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Conservative push to recruit election deniers as poll workers causes alarm | US voting rights

Republicans and other conservative groups are undertaking a huge effort to recruit election workers, a push that could install people with unfounded doubts about the 2020 election in key positions in voting precincts where they could exert considerable power over elections.

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At the forefront of this push is Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who was on Donald Trump’s legal team in 2020 and played a key role in his effort to overturn the election. Over the last few months, Mitchell has held “election integrity summits” in several battleground states, convening groups and citizens who continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen. The summits offer in-depth training on how to monitor election offices and how to work elections. At a mid-June summit in North Carolina, Mitchell mocked the term “election denier” and said “whether the outcome was correct, that’s all I deny”. Voter fraud is extremely rare and there was no evidence of widespread fraud in 2020.

The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, underscores how Trump and allies are capitalizing on now deeply seeded Republican doubt about Joe Biden’s victory and are targeting key election offices and jobs that play a considerable role in determining how ballots are cast and counted. The summits are a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a group with close ties to Trump’s political operation, and where Mitchell is a senior legal fellow. Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, is a senior partner at CPI.

Mitchell has described the effort as a way to take control of the apparatus of local elections, according to ABC News. CPI did not return a request for comment.

“Given that people who were part of the attempted coup are behind this, it’s certainly something that at a minimum we need to be vigilant about,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, who works closely with election officials across the country on election administration issues.

That recruitment is happening alongside a similar push from the Republican National Committee, which has already recruited 16 in-state election integrity directors, more than 15,000 poll workers and 10,000 poll observers in battleground states, said Gates McGavick, an RNC spokesman. Officials from the RNC have spoken at Mitchell’s summits. McGavick said the RNC “works with other groups who have an interest in promoting election integrity” but the party was “not part of a formal coalition with any outside groups”.

“Any individual participating in our election integrity program who does not follow the law will be promptly dismissed,” he said.

The effort is focused on getting people to sign up poll observers and challengers as well as election workers who help run voting precincts and count ballots. Parties and campaigns have long hired observers and challengers to monitor the polls, but election workers, temporary employees hired by local election offices, have largely been seen as non-partisan.

Republicans say that they are aiming to correct an imbalance in these election positions, especially in heavily Democratic cities and other areas.

Election officials say they welcome the surge in GOP interest, especially in areas where it can be hard to find Republican workers. Still, there are concerns that conspiracy-minded workers could abuse their positions to slow down the voting process and spread false or misleading information about what they see at the polls.

In 2020, observations from poll observers played a critical role in spreading information that Trump and allies would use to spread the false claim the election was stolen in states like Georgia, Arizona and Michigan. In Detroit, an observer said she saw ballots being delivered in the middle of the night and workers illegally awarding votes to Biden. In Phoenix, those who used Sharpie pens to fill out ballots had their votes rejected by machines, poll observers said. Even though those claims, based on misunderstandings of election rules, were debunked, many of them continue to live prominently among those who believe the election was stolen.

“You have those people who may have worked the precinct who intentionally don’t understand the procedures and that can then, with some level of authority, spread misinformation,” said Barb Byrum, the clerk in Ingham county, Michigan, a state where there is a big push to recruit GOP election workers.

“It is refreshing to see more people are interested in the process,” she added. “With that said, I understand that the Republican precinct worker applications as of recent have been prompted by election conspiracy groups.”

At the North Carolina summit in June, guests received a 20-page document that offered a detailed blueprint for forming statewide and local taskforces to monitor election officials. One section encourages citizens to research whether Republican officials in the state election office are “effective or silent partners”. Another section advises activists to figure out who in the state attorney general’s office is responsible for working with elections officials and whether that person is a “friend or foe”.

That kind of language is “absolutely outrageous”, Becker said. Election officials have faced an unprecedented wave of harassment since the 2020 election and many have quit their jobs.

“They’re citizens. They’re professionals. They’re our neighbors,” he said. “If we start to view our fellow citizens as our enemies, we’re lost.”

The guide also says to monitor voter registration drives and non-profits involved in election work with the goal of finding out “who are they really?”

Attendees were encouraged to sign up for the North Carolina Election Integrity Team (Nceit), a group working to implement many of the guide’s recommendations in each county. The group has been having regular weekly strategy calls.

The event featured speakers from a litany of conservative activist groups, including FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, Citizens United and Heritage Action, according to an agenda obtained by the Guardian. Mac Warner, West Virginia’s Republican secretary of state, also attended the summit and gave a keynote address. Josh Findlay, the RNC’s national director of election integrity, spoke at the event.

Anyone could attend the event, which cost $20 to sign up for. A Guardian reporter who signed up as a guest was asked to leave the event after Mitchell’s opening remarks. “We don’t allow media to come to our summits, mainly because they’re never nice to us,” Mitchell said at the event. “They make fun of us.”

Jim Womack, now chair of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team and his wife, Sherry, pray on the legislative grounds in Raleigh in May 2020.
Jim Womack, now chair of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team and his wife, Sherry, pray on the legislative grounds in Raleigh in May 2020. Photograph: Robert Willett/AP

The Guardian obtained a recording of a panel on poll worker and observer training in which panelists acted out different scenarios that might arise at the precinct on polling day.

At one point during the panel, an audience member drew laughter when he asked “at what point do you call 911 and call a sheriff deputy to arrest the chief judge?”

Jim Womack, the Nceit chair, advised attendees to form relationships with local district attorneys. “The DA is going to be your person, the person you need to have a relationship with and be able to contact the local law enforcement to take action on something,” he said.

Gary Sims, the elections director in North Carolina’s Wake county, home of Raleigh, said his office had not yet seen a surge in people signing up to work the polls. He noted that state law outlines clear rules that people who work the polls must follow on election day and the consequences of breaking them.

“I’m very familiar with the groups that are staging this. Some of these individuals I’ve been dealing with for over a decade now. It’s just that, honestly, after the events and post-events of 2020, these groups have a charged-up base,” he said. “Before, they didn’t have an audience. Now they have an audience because of that. So they are capitalizing on that audience.”

Sims said he was frustrated to learn that a speaker at Mitchell’s summit had spread false information about Wake county’s processes for transporting ballots. “What they stated was, I want to say disinformation, not misinformation. Because it was not true,” he said. “It’s actually intentionally trying to villainize us.”

The planning underscores what many see as the biggest threat to future elections in the US. Having people who believe there is massive fraud in elections claim they witnessed such fraud could provide critical pretext officials could use to justify not-certifying a valid race. Trump and allies deployed a similar strategy in their effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Byrum, the Ingham county clerk, said that the city of Lansing, which usually receives just a handful of applications for Republican poll workers, had already received about 100 GOP applications. While she welcomed that interest, Byrum said disruptive election workers could slow down the process of voting on election day or cause a delay in counting mail-in votes, which could cause more people to doubt the election results.

Byrum has been encouraging local clerks to place first-time election workers who they are unfamiliar with – Democrat or Republican – in jobs where they will be responsible for passing out “I voted” stickers or have other limited interactions with voters at critical points in the voting process. When she begins training workers next month, she also said she plans to keep an eye out for people who might raise red flags.

“If they are prepared to act in bad faith, or slow down the process, or create any mischief or mayhem on election day, I will make sure they are held accountable in my county,” she said.

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