You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Pro-Trump Republicans court election volunteers to ‘challenge any vote’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/25/2022 Patrick Marley, Rosalind Helderman, Tom Hamburger
Voters cast their ballot at a polling station during the Wisconsin primary Election Day at Riverside University High School on Aug. 9 in Milwaukee. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Voters cast their ballot at a polling station during the Wisconsin primary Election Day at Riverside University High School on Aug. 9 in Milwaukee.

RACINE, Wis. — The Republican National Committee and its allies say they have staged thousands of training sessions around the country on how to monitor voting and lodge complaints about next month’s midterm elections. In Pennsylvania, party officials have boasted about swelling the ranks of poll watchers to six times the total from 2020. In Michigan, a right-wing group announced it had launched “Operation Overwatch” to hunt down election-related malfeasance, issuing a press release that repeated the warning “We are watching” 10 times.

Supporters of former president Donald Trump who falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen have summoned a swarm of poll watchers and workers in battleground states to spot potential fraud this year. It is a call to action that could subject voting results around the country to an unprecedented level of suspicion and unfounded doubt.

“We’re going to be there and enforce those rules, and we’ll challenge any vote, any ballot, and you’re going to have to live with it, OK?” one-time Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon said on a recent episode of his podcast. “We don’t care if you don’t like it. We don’t care if you’re going to run around and light your hair on fire. That’s the way this is going to roll.”

Whether the flood-the-zone approach will materialize remains to be seen. Election officials will not know until Election Day how many poll watchers will turn up, making it impossible to be sure whether there will be a surge in volunteers. In battleground states like Arizona and Wisconsin, many Republicans who have said they would serve as poll workers have not taken any shifts.

But the appeal from GOP figures who deny the results of the last presidential vote has created a dilemma for election officials, who rely on ordinary citizens to do the grunt work of democracy — checking in voters, for instance, or opening absentee ballots — but now fear some of those who show up could become agents of disruption.

An official poll watcher uses binoculars as workers count ballots for the 2020 presidential election at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 3, 2020. © Hannah Yoon/Bloomberg An official poll watcher uses binoculars as workers count ballots for the 2020 presidential election at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 3, 2020.

Election administrators say they welcome more participation from the public but worry that improperly trained observers could try to enforce rules that they are misinterpreting. Even a handful of bad actors, they note, can inject chaos into the voting system and sow distrust.

“The problems don’t need to be in a thousand polling places,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, D.C. “If there’s a violent incident in one polling place, that’s enough, because the election deniers have been pouring gasoline all over the country, and it just takes one match.”

Poll workers are supervised by election officials and are responsible for a range of tasks, including processing ballots, checking IDs and assisting voters. More than 600,000 of them helped run the 2018 midterm election, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

Poll watchers, who are usually selected and trained by political parties, voting rights organizations and other groups, can observe voting and in some states can lodge complaints on-site if they believe anything improper is occurring. The commission does not track the number of poll watchers in the reports it publishes on election administration every two years, which complicates attempts to compare the Nov. 8 election to past ones.

In Michigan, where one of the state’s most populous counties — Macomb — was recently revealed to have hired an outspoken election denier to help recruit poll workers, the state’s top elections official said she was taking precautions. Even before the hiring became public, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said she had made arrangements with law enforcement to ensure police can get to polling places within minutes if anything goes wrong.

“We know there’s certainly more activity this year than we saw in 2020 to place people either as observers, challengers or poll workers who have been trained through misinformation and potentially having been told to disrupt the process,” Benson said. “So we’re preparing for that.”

Benson’s office this summer distributed a new “poll worker code of conduct.” The voluntary 11-point pledge includes a promise to “not harass, threaten, retaliate against or disparage” fellow election officials and to not share insider information with people who are not authorized to receive it.

A Michigan organization led by purveyors of false fraud theories issued its own pledge last month, vowing to surveil drop boxes, recruit poll workers and scrutinize employees at nursing homes who could attempt to “take advantage of elderly residents and usurp their votes.”

“If you are someone who seeks to cast a vote illegally, we are watching,” the Michigan Grassroots Alliance announced, dubbing its work “Operation Overwatch.”

Since Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, which culminated with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, election officials have been bombarded with threats and accusations that they cannot be trusted to impartially oversee the vote. Bannon and others say that only by mobilizing pro-Trump volunteers can they be sure that the process is not marred by cheating.

Democrats and voting rights advocates see different motives: an attempt to cast further doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections as well as a plan to lay the groundwork for legal challenges should pro-Trump Republicans lose their races.

“I think what you’re setting up for is Republicans to say our people were excluded [as poll watchers], ballots were counted that shouldn’t have been counted, challenges were not acknowledged that should have been acknowledged,” Democratic election attorney Marc Elias said.

A majority of GOP nominees deny or question the 2020 election results

Democrats and voting rights groups are recruiting their own observers. In addition, the Democratic National Committee says it has a staff of more than 150 and a budget of $25 million dedicated to ensuring eligible voters can cast ballots.

The high tempo and intensity of Republican recruitment efforts have been readily apparent — especially compared with previous election cycles. The party this year has dedicated millions of dollars to the effort.

For decades, the RNC was barred from conducting many polling-place operations under a consent decree that stemmed from intimidating tactics it used in a 1981 race for governor in New Jersey. A court lifted the decree in 2017, and the RNC has made close monitoring of the polls a pillar of its midterm strategy.

The party has taken advantage of that opportunity, hiring 17 state directors for voting matters and establishing councils focused on the issue in 37 states. Since last year, they have held more than 5,000 trainings and signed up tens of thousands of people to serve as poll workers and poll watchers, according to the party.

Whether they will show up is another matter, particularly in places Republicans have targeted as supposed hotbeds of fraud.

Right-leaning election activists focused on the largest cities of Pennsylvania, for instance, in arguing — without evidence — that the 2020 vote was marred by cheating. This month, the RNC’s director of election integrity, Andrea Raffle, told trainees that the party had recruited 6,000 poll watchers in the state, up from 1,000 in 2020, according to Reuters.

In a tweet, Joseph Flynn — brother to former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, a prominent promoter of false claims about the 2020 election — touted the increase in Pennsylvania, which has critical races this year for governor and U.S. Senate. “They won’t be able to steal this election the same way they stole 2020!” he wrote.

But a Pennsylvania state law requires poll watchers to be registered voters in the communities where they show up to observe. Lisa M. Deeley (D), the chairwoman of the city commissioners for Philadelphia — a frequent target of false allegations of fraud in the 2020 election — said the law prevents outsiders from flooding city voting sites or counting facilities.

She acknowledged “huge concern nationwide” over the issue but said, “we don’t anticipate those kinds of issues” locally.

“They’re not busing people in here to do this,” she said. “There’s nowhere for them to go. They can’t wreak that kind of havoc because they’re not allowed to fill those roles.”

Around the country, state chapters of the Republican Party and self-described patriot groups — fueled by Trump’s false claims about elections — have sought volunteers and trained them how to document what they see at the polls.

In Racine, Wis., a group of conservative activists recently held their regular meeting in the back of an Italian-themed bar festooned with small American flags to discuss the upcoming election. They talked up the need to recruit 150 poll watchers to cover 12 precincts — and to help build a case for a potential legal challenge.

“Our activities and our roles are designed to capture information that we can pass along to law enforcement, to lawyers contemporaneously so that we have some kind of chance of getting a certification challenge going timely if we need to,” Carol Vaclavicek, campaign treasurer to a state Assembly candidate, told the group.

“Everybody familiar with what Steve Bannon said about what happened on November 3rd, 2020?” she asked. “He said, ‘We won, but we failed to close the deal.’”

Like Bannon, election attorney Cleta Mitchell has used her podcast to prod conservatives to take shifts as poll observers. Her nonprofit group, the Election Integrity Network, has trained poll watchers around the country and offered online videos explaining how to monitor voting.

“It’s just like parents realizing they’ve got to go to the school boards,” Mitchell, who advised Trump as he sought to overturn the 2020 election, said in a recent podcast. “Citizens have got to go to the election offices. We need people being a presence in the election offices.”

Republicans argue increased poll watching will give voters more confidence that elections are running smoothly and ensure any irregularities are caught.

“We just want to make sure we have more eyes out there,” said Paul Farrow, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “When I look at 2020, the biggest challenge I think we had under a pandemic was we didn’t have enough people seeing what was happening. Now we do.”

Poll station watchers stand outside a polling station at the South Phoenix Moose Lodge during the first day of early voting on Oct. 12 in Phoenix. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Poll station watchers stand outside a polling station at the South Phoenix Moose Lodge during the first day of early voting on Oct. 12 in Phoenix.

Many states require election officials to use poll workers who have been recommended by the political parties and to attempt to achieve partisan balance in each precinct. Some of the most important tasks must be performed by teams consisting of one Democrat and one Republican.

But partisan balance can be difficult to achieve in places that skew heavily toward one party or the other.

In many Wisconsin cities, most poll workers are unaffiliated with a political party, and Republicans make up a tiny fraction of those planning to serve. As of mid-October, Republicans accounted for 1 percent of the poll workers in Madison, 2 percent of the poll workers in Milwaukee and 8 percent of the poll workers in Green Bay, according to data provided by city clerks.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., the RNC brought litigation this month over an alleged partisan imbalance among poll workers — to the consternation of county officials who said they had been evenhanded in offering members of both parties opportunities to serve.

Emails released under the state’s public records law show county officials routinely contacted Republicans who said they wanted to work at the polls only to find that many of them would not take shifts.

In Colorado, three Republican poll workers were rejected by their own party, in part, they believe, because they had defended the legitimacy of elections.

Candi Boyer had worked alongside Democrats for 15 elections in El Paso County, the state’s most populous county and home to Colorado Springs. Her tasks included methodically flattening mail-in ballots so they could be read by voting tabulators.

“I always say, it’s boring — very boring,” said Boyer, 67. “However, it’s vital to the process. And that’s why I do it.”

In September, Boyer — who has supported Republicans for office since she turned 18 and voted for Trump in 2020 — lost her position after tangling with the local GOP chairwoman and making clear she believes local elections are handled with integrity.

The chairwoman, Vickie Tonkins, has promoted the false theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump — including by speaking alongside a group of prominent election deniers at an “emergency meeting” in March following the arrest of a Colorado clerk who is accused of orchestrating the copying of voting machine hard drives in an effort to prove fraud. In addition to Boyer, she revoked the appointments of two other Republican poll workers.

“We haven’t jumped on her election denier bandwagon,” said Brenda Conrad, another of the Republicans who saw her position rescinded.

Tonkins cited a Colorado law that allows the local party chair to withdraw election judge appointments if she deems the appointees to not “faithfully or fairly represent the party.” In a Sept. 22 email to County Clerk Chuck Broerman, she said she believed they “no longer represent the El Paso County Republican Party and my Administration.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, Tonkins stood by her decision, saying, “I am doing my job as the El Paso County Chair. People do not always like the decisions that leaders have to make for the betterment of the whole.”

Broerman, a one-time chairman of the local GOP, said the instruction felt “not fair and not right,” but he followed state law and removed the workers. Under another provision of state law, Broerman rehired Boyer and the others to fill vacancies. The openings occurred because the Republican Party had not nominated enough workers to fill those jobs. As a result, Boyer and Conrad will serve alongside other Republicans appointed by the party.

During the 2020 election — held amid the coronavirus pandemic — many jurisdictions struggled to find poll workers, whether Republican, Democratic or independent. Difficulties finding poll workers continue in some areas, as a group of Democratic senators noted last week in a letter to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

Michael Siegrist, the clerk of Canton Township outside of Detroit, said he has seen a drop in the number of poll workers — particularly among Republicans — since 2020. He said that the shortfall had left him and other local officials scrambling to fill positions for poll workers, known as inspectors in Michigan.

“Our percentage of Republicans participating as inspectors dropped in 2022,” Siegrist said. “Inspectors are a dying breed.”

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this report.


More From The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon