May 30, 2022

Lawyer Who Plotted to Overturn Trump Loss Recruits Election Deniers to Watch Over the Vote

A central figure in the scheme to reverse the 2020 election is mobilizing grass-roots activists into an “army of citizens” trained to aggressively monitor elections.

In a hotel conference center outside Harrisburg, Pa., Cleta Mitchell, one of the key figures in a failed scheme to overturn Donald J. Trump’s defeat, was leading a seminar on “election integrity.”

“We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020 and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again,” Ms. Mitchell told the crowd of about 150 activists-in-training.

She would be “putting you to work,” she told them.

In the days after the 2020 election, Ms. Mitchell was among a cadre of Republican lawyers who frantically compiled unsubstantiated accusations, debunked claims and an array of confusing and inconclusive eyewitness reports to build the case that the election was marred by fraud. Courts rejected the cases and election officials were unconvinced, thwarting a stunning assault on the transfer of power.

Now Ms. Mitchell is prepping for the next election. Working with a well-funded network of organizations on the right, including the Republican National Committee, she is recruiting election conspiracists into an organized cavalry of activists monitoring elections.

In seminars around the country, Ms. Mitchell is marshaling volunteers to stake out election offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work. She has tapped into a network of grass-root groups that promote misinformation and espouse wild theories about the 2020 election, including the fiction that President Biden’s victory could still be decertified and Mr. Trump reinstated.

One concern is the group’s intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a “friend or foe” of the movement. Many officials already feel under attack by those who falsely contend that the 2020 election was stolen.

An extensive review of Ms. Mitchell’s effort, including documents and social media posts, interviews and attendance at the Harrisburg seminar, reveals a loose network of influential groups and fringe figures. They include election deniers as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the R.N.C., which has participated in Ms. Mitchell’s seminars. The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing think tank with close ties and financial backing from Mr. Trump’s political operation.

Ms. Mitchell says she is creating “a volunteer army of citizens” who can counter what she describes as Democratic bias in election offices.

“We’re going to be watching. We’re going to take back our elections,” she said in an April interview with John Fredericks, a conservative radio host. “The only way they win is to cheat,” she added.

The claim that Mr. Trump lost the election because of improper conduct in election offices or rampant voter fraud is false. Mr. Trump’s defeat was undisputed among election officials and certified by Democrats and Republicans, with many recounts and audits verifying the outcome. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud. Mr. Trump lost more than 50 of his postelection challenges in court.

Campaigns, parties and outside groups from both sides of the political spectrum regularly form poll-monitoring operations and recruit poll workers. And Republicans have in the past boasted of plans to build an “army” of observers, raising fears about widespread voter intimidation and conflict at the polls that largely have not materialized.

Some former election officials say they are hopeful that when election skeptics observe the process they may finally be convinced that the system is sound. But several who examined Ms. Mitchell’s training materials and statements at the request of The New York Times sounded alarms about her tactics.

Ms. Mitchell’s trainings promote particularly aggressive methods — with a focus on surveillance — that appear intended to feed on activists’ distrust and create pressure on local officials, rather than ensure voters’ access to the ballot, they say. A test drive of the strategy in the Virginia governor’s race last year highlighted how quickly the work — when conducted by people convinced of falsehoods about fraud — can disrupt the process and spiral into bogus claims, even in a race Republicans won.

“I think it’s going to come down to whether they are truly interested in knowing the truth about elections or they’re interested in propagating propaganda,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican and former city commissioner of Philadelphia who served on the elections board.

Asked about her project at the Pennsylvania training, Ms. Mitchell declined an interview request and asked a reporter to leave.

In a statement emailed later, she said: “The American election system envisions citizen engagement and we are training people to assume the roles outlined in the statutes.”

Ms. Mitchell’s operation sits at a tension point for her party. While the establishment is eager to take advantage of the base’s energy and outrage over 2020, some are wary of being associated with — or held accountable for — some of the more extreme people in the movement. The feeling is mutual among activists, many of whom believe the R.N.C. did not do enough to back Mr. Trump’s challenge.

The Republican National Committee’s involvement is part of a return to widespread election-work organizing. For nearly 30 years, the committee was limited in some operations by a consent decree after Democrats accused party officials in New Jersey of hiring off-duty police officers and posting signs intended to scare Black and Latino people away from voting. The committee was freed of restrictions in 2018.

This year, its multimillion-dollar investment includes hiring 18 state “election integrity” directors and 19 state “election integrity” lawyers. The party has so far recruited more than 5,000 poll watchers and nearly 12,000 poll workers, according to the committee. These efforts are separate from the Election Integrity Network, said Emma Vaughn, an R.N.C. spokeswoman.

But in multiple states, the R.N.C. election integrity directors have been involved in Ms. Mitchell’s events. Ms. Vaughn acknowledged that party officials participate in events hosted by other groups to recruit poll workers and poll watchers. She noted that in many states poll monitors must be authorized by the party. The R.N.C. is training its monitors to comply with laws protecting voting rights, she said.

“The R.N.C. works with other groups who have an interest in promoting election integrity, but the party’s efforts are independent from any outside organization,” Ms. Vaughn said.

Since 2020, scores of local groups have popped up around the country to promote claims about the election. Many are run by activists with little experience in politics or elections but who have amassed sizable membership lists and social media followers. They are spurred on by national figures touring the circuit and spreading false claims.

Ms. Mitchell stepped in to harness that energy.

The 71-year-old lawyer has been a steady and influential force in the voting battles. Once a liberal Democrat in Oklahoma, Ms. Mitchell has been a fixture in the conservative movement. She has represented the National Rifle Association and was on the board of the American Conservative Union. She has worked closely with Virginia Thomas, the wife of the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, on organizing through the Council for National Policy, a national coordinating group for conservative leaders.

In August 2020, Mr. Trump tapped her to prepare for postelection litigation. She enlisted John Eastman, the lawyer who crafted specious legal theories claiming Vice President Mike Pence could keep Mr. Trump in power. “A movement is stirring,” Ms. Mitchell wrote to Mr. Eastman just two days after Election Day. “But needs constitutional support.”

Ms. Mitchell helped the president argue his case to state officials. She was on the phone with Mr. Trump when he asked Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, to “find 11,780 votes” that could reverse Mr. Trump’s defeat there.

Her latest effort is organized through the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit organization where she serves as a senior legal fellow and where Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s final White House chief of staff, is a senior partner. Mr. Trump’s political action committee, Save America PAC, donated $1 million to the group last year.

Ms. Mitchell has described herself as a key conduit between activists and Republican Party leadership.

“We are trying to bridge the gap between the grassroots and some of the issues we’ve had with the party,” she told trainees at the event outside Harrisburg.

Ms. Mitchell is no doubt connecting with some of the fringe groups and ideas some in the party once avoided.

In Virginia, for example, Ms. Mitchell helped a nonprofit organize a coalition that includes Virginians for America First, a group advocating for hand-counting ballots. It’s a position popular among some of those who believe conspiracy theories about foreign hacking in the 2020 election. The group was funded by Patrick Byrne, the former executive who is now a major benefactor of the election denial movement.

Nic Antaya for The New York Times

In Michigan, Ms. Mitchell’s group held a training session in May that was sponsored in part by a coalition of grass-roots groups called the Michigan Election Protection Team. The R.N.C.’s state election integrity director brought together the coalition to recruit poll workers. According to its website, the coalition includes LaRouchePAC, a committee dedicated to Lyndon LaRouche, the deceased conspiracy theorist, and Let’s Fix Stuff, an outfit run by a former Republican state senator who has promoted a theory about the 2020 election that Republican Michigan Senate leaders denounced as “indefensible.”

The R.N.C. sent both its national and state election integrity directors to Ms. Mitchell’s training near Harrisburg. The state director, Andrea Raffle, had worked alongside Ms. Mitchell for months on the event, one of the speakers told the attendees. Ms. Raffle, as well as an organizer from Heritage Action, would be joining a new coalition of election activists led by Toni Shuppe, a fast-rising state activist, organizers announced.

Ms. Shuppe’s group, Audit the Vote PA, has become a leading peddler of misleading data about the election in Pennsylvania. Last year, the group set out to find evidence of fraud by canvassing neighborhoods in search of discrepancies between election results and information collected from residents, a method that election experts dismiss as invalid.

Ms. Shuppe has admitted to flaws in her data but stands by the conclusions of her analysis. Earlier this year, she circulated a petition that declared citizens’ right “to throw off such government that intends to keep the truth behind the 2020 election hidden.”

Now, Ms. Shuppe is recruiting election activists, using what she learned at Ms. Mitchell’s and other training sessions, she said in an interview. So far, around 200 people have signed up, she said.

“Just know that we have a plan,” she wrote the day after the Harrisburg seminar to her 15,000 Telegram subscribers. “We’ll never quit. This must be fixed. There is no going back to sleep. And 2020 still needs decertified.”

Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

Much of Ms. Shuppe’s plan is laid out in “The Citizens Guide to Building an Election Integrity Infrastructure,” a 19-page manual Ms. Mitchell has distributed at trainings and online.

The document includes some typical guidelines for poll monitors, but elections experts also noted tactics that aren’t routine. The manual advises activists to “be ever-present” inside elections offices, and to meet with post office officials to observe “every step” of the vote-by-mail process allowed by law. They’re advised to keep careful records, including details on any “encounter that is intended to make you uncomfortable being at the election offices.”

They recommend aggressively crowdsourcing the accuracy of the voter rolls by collecting affidavits from residents and mailing letters to try to identify potential “bad addresses.” They advise each group to enlist tech-savvy volunteers who, they suggest, can become expert on the specific software and equipment in each county and “what the vulnerabilities are.”

Activists also were advised to research the backgrounds of election officials, key staff members, and even people inside attorney general offices who work on election issues. The question they should pose about the attorney general officials is, “Is that a friend or foe?” it says.

Coaching poll monitors to consider election officials as enemies is a formula for conflict, said Tammy Patrick, a former federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County elections department in Arizona, who reviewed the manual.

“Sixty to 70 percent of the content is educational, it is observation, it’s transparency,” said Ms. Patrick, who now is a senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund. “But throughout the document, there’s this pitting of people against the election official or the people they’re there to learn from.”

“If they’re being obstructionary and slowing down the process, that’s going to be incredibly challenging,” she said.

Ms. Mitchell said election officials “should have no problem with citizens asking questions and helping them do their jobs better.” She noted the activists are instructed to be courteous and respectful.

Indeed, at the Harrisburg training, Jenny Beth Martin, the leader of Tea Party Patriots, a conservative advocacy group, suggested activists use a three-word response whenever they become frustrated with officials: “Bless your heart,” she said.

Ms. Mitchell has repeatedly held up Virginia, and particularly Fairfax County, as the national model. Ahead of last year’s governor’s race between Glenn Youngkin, a Republican businessman, and Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic former governor, she helped a Virginia nonprofit organize dozens of groups into a coalition. The network ultimately trained 4,500 poll watchers and election workers and organized 18 local task forces, a number that has since doubled, organizers say.

In Fairfax, a Democratic bastion outside Washington, about three dozen activists associated with the coalition and the local Republican Party rotated through election offices, combing through voter registration applications, undeliverable mail and other materials. Christine Brim, the task force’s leader, appeared in person or emailed staff nearly every day, according to Scott Konopasek, the registrar at the time. The operation ate up county workers’ time with dozens of information requests, as well as informal interrogations, Mr. Konopasek said.

“Everything they saw that they didn’t understand was fraud in their minds and that’s how they would frame the questions,” he said. “It was always accusatory.”

Steve Knotts, the Fairfax County G.O.P. chairman, said the activists were merely trying to get answers, particularly because the state had initiated new voting procedures. But election officials would often dodge their questions or brush them off, he said.

“Maybe it offended a few people. It wasn’t intended to be that way,” he said.

Two weeks before the election, the nonprofit behind the Virginia coalition filed a lawsuit, accusing the county of violating state voting law by accepting at least 339 ballot applications that were missing Social Security numbers. A judge ruled that the group did not have standing, which did not settle the legal question — or the dispute.

The G.O.P. activists continued to press Mr. Konopasek and other election workers about it, he and others said. The Gateway Pundit, a right-wing website, reported on the complaint saying “the state of Virginia is being stolen again. We saw it in the 2020 election and we are seeing it again.”

Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Virginians for America First, the coalition member that promotes hand-counting ballots, began posting reports online purporting to show potential problems with absentee ballots and other issues. “It is also clear that the level of potential fraud is significant enough to affect the outcome of these elections,” said one memo, dated five days before the election.

On Election Day, Republican poll watchers in 13 polling places were observed being disruptive, hovering too closely or taking photographs, according to reports that elections workers filed to the county. (Election workers at three sites had similar complaints about Democratic poll monitors. Complaints from 10 sites did not specify the poll watchers’ parties.)

In at least one case, according to the reports, a voter who spoke Spanish left without voting after what two poll workers believed was intimidation from a Republican poll watcher.

Poll workers in other locations noted Republican poll watchers acting like, as one put it, “sleuths.” “They should not be able to act like Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby ferreting out clues,” that poll worker wrote.

Andrianne Konstas, a poll worker and volunteer with the League of Women Voters, said, “It almost felt like if Youngkin hadn’t won, it would be like we’re gathering evidence so we can take it to dismiss precincts or to dismiss a process of voting.”

After the election, the party activists continued to press for change. They put a new Republican on the election board, someone Ms. Brim, the group’s leader, describes as “a real activist.”

“We needed a fighter,” she said, as she recounted her work for the activists at the Harrisburg training.

The new board member, Christopher Henzel, told The Times he would promote transparency to ensure “that elections are both fair and perceived as fair.”

Despite some concerns about these groups’ involvement, the 2021 election overall ran smoothly. It might have helped to have the most skeptical people closely engaged, said Christopher Piper, who until recently ran the Virginia Department of Elections.

“Yes, it was a little bit more annoying, but I think at the end of the day it’s worth it so these people can see the process and feel comfortable and know that it’s a safe, secure process,” Mr. Piper said.

But Mr. Konopasek, the former registrar in Fairfax County, resigned in March in large part because of how difficult Ms. Brim and others were making his job, he said. In his 30-year career, he said, he had never seen anything like it.

“If there’s an absence of good will there’s nothing you can say that’s going to reassure someone or win them over or change their mind,” he said.

Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.

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