When Richard Mack and his “constitutional sheriffs” unveiled their planned assault on American elections last week at their convention in Las Vegas, they were joined onstage by a cadre of well-moneyed Trumpist “Big Lie” promoters. It became clear that not only do the sheriffs have backing for their plan, they described how far they’re going: The coalition not only announced plans to “investigate” supposed election fraud—by, among other things, seizing vote-tabulation machines and calling “common law” grand juries—but they plan to generate data by conducting surveillance at polling places and drop boxes, gathering the information up at an intelligence “fusion center.”
And as Republicans in Washington state have made manifest, this is not merely a fantasy. Far-right election-denialists in Seattle’s King County placed signs this week at ballot drop boxes warning people that their actions were being recorded on camera. Ironically, the King County Sheriff’s Office is now investigating those actions at the behest of the county’s elections office.
Mack’s gathering of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association—touted as a “call to action” among the nation’s sheriffs to open investigations around the country inspired by Dinesh d’Souza’s fraudulent pseudo-documentary 2000 Mules into ostensible election fraud by left-wing activists—prominently featured four well-known election denialists close to Donald Trump: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, and the top officials at the far-right “election integrity” organization True the Vote, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips—both of whom play central roles in d’Souza’s film.
Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, marveled to the audience about how the election denialists came to form a coalition with the CSPOA, regaling them with descriptions of how they had found that the FBI and state governments had stonewalled their efforts to open investigations into supposed ballot-box stuffing by “mules” based on their “evidence,” which in fact was a farrago of misconstrued and inappropriately applied data, along with absurdly false and hyperinflated claims.
She told the audience that she had finally figured out how to surmount the problem when she was contacted by Mack and “constitutionalist” Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, and informed of their interest in the 2000 Mules claims: “The lights went on: ‘It’s the sheriffs! That’s who can do these investigations, that’s who we can trust, that’s who we can turn over information to.’”
Engelbrecht proclaimed that True the Vote would be partnering with CSPOA and another far-right law-enforcement group, Protect America Now, to get “eyes on those drop boxes in states where they still exist.”
She later hopped back on the mic to praise the assembled sheriffs. “If we would know about you guys back in 2020, things would have been a little bit different,” she said.
Engelbrecht’s True the Vote cohort Gregg Phillips, whose phony claims in 2016 that Hillary Clinton’s election totals had been inflated by millions of illegal votes from undocumented immigrants was widely promoted by Donald Trump, then got up and explained how the coalition would go to work:
Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna raise the money. We’re gonna bundle it into grants to give to sheriffs to put surveillance on all these drop boxes that they refuse to ban. We’re gonna put high-end equipment, we’re gonna put artificial intelligence, and most importantly, we’re gonna create a fusion center. And that fusion center is gonna allow us to bring in open-sourcing intelligence from the field, it’s gonna allow us to bring in signal intelligence, and geo-intelligence. We’ll be able to bundle it, we’ll be able to analyze it, and then we’ll be able to bundle it up into a package and hand it to one of these great men to go after ‘em. And we’re gonna do it in real time.
At least part of this strategy is currently unfolding in western Washington, though it is unclear whether True the Vote is involved. Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner revealed this week that a cadre of seemingly rogue far-right Republicans has been organizing a surveillance campaign precisely along these lines, targeting the state’s all-mail ballot systems, which includes drop boxes for ballots.
The activists, led by an “election integrity” activist named Amber Krabach, have been placing signs near Seattle-area ballot drop boxes warning in red letters that they are “Under Surveillance.” They also warn that accepting payment “for harvesting or depositing ballots” is a likely federal violation.
The signs also feature a scannable code on the signs that directs users to a King County Republican Party website section, urging them to submit “election incident” reports using their form. It suggests including photos and videos.
Krabach told Brunner that said the signs had been placed by volunteers “to act as a deterrent” to anyone acting out the 2000 Mules scenario by delivering ballots for pay. “If they are legally dropping ballots into the box, then the sign shouldn’t bother them.”
A longtime Republican activist who ran for the state Legislature in 2018 and 2020 but was beaten badly, Krabach is running again this year under the banner of the “Election Integrity” party. She has also promoted 2000 Mules, COVID denialism, and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. On Facebook, she has been agitating on pro-Trump pages for King County to install surveillance cameras at drop-box locations.
“I think in Washington we have zero ability to verify that our elections are secure and have integrity,” Krabach told Brunner.
King County Republican chair Mathew Patrick Thomas told Brunner he had only become aware of the signs being placed near drop boxes over the weekend, and immediately messaged Krabach that the activity had to cease. On Monday, he dissolved the GOP’s election-integrity committee on which Krabach had played a leading role.
Thomas claimed the “self-appointed committee” acted “outside of its authority” and “without the express knowledge, permission or consent” of the King County GOP.
“As KCGOP Chairman, I was not consulted regarding this activity and was not made aware of it until I was contacted separately by the Director of King County Elections, Julie Wise, and media,” Thomas said, noting he had sent Krabach a “cease and desist” letter demanding the signs’ removal.
However, Krabach insisted on Facebook that this was not the case: “[Thomas] never told me to stop. He actually thanked me for making sure the signs were already being carefully placed according to law.”
A similar effort appears to be underway statewide in Washington, spearheaded by a group called “WA Citizens United to Secure Ballot Boxes.” Its website promotes surveillance of drop boxes around the state and provides a form for reporting suspicious behavior. It encourages volunteers to sign up to watch ballot boxes and record video of people “dumping an in ordinate amount [sic] of ballots” and “taking pictures of themselves doing it.”
While the website heavily promotes 2000 Mules and directs users to surveillance sites, it is vague about who is financing and organizing the website, claiming it was “created by citizen volunteers” concerned about the “chain of custody” in the state’s election system. “In light of the movie 2000 Mules, we wanted to give the citizens a means to surveil their local drop boxes,” it says.
The same blind adherence to d’Souza’s bogus “evidence” as legitimate proof of election fraud in 2020 fuels the CSPOA-True the Vote coalition. How this strategy will play out on the ground may well depend on how effective the “constitutionalist” sheriffs are in their “investigations,” which Mack insists they can initiate entirely on their own and without anyone else’s permission.
A number of the gathered sheriffs spoke from the stage to outline their plans, including Dar Leaf, the sheriff of Michigan’s Barry County, whose own “investigations” have brought his office under fire from the state attorney general’s office. Leaf’s seizure of a voting machine—which was then disassembled—helped spark Mack’s decision to make such actions part of a nationwide campaign to bolster the 2000 Mules narrative.
Leaf harkened to the “constitutionalist” claim that county sheriffs are the supreme law of the land, saying: “What that does, it gives you the power—and I don’t know if you’re gonna appreciate me saying this—if we can’t get anywhere, we’re looking at doing grand juries, at the common law.”
[As the Anti-Defamation League explains, “common law grand juries” are sham juries comprised of far-right “sovereign citizens” who deploy “paper terrorism” tactics to intimidate local officials. They have been at the center of a number of armed standoffs with federal officers, most notably the 1996 Montana Freemen standoff.]
Sheriff Calvin Hayden of Johnson County, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb of about 500,000, complained that while his county is a “great” place to live, a recent trend in population growth meant new residents were “bringing some of their politics from the crummy place they lived to my county, and it’s not fun.”
Hayden told the audience there was no evidence the voting machines in Johnson County were certified, and said he’d been asked to resign by both “presidents” of the Republican and Democratic parties—claims that were promptly refuted by the Kansas City Star.
He also said that cops “don’t know anything about elections,” but nonetheless announced: “We are going to start doing our geo-data and fencing!”
However, in King County—where the sheriff is not a “constitutionalist”—the enthusiasm for harassing voters based on the 2000 Mules bunkum is viewed very differently. County elections director Julie Wise promptly requested the sheriff’s office open an investigation into the attempts to perform surveillance at drop-box sites.
“I believe this is a targeted, intentional strategy to intimidate and dissuade voters from using secure ballot drop boxes. My team is not going to stand by and allow any group to seed fear and doubt amongst our residents and voters, especially not when they are simply trying to make their voices heard,” Wise said.
Wise added: “These are serious offenses that impact the heart of our democracy,” noting that her office would “work with appropriate state and federal authorities to ensure that the surveillance signs are fully investigated and that the persons posting them are held accountable under the law.”
Wise said her team is “documenting and removing” the signs and would refer “any information about who planted them to the King County Sheriff’s Office for further investigation.”
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg issued a statement backing the investigation: “Signs intended to make voters feel like they are being watched and monitored and violating the law by depositing ballots is voter intimidation, period,” he said.
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