After listening to every single episode of conservative election lawyer Cleta Mitchell’s podcast, “Who’s Counting?” a simple truth emerges: This isn’t about Donald Trump.
Yes, you may know Mitchell for advising Trump on his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. (She chimed in frequently on the call in which Trump pressured Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” the votes he needed to win.) Trump also blurbed Mitchell’s podcast last month, saying that the show “exposes our Corrupt and Rigged voting systems.”
But Mitchell also has institutional cred among conservatives that goes back decades, the kind of swing that can land you a post-insurrection seat on a government elections advisory board without much public fuss, even during the Biden administration. When Mitchell’s current home, the Conservative Partnership Institute, brought her on to lead its “Election Integrity Coalition” in March, it called her, archly, the “consigliere to the vast right-wing conspiracy.”
And they didn’t mean the QAnon kind. CPI, the post-White House home of former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, is part of a web of deep-pocketed right-wing influence operations seeking to steer the Republican Party during the Trump Age. And Mitchell is all business: Conservatives, she says, need to spend their time and energy taking back control of America’s elections from a runaway left wing.
“We’re going to take those election offices back, and we need you to help us,” Mitchell told listeners at the end of her first episode.
In an echo of Steve Bannon’s effort to install right-wingers at low-level election posts around the country, one repeated theme of Mitchell’s show is that listeners should get involved in their local elections — and, more specifically, that they should try to get hired to count ballots, not simply as volunteer observers.
Unlike Bannon, however, Mitchell’s influence extends well beyond Trump die-hards, into the real institutional funders of the American right, like The Bradley Foundation. Several of her podcast guests have professional connections to Mitchell through groups like the Public Interest Legal Foundation. In other words, when Mitchell speaks, there’s a decent chance she’s broadcasting the priorities of the GOP’s top donors.
“Most of us should have figured out in about the third grade kickball that if you get to make the rules, you get to pick who wins the game,” Scott Walter, president of the Capital Research Center and a guest on the show’s sixth episode, said during his appearance — describing Democrats, of course.
“That’s true!” Mitchell beamed.
‘Walking Barefoot Across Broken Glass’
To understand Mitchell’s position on the 2020 election, you need to understand what claims she’s actually made about the election. She asserts that there were more illegal ballots cast than the Biden margin of victory in multiple states. “I don’t think I would use the word stolen and I don’t think I have — but I do know that the left manipulated the process to pre-determine the outcome,” she told TPM via email.
She was also a key figure in the assertion that Fulton County, Georgia election workers “made everybody leave” a counting room on election night, giving them the opportunity to count thousands of illegal ballots.
The state looked into this and found no evidence that any improper ballots were scanned. And two election workers are suing an online publication that boosted the conspiracy theory for defamation. Mitchell, however, is still pushing the story.
“There are some who have watched it who say they’re running the same ballots through multiple times,” she said of the incident in her first podcast episode, which was released in October 2021.
With other theories, though, she seems to draw a line.
On the question of whether Chinese hackers messed with American voting machines for example — a favorite of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell — Mitchell said, “you can make yourself crazy doing that.”
“We don’t have any proof of it,” agreed her guest, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kim Strassel.
But the pair ultimately split the difference, pursuing a strategy that old guard Republicans around the country have for the past year, seeking both to satiate Trump fans and deflect criticism for their attacks on voting rights: The policies we want are necessary because people believe Trump — regardless of the reality, the argument goes, they have taken Trump at his word that elections are corrupt.
“It is a very serious cause for alarm if citizens decide not to vote because they think their vote will not be counted due to all the irregularities and manipulation that the left has come up with over the past decade,” Mitchell told TPM.
That line of thinking — the purported need to take action to dispel Republicans’ fears — crops up throughout the podcast. The post-election voting restrictions passed by Georgia Republicans, Strassel said, were necessary to ensure “integrity” and “faith in the system.” That, in turn, can “squash down these theories of Chinese hacking, because it just discourages people to go out in the end.”
Mitchell went further, seemingly making the case for publicly challenging election results as an electoral strategy in itself. She recalled the case she made to the Republican establishment ahead of the January 2021 Georgia U.S. Senate elections.
“I said, ‘People, if the Trump voters don’t see you walking barefoot across broken glass about what happened last Tuesday, number one, the Democrats are going to do it again, and number two, they’re not going to want to vote again.’”
‘Inside And Counting’
If the right-wing outrage over Trump’s election loss is ammunition, Mitchell and others on the establishment right are training their fire on typical bugaboos — requiring photo IDs, restricting mail-in and early voting — as well as some newer fixations, such as the hundreds of millions of dollars from Mark Zuckerberg that funded election offices’ efforts amid the pandemic.
They’re also on high alert over Democrats’ attempt to expand voting rights at the federal level, in bills like the “For The People Act,” which, like all voting rights legislation, has hit a brick wall in the Senate filibuster.
The bill would set national standards for things like voting by mail, automatic voter registration and redistricting. But to hear Mitchell describe it, Democrats are after nothing less than an authoritarian power grab.
Democrats, she worried at one point, are saying to themselves, “We’re going to fix the elections so we put ourselves beyond the reach of the people.”
The definition of “the people,” as always, is a bit fluid. Rudy Giuliani infamously said a few days after Trump’s 2020 loss that the incumbent had essentially won re-election, “if you take out Wayne county,” home to Detroit, a majority-Black city. Mitchell has repeatedly denied any racist intent in her push for election integrity — though she told The New Yorker in August that Democrats were “using Black voters as a prop to accomplish their political objectives.”
“It’s the large urban counties that we need to be worried about,” she told The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway in the third episode of “Who’s Counting?”
And what’s the best way to keep an eye on those counties? Count their ballots, of course. Mitchell spoke several times in multiple podcast episodes about the need for Republicans to get behind the scenes as election volunteers, or, better yet, paid staffers.
“So you’re inside counting the ballots rather than outside with your nose pressed to the glass,” Mitchell told J. Christian Adams, a fellow election lawyer and a long-time booster of the myth of widespread “voter fraud,” with whom Mitchell has deep ties.
Mitchell recalled drawing a figure of a bullseye for a grassroots organization to illustrate the point.
“The bullseye is inside and counting,” Mitchell said.