvy volunteers who could become an expert on specific software and equipment, and they can find out what vulnerabilities there are with the software and equipment. They also talk about the mail ballot process, and they want you to be as involved in that as you’re able to legally do that. In terms of the post office, meet with your local post office. They say be ever present inside election offices.

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They want you to be involved in every detail.

Yeah. They want to form these local groups, these local task forces, and people would have different roles. These are all volunteers, and then they would just get people much more activated. And I think what they’re sensing is that there’s a real energy out there. There are people who want to be involved in this.

Did they give you a hint of what exactly the endgame is, what they want from all of this?

Well, they talk about fixing elections. It’s really coming from the idea that there’s something very broken about our election system and that there’s a real us-and-them kind of attitude. Cleta Mitchell talks about the idea that the other side is going to cheat. She sees the elections as being completely controlled by Democrats who are cheating to win and that this is the way to sort of take back those elections, and having this army of activists is going to fix what she’s seeing as corrupt or cheating or extreme bias in elections offices.

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Where’s the funding coming from?

The Conservative Partnership Institute, it’s a nonprofit, but they have gotten money from Trump’s PAC, as well as from a number of his donors.

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What has Cleta Mitchell said in response to your reporting on this effort?

Cleta was not willing to be interviewed for our story. But in a statement she sent us, she said, “The American election system envisions citizen engagement and we are training people to assume the roles outlined in the statutes.” Basically, she was also making the argument that as long as the election officials are doing everything right, they should not mind about having more transparency.

This idea of transparency is definitely a big part of what she’s pushing people to do—you know, filing FOIA requests, being a big presence at the elections offices, telling activists to really take a much more active role. So her argument is that as long as they’re doing everything right, basically that shouldn’t be a problem.

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It’s true that some of this is typical. You do have election monitoring. You do have political parties, conservative and liberal groups, involved in recruiting people to be election monitors and election workers. Some of the things that are different here is what some people described to me as kind of a surveillance attitude.

You can see this approach in a manual that the Election Integrity Network gives out online and at trainings. The manual includes some tactics that election experts say are atypical.

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One of the things that the manual says is you should research election officials and you should find out, in the case of people that work in attorney general’s offices, are they, quote, “friend or foe”? And there’s this kind of us-and-them attitude about it that people who are elections experts said could be really damaging if people are approaching it that way and not having trust in the election system in the country.

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What power do all these poll watchers have to affect election outcomes?

I think it has to do with creating the idea that there’s something really wrong. So poll watchers are generally seen as having transparency, having people there to say, OK, I see this, I can report if there’s a little issue here, we can fix this, we can make changes. All of that is a part of the elections process and there’s nothing wrong with it at all. So having poll watchers—the idea is you give people faith in the process. That’s very important. Where it could go wrong is if that is then used to suggest something that isn’t true about the elections.

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Well, we have seen it in action. There were activists who really were involved in putting out false and misleading data about the election in Pennsylvania. And they even canvass neighborhoods, apparently.

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Right. There’s a group called Audit the Vote PA. They had been doing, since last year, canvassing where they knock on doors and they collect information. And then they put out these reports saying that there was all these anomalies and all these problems with the 2020 election. And the data that they’re using, there was a newspaper that actually examined that data and found that there were a lot of errors with it, and the methodology of doing that is also really not a valid way to understand this.

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There’s many reasons why you might knock on someone’s door and they might say, “That person isn’t here.” I mean, maybe they moved. There’s many situations around that that make this not a particularly helpful way to understand the results from a past election. That group is now really following along the manual that the Election Integrity Network and Cleta Mitchell had come up with.

Another place I want to go to is Fairfax County, Virginia.

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This effort that happened in 2021 was the governor’s race in Virginia, and has really been held up as the model for the nation for this organizing effort from the Election Integrity Network. There was an incredible amount of increased activity from a coalition associated with the local Republican Party. They began coming to election meetings. They began especially showing up at the election office, and they were just there pretty much every day for a period. And they were doing constant public records requests and just many things that were unusual, that went beyond your typical kind of election monitoring. There was also a lawsuit that came out of that, there was a dispute over whether to count these certain absentee ballots. And this was ahead of the governor’s election. And so you can kind of see how these pieces become part of a narrative to undermine the validity of an election.

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And then there was also a group called Virginians for America First that was going around also doing canvassing similar to what I was describing with Audit the Vote PA. And they came out with some reports that were claiming that there was going to be something wrong with the election. And all of these groups were part of this coalition that is now being held up as the model. Now, the registrar in Fairfax County ended up resigning and he credits this group as a large factor in that. He says that they were making his job so difficult he had never seen anything like it in his 30-year career. He said if there’s an absence of goodwill, there’s nothing you can say that’s going to reassure someone or win them over or change their mind.

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And you do wonder what might have happened had Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, been defeated by Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat—would they have felt that went smoothly?

Right. I did get some reports from some of the polling places in Fairfax County, and there were a number of polling places where the poll workers were noticing issues. This group had recruited many, many more poll watchers to be part of the election than the Republicans had ever provided before. And some of the poll workers were filing reports afterwards saying that there was problems. One of the things a number of them pointed out actually was that they were sort of trying very hard to find problems and they seemed to be kind of acting like spies. … “Sleuth” was the way one person put it.

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Some of these poll workers felt like it seemed like they were trying to gather evidence so that if Youngkin had lost, they would have some kind of ammunition. Now, of course, that never came to be, so we didn’t see what happened. And I will say that their head of elections at the time, he’s also left, but in Virginia did tell me that he felt that the election ran smoothly and that it could have been helpful to have skeptical people closely engaged. But I do think it’s unclear how this would have played out.

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When these charges of intimidation come, complaints about the Republican-aligned efforts, they don’t come out of nowhere. They were operating under a consent decree for decades because of charges that there were uniformed police armed and monitoring polling places in majority minority districts and signs that were said to intimidate. But that was lifted.

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Yeah, it was in 1982, I believe, they signed this agreement, which had to do with charges that the Democrats were bringing against Republicans, saying that they were intimidating voters and especially Black and Latino voters. And the Republican Party, the RNC specifically, was really limited in terms of its poll watcher, poll worker recruitment effort. For many, many years, it was really handled more from the state party or campaigns. And in 2018, that consent decree was lifted.

The party then, and especially this current cycle, is now really gearing up to be much more directly involved. And that’s where they’ve hired, I think, 18 workers in states specifically to oversee their, quote, “election integrity efforts.” And they also have attorneys in all of these states as well. So they’re building out something much bigger. And they are clear that this is not formally part of the Election Integrity Network and what Cleta Mitchell is doing. But they are showing up and they are even helping organize these events. So the parties do have a role kind of formally in the election process in many places. And the explanation from the RNC is that that’s why they end up working with these outside groups.

Looking ahead, what do you think this means for the 2022 midterm elections and even 2024?

There’s often this idea that there’s going to be this army of poll watchers that are going to be disruptive and that are going to really cause a lot of problems. And that’s been a fear for a number of past elections that hasn’t completely borne out, I would say. But in this case, there’s reasons why people are really concerned about some of the differences here. As one person put it to me, it really depends on whether they’re actually interested in knowing the truth about elections or are they propagating propaganda. And so you basically see what the track record has been, and that is creating concern.

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