Far-right ‘constitutional sheriffs’ now turn to hunting ‘fraud’ in midterm elections

A controversial group of right-wing sheriffs who spread false allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election and propagated Donald Trump’s Big Lie are now pledging to monitor this year’s midterm elections by monitoring the boxes of filing and a hotline to report suspected voter fraud.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) supports the far-right fringe belief that, under the US Constitution, county sheriffs have sweeping power that supersedes all other federal, state, or local authorities. He recently partnered with a Texas nonprofit called True the Vote, which peddled conspiracy theories about voter fraud. Now the two groups promise to continue to investigate allegations of a “stolen election” in 2020 and also to monitor future voting. For election officials and suffrage advocates, the combination bodes ill.

This partnership provides insight into the role the “constitutional sheriff” movement plays in casting doubt on the electoral process and monitoring how voters vote. Such efforts amount to voter intimidation and voter suppression in many cases, advocates say.

Having county elected officials spreading conspiracy theories “makes it harder to break down the walls of the voters we’re talking to,” said Natali Bock, co-executive director of Rural Arizona Action. “There’s a cynicism that takes root when you have these outlandish stories.” This kind of “misinformation spreads like wildfire,” she continued, “and instead of just being able to present facts, we now have to build a lot of relationships.”

Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, has become a prominent figure in the movement that lends law enforcement credence to false allegations of voter fraud. He helped found Protect America Now, a coalition of nearly 70 sheriffs from different parts of the country who say they are working together to protect America from “an overly ambitious government.” In partnership with True the Vote, the coalition has raised more than $100,000 toward a $1 million goal to fund monitoring of ballot box sheriffs and an anonymous hotline for advice on voter fraud. Lamb’s office did not respond to Salon’s request for comment.

“Sheriff Lamb is the continuation of all the other [form of] voter suppression that happened,” Bock said, “only now is the most dangerous form because he wears a badge and a gun and sits in an elected position of power.” Bock’s organization does advocacy and outreach work in Pinal County (which is south and east of Phoenix) as well as other parts of rural Arizona.

Lamb’s rhetoric is dangerous, adds Bock, because it can embolden other far-right extremists to violence, which can endanger voters and election workers. There is also the danger of perpetuating a “cycle of cynicism” among historically marginalized communities that have faced voter suppression, which may prevent them from participating in the democratic process.

“Communities of color have apathy around voting and the democratic process,” she said, before asking, “Is it apathy? Or is it the conclusion of generations of oppression ?”

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Lamb promoted his coalition’s partnership at a July rally in Prescott, Arizona, saying “sheriffs are going to enforce the law…We won’t let what happened in 2020 happen.” . A staunch Trump supporter, Lamb also endorsed a slate of non-election candidates backed by the former president. Lamb continues to recruit sheriffs from counties across the United States and has posted ads defining his coalition’s mission as “fighting a liberal takeover.”

County sheriffs in at least three states have launched their own supposed voter fraud investigations, fueled by right-wing conspiracy theories circulating since the 2020 election. In Michigan, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf , is under state investigation for allegedly tampering with voting machines. Leaf last year seized a Dominion vote tabulator in Irving Township and allegedly “ripped it up,” later returning it with a broken security seal, the county clerk told News 8.

Leaf’s lengthy investigation into voter fraud was unsuccessful, with the Barry County prosecutor finding no evidence of wrongdoing. This is just one example among dozens of others launched by Holocaust deniers across the country. These efforts have uncovered no cases of voter fraud, but suffrage advocates say they have a negative impact on voter turnout.

Law enforcement’s role in policing elections can deter voters from voting, said Sharon Dolente, senior adviser at Promote the Vote Michigan. This “chilling effect” will not only impact individual voters, but also entire communities, especially those that have been historically disenfranchised.

“People who questioned [2020] questioned the results only in black and brown communities in Michigan. I don’t think it was an accident, do you?”

“There were many instances after the 2020 election where people questioning the outcome only questioned the results in black and brown communities across the state of Michigan,” Dolente said. “I don’t think it was an accident, did it? I think it’s a response to the political power and the will expressed by these communities, and it’s an effort to mitigate that.”

Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, played a pivotal role in recruiting sheriffs, lawyers and conservative activists for the so-called crusade against the voter fraud movement. When federal and state law enforcement denied her group’s claims, she turned to county sheriffs for help.

Engelbrecht was featured in “2000 Mules”, a documentary by right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza that claimed to provide new evidence that the 2020 election was stolen. In it, Engelbrecht made unsubstantiated allegations of widespread ballot box abuse, accusations she repeated repeatedly in right-wing media.

In July, Engelbrecht joined CSPOA founder Richard Mack, former Arizona County Sheriff, to announce their partnership at a training event in Las Vegas. Mack said investigating voter fraud was his group’s top priority, calling it a “holy cause.” He also served on the board of the Oath Keepers, the militia some of whose members are now facing charges of seditious conspiracy for their role in the January 6 uprising.

A detailed 2021 report by the Anti-Defamation League describes the CSPOA as an “extremist anti-government group” and describes Mack’s close ties to “militias and sovereign citizens’ movements” and his associations with white supremacists. (He said he did not share their views.) He has repeatedly led training sessions that the ADL says are intended to indoctrinate law enforcement in extremist movements. Some of them have been led by KrisAnne Hall, a far-right activist who believes the 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments are unconstitutional.

Although it’s too early to gauge the effects of this new far-right movement, Florida and Georgia have passed laws restricting absentee voting and the use of ballot boxes, two main targets of Trump’s false claims. on widespread electoral fraud.

A 2021 report by the Anti-Defamation League describes the Richard Mack Sheriff’s Association as an “extremist anti-government group” and describes Mack’s close ties to “militias and sovereign citizens’ movements.”

In Georgia, where black and brown voters came out in record numbers, Joe Biden won by about 12,000 votes, and Democrats went on to win two close elections for U.S. Senate seats. Even though Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has repeatedly said there has been no widespread fraud in the state’s election, lawmakers have enacted sweeping changes to his election law. which advocates say are likely to harm minority voters.

“By creating these new bureaucracies and this new bureaucracy,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, lawmakers are “creating a cycle of voter intimidation.” It’s “a relic of the past,” she continued, and too close to “what we saw in Jim Crow, with people coming to people’s doors with guns and pitchforks, trying to ask : ‘Are you the registered voter here?’ ”

His group has developed a voter protection program to help dispel voters’ doubts about the electoral process and ensure that they do not encounter obstacles when casting their ballots. But Dennis says Georgia’s new law, SB 441, which authorizes state police to launch an investigation into any allegations of voter fraud, worries him. Such unsubstantiated claims, she says, can create a “domino effect,” hurting voters “who aren’t in news-flooded areas and weakening their voice at the ballot box,” Dennis said. “I am thinking in particular of Georgia, [there] is a coordinated effort to do so deliberately.”

Dolente, who has been working on voting rights in Michigan for 20 years, strikes in the same direction. Along with efforts to restrict voting access for people from historically disenfranchised communities, she says there is also a coordinated effort to spread disinformation in those communities. But despite dozens of lawsuits filed in 2020 and 2021 seeking voter fraud in her state, she said, authorities have found none.

“The system is safe and secure and Michigan voters know it,” Dolente said. “They can concoct as many investigations as they want and it will never end up with a different result.”

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