Rightwing sheriffs’ groups ramp up drives to monitor US midterm elections

·10 min read
<span>Photograph: Bridget Bennett/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bridget Bennett/Reuters

Two groups of rightwing sheriffs that echo some of Donald Trump’s false claims about widespread voting fraud in 2020 are ramping up drives to monitor this year’s elections for potential voting and election fraud.

The two Arizona-led groups together boast over 350 sheriffs as members nationwide, and have forged various ties with Texas-based True the Vote, which has a history of making unverified claims of voting fraud, spurring watchdogs and law enforcement veterans to voice alarms of looming threats to voting rights and election workers.

The burgeoning sheriffs’ drive to investigate so-called voting fraud was evident at a secretive Arizona meeting on 13 August that drew a crowd of some 200 allies, including former sheriff Richard Mack and current sheriff Mark Lamb, who each lead sheriffs’ groups. The True the Vote chief, Catherine Engelbrecht, arranged the event, Mack told the Guardian.

The gathering lasted about seven and a half hours and featured talks by Engelbrecht and Lamb, the sheriff of Pinal county, Arizona, who teamed up in June to create ProtectAmerica.Vote. to promote a larger role for sheriffs in election monitoring, said Mack.

“I totally support what they’re doing,” said Mack, who leads the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which has thousands of members around the country, including hundreds of sheriffs.

The event, to which Mack invited several of his staff and two former law enforcement officials, provided “more evidence of quite extensive election fraud”, said Mack. “There’s no way anyone in this country should be trusting computers to tabulate votes.” The meeting, which was covered live by the conservative Right Side Broadcasting Network, was held at a venue “ that was very surreptitious”, added Mack, former sheriff of Graham county, Arizona.

Notably, the gathering also heard at the outset from Kari Lake, the Trump-backed GOP gubernatorial nominee for Arizona and former Fox News reporter, and was attended by Mark Finchem, a state legislator and the Trump-endorsed nominee for secretary of state, which has authority over election supervision, according to Mack. Both Lake and Finchem are prominent election deniers.

The meeting, about a half-hour outside Scottsdale, underscores how sheriffs with Lamb’s group, Protect America Now, and Mack’s group, are working with True the Vote to provide more muscle to investigate charges of current and past voting fraud, despite numerous reports indicating such fraud is historically small, and was not significant in 2020 elections.

At a press conference in Las Vegas on 12 July with several sheriffs and Engelbrecht, Mack declared that investigating voting fraud is now his group’s top priority, calling it a “holy cause”.

Voting watchdogs raise strong concerns about the budding alliances between far-right sheriffs and True the Vote.

“There is a critical role for law enforcement to play in protecting our elections: they should be offering protection to election officials and election workers that have come under attack as a result of lies being spread by groups like True the Vote,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center. “When law enforcement or anyone else spreads false claims about elections, they’re contributing to pressure on election officials.”

Morales-Doyle added: “True the Vote was one of the groups behind the failed lawsuits seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election. It has a long history of anti-voter conduct, including orchestrating mass challenges to voters, as it did in the 2021 Georgia runoff elections.”

Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote during an event held by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 12 July.
Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote during an event held by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 12 July. Photograph: Bridget Bennett/Reuters

Both Engelbrecht and Mack have sparked other criticism for promoting 2020 election conspiracies, and Mack’s sheriff’s outfit and other sheriffs have pushed the dubious concept that they have extraordinary powers in their counties and can intervene in the running of elections and access voting equipment.

Mack’s Constitutional Sheriffs website, which he launched in 2011 and has hundreds of members, claims that a sheriff’s authority in a county is greater than those of other officials and “even supersedes the powers of the president”.

Mack and his group have prompted other concerns due to ties to anti-government groups: Mack spent a few years on the board of Oath Keepers, the militia group that played a key role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol that led to several of its members being charged with seditious conspiracy, before he left the board in 2016.

“I think it’s a significant overreach of authority by sheriffs across the country, including Mack and Lamb, to on their own declare they have the authority to investigate voting fraud,” said David Mahoney, a former president of the country’s largest sheriffs organization, the National Sheriffs Association which represents some 3000 sheriffs.

“Mack has promoted a whole host of conspiracies,” said Mahoney, who spent 15 years as sheriff of Dane county, Wisconsin. “I think it’s entirely for self-aggrandizement and to make himself relevant. Mack is playing to a far-right constituency and helps feed conspiracies.”

Mahoney added that Mack “has said individuals have the right to form militias. I put very little credibility in him.”

But Mack and True the Vote now seem to be on the same page in a growing crusade to hunt for election fraud.

Last month in Las Vegas during the annual libertarian Freedom Fest, Mack’s group hosted a panel talk that featured several like-minded sheriffs and Engelbrecht, who revealed her rationale for enlisting sheriffs in her long-running search for alleged voting fraud.

“All of a sudden, it’s like the lights went on. It’s the sheriffs,” she told an audience of about 200 attendees at the event. “That’s who can do these investigations. That’s who we can trust.”

To cement other ties and bolster the hunt for voting fraud, True the Vote and a sheriffs group led by Lamb, Protect America Now which claims about 70 members in 30 states, in June formed ProtectAmerica.Vote.

The joint effort features an “election integrity hotline” that True the Vote has deployed in past elections that can connect citizens with tips to sheriffs and ads that the group hopes to run in a “handful of states”, Engelbrecht told the Guardian.

ProtectAmerica.Vote also may give grants to some sheriffs in key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan where county sheriffs have launched investigations into alleged election fraud, and provide surveillance equipment to monitor drop boxes and other voting sites, she added. To date Engelbrecht said they had raised slightly more than $100,000 of a $1m-plus goal.

“There’s no question there was tremendous election fraud in 2020,” Engelbrecht said despite numerous reports stating otherwise. “We have big, big problems. We found many ways in which the election process was subverted in 2020.”

Engelbrecht added her new drive with sheriffs aims to “identify preventive solutions to avoid a repeat of 2020”.

The website for ProtectAmerica.Vote states its mission is to “empower sheriffs” and “connect citizens and sheriffs” as part of a wide-ranging drive to ferret out potential voting fraud. In a video on its website Sheriff Lamb of Pinal county says: “We will engage voters, we’ll help clear up confusion through education and where necessary sheriffs can and will investigate where laws are being broken.”

Since Engelbrecht, an early Tea Party activist, founded the dark money True the Vote in 2009 it has raised millions of dollars boasting to have discovered widespread voting fraud, but not revealed significant evidence to back up such allegations, say several voting analysts and watchdogs.

True the Vote’s financial angels have in recent years included several of the right’s top donors. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, State Policy Network, Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, DonorsTrust, the League of American Voters and Judicial Crisis Network have reported giving money to True the Vote since its founding, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign financing.

Related: Trump’s ‘big lie’ hits cinemas: the film claiming to investigate voter fraud

True the Vote has seen its star rise in Trump world and “big lie” circles this year due to its key role in 2000 Mules, a film by rightwing provocateur and commentator Dinesh D’Souza that purported to show major fraud linked to ballot drop boxes in 2020, but was widely panned for its weak evidence.

True the Vote supplied surveillance video and cellphone tracking data that were instrumental in making the film. But critics have faulted it for its flawed methodology and unproven claims that Democrats rigged the vote in several major states Biden won by paying “mules” who delivered 400,000 illegal votes.

Former attorney general William Barr called the film “singularly unimpressive” during an interview he had with the House panel investigating January 6. Other critics go further.

“2000 Mules failed spectacularly in its efforts to present demonstrable evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election,” said David Levine, a former Idaho election official and the elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

“Experts in geo-tracking data analysis say GPS data from apps on cellphones aren’t even precise enough to place cellphone users at a drop box, let alone show the commission of a crime at one.”

Mack was impressed by the documentary, which debuted at Mar-a-Lago, saying the evidence it presented “is overwhelming and justifies criminal investigation”. But Mack added that “if True the Vote and D’Souza lied they should be charged”.

Still, the heavy criticism of 2000 Mules spurred True the Vote to make several promises that more explosive evidence would be coming soon.

At the Arizona meeting on 13 August, Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips, a key associate who had starred in 2000 Mules, finally unveiled their promised bombshell, dubbed “The Pit”.

What Phillips had hailed as “devastating” materials that were left out of 2000 Mules turned out to be only a new website Open.ink where they promised to put election lawsuit documents from various states and surveillance videos of drop boxes.

On another controversial front, True the Vote’s financial operations have drawn more scrutiny since June when Reveal news published a well-documented report focused on questionable accounting and insider financial dealings that seem to have personally benefited Engelbrecht and key associates.

Engelbrecht attacked the story, saying “it was filled with inaccuracies”.

Marc Owens, a former chief of the tax exempt division at the Internal Revenue Service, told the Guardian that Reveal’s report underscored “a pattern of insider financial transactions totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars involving Engelbrecht and the organization’s senior management and advisers”.

More broadly, True the Vote’s growing alliance with sheriffs to mount aggressive election fraud monitoring drives has prompted some former federal prosecutors to raise strong concerns.

“I am aware of no state that permits vigilante-style election monitoring and voter fraud hunting by zealous conspiracy minded conservatives and sheriffs,” Paul Pelletier, the former acting chief of the fraud section at the Department of Justice, said.

“Given True the Vote’s history of wholly unsupportable claims of fraud, the group’s ‘election monitoring’ alliance with some sheriffs who claim extraordinary powers for themselves runs the risk of violating federal law by intimidating voters. It seems to me they are flying too close to the sun here, and I am sure the DoJ [Department of Justice] will pay special attention to anyone who acts to intimidate or interfere with voters who are exercising their rights so fundamental to a democracy.”