A Far Right Law Enforcement Movement Is Fueling The Effort To Infiltrate Voting Machines

Dar Leaf (TPM Illustration/Getty Images, WXMI)
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A far right, nationwide membership organization of county sheriffs has turned its focus to Donald Trump- and Dinesh D’Souza-inspired claims of “voter fraud,” and it’s creating big problems for state officials worried about actual election integrity.

The so-called “constitutional sheriff” movement holds that a sheriff’s authority in their county trumps that of any other law enforcement agency, and that sheriffs can ignore any law they consider unconstitutional. 

And at least one sheriff affiliated with the movement has already gotten his hands on election equipment: The top lawman in Barry County, Michigan, reportedly took possession of at least one ballot tabulator last year, with the county’s clerk later saying the machine had been taken to Detroit and disassembled. Now, the sheriff has filed suit against state officials and the Michigan State Police, saying they’ve illegally usurped his authority with their own investigation, and referring to the state police as “an unelected and unaccountable strong arm of the state.”

The organization behind the movement, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, is hoping others join the fight. 

In a press release last month, CSPOA called on law enforcement around the country “to come together in pursuit of the truth regarding the 2020 election.” 

At the bottom of the press release, a CSPOA membership link beckoned curious sheriffs and their supporters: “Learn how we restore liberty in America: Join the Posse.”

‘Arrest Them For Interference’

For a year and a half, one sheriff in Michigan has demonstrated the lengths to which those in the constitutional sheriff movement will go to pursue claims of election fraud — no matter how flimsy: Barry County Michigan’s Dar Leaf. 

After Leaf’s December 2020 lawsuit seeking to impound voting machines was laughed out of court, the sheriff dispatched a deputy and a private investigator to go from town to town in Barry County last year, grilling township clerks on the intricacies of their voting machines — and alarming more than a few of them in the process. At one point, the clerk of Irving Township allowed Leaf’s investigators to take a Dominion tabulator from the township hall. “I’ve been told they took it (to the Detroit area) and tore it apart,” Barry County Clerk Pam Palmer told local station WOOD-TV last week, adding that the machine was returned with a broken security seal.

Leaf, who’s also rubbed elbows with one of the men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor, has said that he was moved to investigate voter fraud after a retired sergeant “brought in some documentation from the MyPillow guy.” 

Emails reported by Bridge Michigan last year showed the sheriff’s impressive connections: An attorney for Leaf, Carson Tucker, was in touch with Sidney Powell, as well as with a contact for another Big Lie figure, Lin Wood. “My client Barry County Sheriff and several other county sheriffs in Michigan would like to consider issuing probable cause warrants to sequester Dominion voting machines if there is evidence of criminal manipulation,” one of Tucker’s emails read.

When state investigators began looking into the situation in Irving Township, Leaf doubled down, stating in a lawsuit last week that they’d subpoenaed the sheriff’s deputy who was working on the probe and confiscated documents and voting machines “that were a part of and subject to the ongoing investigation.” Leaf referred to state police in the complaint as “an unelected and unaccountable strong arm of the state, a partisan and politically controlled, run and operated ‘state police’ force in every sense of the term.” He asked a judge to tell the state to butt out. 

An attorney for Leaf, Stefanie Lambert Junttila, did not respond to TPM’s request for comment. The Irving Township clerk caught in the crossfire of Leaf’s investigation, Sharon Olson, declined to comment.

Richard Mack, CSPOA’s founder and a leader in the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, was blunt in a phone interview with TPM last week. 

“He would be within his rights to arrest them for interference and obstruction of justice,” he said of Leaf’s standoff with the state police.

‘Willing To Die’

To understand where the constitutional sheriffs movement is coming from — and where it could go next — you have to understand its CSPOA’s history: Mack, a former lobbyist for the NRA’s right-wing competitor Gun Owners of America and a former board member of the Oath Keepers, became a minor celebrity on the right when, as sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, he successfully challenged a piece of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in the 1997 Supreme Court case Printz v. United States. He launched CSPOA in 2011, aligning himself with the Bundy family and their effort to fight federal law enforcement efforts — including via an armed standoff in 2014 — on land they were using for fee-free cattle grazing.

During the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, Mack suggested putting women “up at the front,” explaining later: “I would have put my own wife or daughters there, and I would have been screaming bloody murder to watch them die. I would gone next, I would have been the next one to be killed. I’m not afraid to die here. I’m willing to die here.”

Though Mack frequently dips into the culture wars — he’s been a birther, outspoken against gay marriage, and for a hypothetical anti-Obamacare “Rosa Parks” — the CSPOA has been most forceful when pushing back against federal gun reform efforts, and the group has leaned heavily into the notion of county sheriffs as a check against the federal government. “Very few people realize that the Sheriff has the legitimate authority to prevent federal agents from entering the county—or the power to throw them out once they are there,” one early appeal read. In Texas and Montana, CSPOA trainings have been approved by the state for law enforcement training credits. 

Mack has expanded his ambitions since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, cheering on sheriffs that defy state health measures and even hitting the road for a bus tour with the late former CIA officer, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire and antisemite Robert David Steele. 

As Steele said in an interview last year: “I’m the top dog on three topics: election fraud and reform, Wall Street treason and crime, and Satanic pedophilia with child trafficking. But those topics are not going to be understood by the American people unless they see the solutions that Sheriff Mack represents.”

The increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories on the right has helped fuel the constitutional sheriffs movement, said Chuck Tanner of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a research organization that tracks hate groups.

“For these folks, out of their conspiratorial views, out of their particular brand of far-right nationalism, they put themselves as the enforcers of anything that happens in the county,” Tanner told TPM. 

‘Get Them Forensically Tested’

As the 2022 midterms approach, CSPOA appears keen to recruit sheriffs to its new cause. The group’s press release on election integrity included a list of sheriffs who have “committed to investigating election fraud.” 

On the phone with TPM, Mack rattled through a couple promising examples: Leon Wilmot of Yuma County, Arizona, who claimed last month to have 16 open “voting/registration” cases, and Christopher Schmaling of Racine County, Wisconsin, who unsuccessfully called last year for criminal charges to be filed against the majority of the Wisconsin Election Commission. 

Mack also expressed enthusiasm for one of the most aggressive plans presented by Trump’s allies after the last presidential election, seizing voting machines — a gambit Leaf had apparently attempted in Michigan.  

“Absolutely, yeah they should,” Mack said. “Get them forensically tested and see if there was cheating. Of course!” 

Wouldn’t law enforcement seizing voting machines around the country be alarming for a lot of people? Wouldn’t it look like some kind of coup? 

“Why, because we’re trying to find the truth?” Mack shot back. 

“If people think a legitimate investigation is a coup,” he added later, “then something’s wrong with their brain waves.”

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