In a podcast last year, the conservative election lawyer and former Trump legal advisor Cleta Mitchell recalled meeting with an activist group and drawing a bullseye to illustrate where they would be most effective: Sure, they could be volunteers criticizing the system from the outside, but the best place to be on Election Day, Mitchell said, was “inside and counting.”
The right has pursued that maxim with gusto. And as 2024 draws nearer, it’s not just right-wing activist groups but also the Republican Party itself seeking to integrate loyal partisans into the United States’ election infrastructure.
The now-familiar concern, of course, is that they’ll continue to lie about election results in an effort to seize power — but, this time, from within America’s election system, and with years of prep time and a competent party bureaucracy behind them.
“We are seeing individuals take advantage of this moment as a way to continue to sow chaos, and to benefit both politically as well as financially,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at Democracy Fund.
That starts at the top, with Trump loyalists who’ve lied about election results running for governorships and secretary of state jobs across the country. At the county and local level, officials like Mesa County, Colorado Clerk Tina Peters are under scrutiny for breaching security protocols in order to advance a partisan narrative.
But perhaps the most effective material could come from rank-and-file activists, spread out in election jobs and surveillance posts around the country, ready to turn lawfully-cast votes into viral chum.
‘Be The Election Inspector’
Elections are, actually, pretty difficult to rig. But the danger in a wave of partisans entering election offices around the country comes from their ability to produce trumped up accounts of supposed fraud — even if they’re referring to perfectly legal procedures or minor mistakes. As in 2020, Republicans appear to be laying the groundwork for potentially overturning legitimate election results.
In recordings obtained by Politico, for example, Matthew Seifried, the Republican Party’s election integrity director for Michigan, stressed to GOP activists that becoming an actual poll worker — that is, one paid and ostensibly trained by a local government — would be better than simply volunteering as a challenger observing the process.
“Being a poll worker, you just have so many more rights and things you can do to stop something than [as] a poll challenger,” Seifried said. Seifried said separately that the party was recruiting an “army” of attorneys, “because let’s be honest, that’s where it’s going to be fought, right?”
“Ideally, you guys will all be the election inspector,” Seifried said at another meeting, Politico reported. “You have so much more authority because you’re the one that’s actually administering the election.”
More troubling still, per the report, Seifried said the party was preparing to equip poll workers with a direct line to GOP attorneys, so that they could “live chat” on Election Day. On another recording, he said the party was recruiting lawyers that he wanted to “start reaching out to law enforcement.”
Seifried separately identified three Democratic areas with large populations of voters of color — Detroit, Pontiac and Southfield — as “the ones that we need to focus all our efforts on.”
‘Handle The Local Election Officials’
Mitchell herself has been plenty busy out on the trail, training right-wing activists across the country with a 20-page “Citizens Guide To Building An Election Integrity Infrastructure.” It includes advice such as, “Make the commitment that every decision made by the election office will be made in the presence of one or more representatives of the Election Integrity Task Force” — Mitchell’s term for the local volunteer units she wants to keep an eye on election officials across the country.
Mitchell, and through her, the Republican Party, draw their support for these efforts from deep in the conspiracy theory fever swamps: The activists she’s training to surveil election offices are the same ones convinced that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president, a recent New York Times profile showed.
For example: Toni Shuppe, leader of the 2020 election denial group Audit the Vote PA, told the Times she’d signed up 200 election activists after training with Mitchell. Shuppe — who has declared citizens’ right “to throw off such government that intends to keep the truth behind the 2020 election hidden” — is part of a coalition with the Pennsylvania GOP’s election integrity director, who helped Mitchell organize an event in the state.
Much of Mitchell’s pamphlet is banal advice like “attend meetings of the election board,” but it occasionally veers into the almost-sinister, like advising activists to “be able to handle the local election officials.”
Patrick pointed out that Mitchell’s audience — fringe organizations who reject the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency — was as important as the material itself.
“If you’re going into the chatrooms and soliciting people that you know are already activated, for lack of a better term, then it doesn’t matter if you tell them the middle-of-the-road standard messaging,” she said.
Those activists, empowered by grifters, politicians and local networks of election deniers, could blow up minor issues into party propaganda used to delegitimize election results. Patrick compared it to the “audit” of Maricopa County, Arizona’s 2020 election results, where clueless contractors took standard election procedures — such as election workers duplicating damaged ballots so machines can read them — and transformed them into evidence of fraud.
“Those innocuous mistakes are going to be weaponized as demonstrative of the rigging of the system, or the stealing of the election,” she said.