When voters turn out to the polls this year, they may encounter something new at their polling places: poll watchers. These won’t be the ordinary authorized kind, either. They will be right-wing conspiracists who believe the 2020 election was stolen fraudulently by left-wing “mules” who stuff ballot boxes with scads of illegitimate ballots, and they’ll be on the lookout. Some of them will be sheriffs and other law enforcement officers.
That’s the plan, at least, among the hordes of Donald Trump-loving and deep-pocketed election denialists who plan to organize under the rubric of the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, all inspired by Dinesh D’Souza’s fraudulent pseudo-documentary, 2000 Mules. Joining them, according to their recent announcements, will be Christian nationalists like Matt Shea. And it all comes with Donald Trump’s explicit blessing.
The coalition of MAGA election denialists like True the Vote’s Catherine Engelbrecht, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, MAGA Army Gen. Michael Flynn, and “constitutional sheriffs” leaders like Richard Mack and Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb have been open about their plans: organize an army of citizen “poll watchers,” backed by law enforcement, to monitor all polling places and ballot drop boxes in order to prevent a repeat of 2020.
"We will not let happen what happened in 2020," Lamb told a Trump rally in Prescott.
Areeba Shah recently reported for Salon on the impact that Lamb’s campaign is having in Arizona, particularly in rural areas and among communities of color. The fact that an elected official in a position of authority is using that position to enforce an nonfactual and partisan conspiracist narrative—and that they are poised to threaten or intimidate those voters under color of law if deemed suspicious—is especially likely to discourage minority voters.
That prospect "makes it more difficult to break down the walls of voters that we're talking to," Natali Bock, co-executive director of Rural Arizona Action, told Shah. "There is a cynicism that takes root when you have these outlandish stories."
Such "misinformation spreads like wildfire," she added, "and instead of just being able to present facts, now we are have to do a lot of relationship building."
Legislators in a number of states, including Arizona and Texas, have introduced legislation to expand the roles and powers of poll watchers while lowering the requirements to become one. At least 40 such bills have been introduced in 20 states, and some have become law. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that at least 33 bills have been introduced that “would give watchers more authority to observe voters and election officials, with fewer limitations on their actions at polling places and other locations, increasing the possibility of voter intimidation and harassment.”
"Sheriff Lamb is the continuation of every other [form of] voter suppression that has happened," Bock said, "only now it's the more dangerous form because he carries a badge and a gun and is seated at an elected position of power."
Joining the sheriffs on these election front lines are number of fundamentalist Christian churches, such as the Spokane Valley, Washington, congregation led by Shea, a longtime figure in the region’s extremist right. Shea recently informed his flock that the church would be organizing training sessions for poll watchers, after asking them if they had watched 2000 Mules and receiving a strong response:
Well, I think it would be good if we had some folks that were certified, trained box-drop observers in Spokane County, how about you all? So Sept. 30, right here at 6:30 p.m., we’re gonna be training and certifying folks to go do that here in our community. Please show up, tell all the people you possibly can find to do it, because that is a long—we have the two weeks where the mail-in—we gotta go back to the in-person voting. Amen?
He also explained to the congregation why they were undertaking the program:
We also believe that we need to be going into every area of our culture, and one of those areas is elections. And one of those areas is watching drop boxes to make sure that, I don’t know, they don’t get stuffed with anything that’s not of God.
Other Washington far-right activists tried organizing a similar poll-watching exercise in King County, where Seattle is located, during the state’s July primary. Election denialists placed signs at ballot drop boxes warning people that their actions were being recorded on camera. The King County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into those actions at the behest of the county’s elections office.
Similar efforts are popping up around the country. An Arizona paramilitary group called the “Lions of Liberty” recently announced that it was planning an “Operation Drop Box,” under which they "plan on watching the ballot boxes throughout Yavapai County." They also claim to have the support and cooperation of Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes: “Contact us and we’ll get in touch with Sheriff Rhodes who is already aware of what we are doing and will do what he can.”
In Michigan, where Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf has been spearheading the election-denialist cause, a far-right coalition of “Patriots,” tea party activists, COVID denialists, and national groups like Turning Point USA have teamed up to form a “Michigan Election Protection Team.” Its aim is to turn out 5,000 poll watchers for the 2022 election.
Sharon Dolente, a senior adviser at Promote the Vote Michigan, told Shah that the presence of law enforcement to police elections can dissuade voters from casting their ballots, producing a "chilling effect" that can affect entire communities, particularly those who have been disenfranchised historically.
"There were many instances after the 2020 election where individuals who were questioning the result were only questioning the results specifically in Black and brown communities in the state of Michigan," Dolente said. "I don't think that's an accident, right? I think that is a response to the political power and will those communities expressed, and it's an effort to dampen that."
Trump endorsed the poll watchers concept last month in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. Hannity asked Trump if he planned to have poll watchers on Election Day with the "ability to monitor, to avoid fraud and cross check whether or not these are registered voters, whether or not there's been identification to know if it's a real vote from a real American?"
Trump answered: "We're going to have everything. We're going to have sheriffs and law enforcement and we're going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys, and we're going to have everybody, and attorney generals, but it's very hard."
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told NBC News that Trump’s threat is "an old and familiar tactic pulled right from the Jim Crow playbook and often specifically targeted at Black voters and voters of color. This voter suppression scheme is intended to intimidate voters and cause a chilling effect on the electorate" and "would likely run afoul of laws that prohibit intimidation of voters."
Clarke added that her group "will use every tool in our arsenal to block thinly veiled efforts aimed at discouraging participation by eligible voters this election season.”
“The specter of law enforcement at the polls is already enough to discourage people from going to the polls,” observed Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. “Moreover, the threat of surveillance of polling places and drop boxes proposed by groups like True the Vote is meant to intimidate voters, particularly people of color, and deter them from casting ballots.”
Trump and his followers proved on Jan. 6 how dangerously close they came to overturning our democracy. Help cancel Republican voter suppression with the power of your pen by clicking here and signing up to volunteer with Vote Forward, writing personalized letters to targeted voters urging them to exercise their right to vote this year.