When Bob Phillips heard that a wealthy New York City gym owner was prepared to donate $1,000 to his good government organization, Common Cause North Carolina, he was elated.
When the mystery man calling himself James Fortune upped that offer to $10,000, the elation turned to doubt.
“$1,000 is a lot for us, so $10,000 — we don’t get people who write those kinds of checks,” he told TPM.
Over the course of two whiplash-inducing weeks, Phillips came to suspect that he, like three other voter advocacy groups in Wisconsin, was the subject of an attempted infiltration and sting.
These attempts, which range from schemes by groups like Project Veritas — with their heavily-edited “gotcha” videos — to doubt sowing by right-wing trolls, pundits and gadflies, have been replicated across the country, particularly in battleground states likely to decide the election. Though differing in style and levels of commitment, they seem to share a common goal: to whip up “proof” of the voter fraud President Donald Trump has been shouting about all campaign long.
The right-wing actors have been creative in their targeting of different steps of the voter process. Many have focused on fabricating voter registration fraud: planting the suspicion that groups are registering non-citizens or felons. Some allege illegal ballot harvesting (collection by a third party, which is legal in some states), or funhouse-mirror versions or ballot harvesting where shady people stuff bags with ballots bound for mysterious locations.
In North Carolina, Phillips had his guard down because Fortune had already “ingratiated” himself, in Phillips’ words, with other local organizations — by cutting them checks. Fortune first made contact with Democracy North Carolina, a close partner of the Common Cause chapter, as well as Latinx advocacy group Fortaleza. He made donations to both.
These groups have been expending their resources heavily on voter education and engagement, especially given the changes COVID-19 has wrought. Common Cause specifically has been focusing on informing people about laws newly passed by the state government which, among other things, expand access to absentee ballots.
Phillips told TPM that he didn’t connect with Fortune himself until the supposed businessman’s third call with Common Cause. He said that Fortune made passing, opinionated comments — once about Trump “hurting small businesses” — but nothing that roused Phillip’s suspicions.
“It’s not like I haven’t heard that before,” he said. “People are emotional right now.”
It wasn’t until Fortune floated upping his $1,000 donation so substantially that he started to have misgivings.
“The first thing out of his mouth in that next call was: ‘If we increased that donation five- or tenfold, what would you do with it?’” Phillips said. “I was beginning to think, who is this guy? He parachutes in, we don’t know him, finds out about what we do and within a week is talking about giving $10,000.”
Fortune also offered Phillips a volunteer to join the organization: a friend of Fortune’s who, he said, recently moved to the area and was very interested in helping out. The woman, Phillips recalled, contacted him immediately, claiming a background in protest movements in Brooklyn and wanting to know if she could start as soon as tomorrow.
Around that time, Phillips’ friend from Democracy North Carolina called. His first question: “Have you been doing any business with James Fortune?” Phillips was told that Democracy North Carolina had found out that Fortune asked a person involved in voter education and advocacy if the groups could be persuaded to delve into the illegal and register undocumented immigrants to vote. Fortune’s proffered rationale was allegedly: “Trump is gonna cheat so we might as well also.”
That was enough to raise the alarm. The groups looked into Fortune’s donations. They came from a company called Blue Sky Med Labs LLC, which did not exist until June, shortly before Fortune came to town. A local Atlanta TV station, nearby where Blue Sky is incorporated, was told by the LLC founder’s business partner that the lawyer for Blue Sky is Stefan Passantino — a former deputy White House counsel for the Trump campaign. Passantino did not respond to TPM’s questions.
Phillips reported the situation to the Wake County District Attorney, and Fortune and his enthusiastic volunteer disappeared. DA Lorin Freeman is reviewing the situation, but told TPM the situation does “not yet” warrant a criminal inquiry.
“You have to wonder if this is not all part of activity to fit the narrative the President is putting out there that we can’t trust elections due to rampant fraud,” said Phillips.
In Wisconsin, six voter advocacy groups fell victim to similar infiltration attempts by two men who they believe to be agents of Project Veritas. The men had been involved with some of the groups for months.
None of the groups, which include Our Wisconsin Revolution, Voces De La Frontera and Souls to the Polls, would talk to TPM. “They’re scared for their personal safety,” said David Di Martino, a PR representative for three of the organizations.
But the groups did send a letter to the state Attorney General alleging the infiltration and claiming they had identified one of the men as Christian Hartsock, right-hand man to Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe. The groups said that both men raised the idea of illegally registering noncitizens and felons to vote.
The two men “repeatedly touted the idea of knowingly registering noncitizens and felons to vote — even though it is against the law — in order to bring about a lawsuit and win their voting rights afterwards,” the groups wrote, describing the alleged infiltration. They said they believe the two men secretly recorded video and in-person meetings from June to early September of this year.
“Our collective organizations believe that we have become a target for Project Veritas’s fraudulent actions,” they wrote in the letter. “We believe that their latest efforts to misrepresent our civic engagement work may violate multiple laws.” They are now waiting on tenterhooks to see if they’ll become the next subject of a Project Veritas video drop.
Right-wing trolls of all stripes are getting in on the action, seeking to manufacture claims of illegal voting.
Earlier this week, Republican state leadership in Wisconsin tried to get a Madison city clerk-sponsored event, called Democracy in the Park, shut down with claims of illegality. The events serve as a place where poll workers can answer questions about voting, serve as witnesses for absentee ballots and safely collect and deposit ballots at the clerk’s office. The lawmakers called the events “unlawful,” though, as the city attorney pointed out, failed to cite any actual law being broken.
The GOP lawmakers were buoyed in their opposition by Michelle Malkin, a once-CPAC, Fox News-brand conservative who has since gone completely off the rails and embraced white supremacists and Holocaust deniers.
“Imagine sheaves of ballots carelessly stuffed into cheap, canvas, pizza delivery-style totes,” she conjectured on creators.com, one of the only platforms that’ll still host her bonkers columns. “Then imagine them being carted away by unknown drivers to unknown locations for unknown reasons. Observers captured photos of several stuffed red bags being loaded into an unmarked white van parked outside Madison’s municipal government building.”
In one evidence-free paragraph, Malkin turned a nonpartisan attempt to make voting easier into a suspicious (and later, George Soros-backed) attempt to hijack the election.
Baked Alaska, a prolific far-right internet troll who lives to accuse veterans of stolen valor or scream that the 19th Amendment should be repealed, harassed a voter registration volunteer to a similar tune in a livestream in Tempe, Arizona last week.
Amid a toxic sludge of vile accusations and constant harassment, the YouTuber accuses the volunteer of having George Soros “on your payroll,” which he later corrected to “no, I mean he’s paying you.”
“That guy finances all sorts of shit to destroy our country,” he added. Meanwhile, a stream of gleeful commentators shouted about ballot harvesting in all caps in the live chat.