The Right’s Poll-Watching Army

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Mary Curtis: Sometimes I think back to November 2020 and that limbo we were all in as we waited for the presidential election to be called a day or two after voting closed. Trump supporters started massing at a ballot processing center in Maricopa County, Arizona. They were agitated and suspicious about what poll workers and poll watchers were doing inside that counter. I wondered where all that energy would go after the election was concluded, and in recent months I may have gotten an answer. Some of that energy, maybe not as loud, but just as intense, is going toward election administration.

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Speaker 2: We need to be present. We need to have you as election officials, as poll watchers, researching what’s going on in the election offices.

Mary Curtis: Cleta mitchell, a Republican lawyer, 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. You know, the people who hand out I voted stickers and watched the ballots get counted at the end of the day.

Speaker 2: We’re going to try to help you as citizens get organized to be involved in and a presence at election boards, just like parents all over the country are doing with school boards.

Mary Curtis: But Cleta mitchell and her colleagues are not disinterested parties. She wants to see conservatives winning elections. She believes Trump won the last election and that casts a shadow over her efforts.

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Speaker 2: This system that we witnessed in 2020 was not right.

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Speaker 3: There’s been a lot of scrutiny around what happened following the election in 2020, and there were a whole bunch of people that were putting out misinformation about about that election and trying to overturn the results. But you also, I think, have people like Cleta mitchell and others who are really looking ahead.

Mary Curtis: Alexandra Berzon is a reporter for The New York Times. She’s been following Cleta mitchell as she tries to recruit and train believers of the big lie to work at their local polling places.

Speaker 2: And historically, it’s been very difficult to get conservatives to be interested in those topics. And we’ve almost left it to the left to dominate in that field. And we’re playing a lot of catch up in all of those political process areas. So.

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Speaker 3: You know, rather than talk about decertifying 2020, they’re using that to then take that energy that the election was stolen. They’re basically trying to harness that and direct it towards something that would then relate to future elections.

Mary Curtis: Today on the show, Republicans want to recruit poll workers and poll watchers to protect the next election. Is it merely citizenship at work, ensuring transparency as the votes are counted, or does the presence of stop the steal supporters at the polls erode confidence in our elections? I’m Mary Curtis, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around.

Mary Curtis: It’s pretty easy to get a quick sense of Cleta mitchell listening to her podcast. It opens with clips that establish cleat as bona fides with mentions from Tucker Carlson and former President Trump. Thank you.

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Speaker 3: Clayton Mitchell. Thank you for that explanation. Really interesting and kind of appalling.

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Speaker 2: Thank you, Tucker.

Speaker 3: Cleta mitchell is somebody with great courage and she’s involved with you.

Mary Curtis: And then Cleator herself explains the stakes of her project.

Speaker 2: There are dead people who voted. There are people who voted in more than one state. There are people who were voting illegally in Georgia. And those votes are all included in that certified total. Georgia, we have to stop. We have to get engaged.

Mary Curtis: And Cletus podcast is called Who’s Counting? And it’s a great title because it perfectly reveals Cleta mitchell, the mindset that who is counting the ballots will affect who wins an election. Of course, if our election system is working, it shouldn’t matter who’s counting the ballots. It should only matter who votes. But Cleta mitchell doesn’t believe the system is working.

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Speaker 3: Cleta mitchell She 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 key representation for conservative causes over the years, including a lot around elections. And she was particularly involved in Georgia. She was on the call with Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, who is a secretary of state, where Trump was saying, can you just find these votes? I just want to find 11,780 votes.

Speaker 2: The lawyer on that call with President Trump, Cleta mitchell, is resigning from her law firm following her participation on that call. Right. There’s a lot of Republicans, I guess you would say, establishment Republicans, who.

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Mary Curtis: Don’t want to be associated.

Speaker 2: With these efforts or with her.

Speaker 3: Since then, you know, 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 involved a senior partner in 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 Curtis: Here’s Cleta mitchell pitching one of her election integrity training seminars last summer to recruit poll workers in Virginia.

Speaker 2: We’re going to have training. This is not going to be about bunch speeches. It’s training on how to make sure these elections are not stolen. And we need to be.

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Mary Curtis: Just let me ask you about this, because obviously, when you say election integrity, who could be against that? We all want our elections to have integrity. But I want you to talk a little bit about who are these people being recruited and if they have an agenda involved.

Speaker 3: Right. So many of the 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 was or something very seriously wrong with it, which, of course, has been discredited and 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 like the LaRouche PAC, which is seems to be associated Lyndon LaRouche, who is deceased but is a known conspiracy theorist. So there’s there’s a lot of examples of this 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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Mary Curtis: What are Republican affiliated groups recruiting people to do? Exactly. Just poll watching or are they working with other poll workers? And what are the various tasks that they’re responsible for?

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Speaker 3: The Election Integrity Network is recruiting people. They talk about getting involved in your election apparatus. So that would mean being a poll watcher and being a poll worker. And they they did 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.

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Speaker 3: They talk about doing voter roll work where you collect information about who’s actually on the voter rolls and try to find where they’re not accurate in. 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 ever present inside election offices.

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Mary Curtis: They want you to be involved in every detail.

Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s that’s really the idea. They want to form these local groups called these local task forces. And people would have different roles. These are all volunteers. And then they would, you know, 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 and there’s people who are willing to spend time doing this, it seems.

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Mary Curtis: Did they give you a hint when you were observing everything? What exactly the end game is what they want from all of this?

Speaker 3: Well, they talk about, you know, 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 where Cleta mitchell, she talks about, you know, 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, you know, having this army of activists is going to fix what she is seeing as corrupt or cheating or by extreme bias in elections offices.

Mary Curtis: So tell me a little bit. You’ve talked about some of the more fringe groups like LaRouche and then others. Folks have heard of the RNC and the Election Integrity Network and the Conservative Partnership Institute. So you’ve had a coming together of groups and also money as well. Where’s the funding coming from? Some of it is coming from the Trump PAC, I believe.

Speaker 3: The Conservative Partnership Institute has raised money from it’s a nonprofit, but they have gotten money from the PAC, from Trump’s PAC, as well as from a number of his donors.

Mary Curtis: What has Cleta mitchell said in response to your reporting on this effort?

Speaker 3: So 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. And basically, she was also making the argument that, you know, as long as the election officials are doing everything right, they should not mind about having more transparency. And this idea of transparency is definitely, you know, a big part of what she’s pushing people to do. You know, filing FOI request, 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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Speaker 3: It’s true that, you know, some of this is typical, that you do have election monitoring, you do have party political parties, some conservative and liberal groups involved in recruiting people to be election monitors on election workers. Some of the things that are different here is what some people describe to me as kind of a surveillance attitude.

Mary Curtis: 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 typical.

Speaker 3: Like one of the things that the manual says is in the case that you should research election officials and you should find out in the case of people that work in attorney general’s office is 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 kind of approaching it that way and not having trust in the election system.

Mary Curtis: We’ll be back in a moment after a short break.

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

Speaker 3: 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 poll watchers, having people there to say, okay, 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 is a part of the elections process, and then 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 where if that is then used to suggest something that isn’t true about the elections.

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Mary Curtis: Well, we have seen it in action. You talked a little bit about Pennsylvania, where 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.

Speaker 3: Right. There’s a group called Audit the Vote P.A. 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 is all these anomalies and all these problems of 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 this just the methodology of doing that is also really not a valid way to understand this. There’s many reasons why you might knock on someone’s door and they might say, like, Oh, that person isn’t here. I mean, maybe they moved. I mean, there’s many there’s many situations around that that make this not a particularly helpful way to understand the results from a past election. So yeah, that group is really following along the manual that the Election Integrity Network and Cleta mitchell had come up with.

Mary Curtis: Wow. Another place I want to go to is Fairfax County, Virginia, because isn’t that a place that Cleta mitchell’s held up as the gold standard for monitoring during the governor’s race? Although some elections officials did have some problems with how that monitoring was conducted.

Speaker 3: 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. And so what I decided was, well, let’s take a closer look at it then. So what happened was there was an incredible amount of increased activity from a coalition associated with the local Republican Party. And 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 request and just many things that were unusual that sort of went beyond just your typical kind of election monitoring.

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Speaker 3: 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 sit to undermine the validity of an election. 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. And they came out with some reports that were claiming that there was going to be something wrong with the election. And and all of these groups were part of this coalition that is now being held up as the model.

Speaker 3: 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.

Mary Curtis: 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?

Speaker 3: 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 had been the Republicans had ever provided before. And some of the poll workers were filing reports afterwards saying that there was kind of problems. And one of the things a number of them pointed out actually was this idea that they were sort of trying very hard to find problems and they seemed to be kind of acting like like spies or someone was like they’re acting like a detective. It’s like sleuth was the way one person put it. Some of these poll workers felt like it seemed like they were trying to gather evidence so that if Youngkin had lost he was the Republican running, they would have some kind of ammunition.

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Speaker 3: 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 overall the election did seem to run 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.

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

Speaker 3: 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, especially then 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.

Speaker 3: And so 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. And so they’re building out something much bigger. And they’re 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’re even helping organize these events. So this 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.

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

Speaker 3: I think that there’s going to need to be more reporting and more of an understanding of of kind of what folks are doing. There’s often this 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 that’s been a fear for the 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.

Mary Curtis: Yeah. Now, the concern is, will it stop there? Because in some cases it hasn’t.

Speaker 3: Right. I mean, I think that what happened in 2020, where you had people going so far as to overturn, you know, really try to overturn an election, these election results based on these ideas that that there were all these vast problems that just simply were not were not true. And it’s many of the same people working on this. So that’s really where the concern comes from. Will that happen again?

Mary Curtis: Thank you so much, Alexandra Berzon, for joining what next and talking about your story about election monitors and what it means for the future of the 2022 and 2024 elections. We’ll be following your reporting.

Speaker 3: Thank you so much for having me.

Mary Curtis: And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad and Alena Schwartz with help from Anna Rubanova and Sam Kim. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. I’m Mary Curtis, columnist at Roll Call and host of It’s Equal Time Podcast. Follow me on Twitter at M Curtis and See three. Thanks for listening. Mary Harris will be back in this feed tomorrow.