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“Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories are coming for swing state ballot boxes

Election-denying poll watchers are casting a shadow on the 2022 midterms.

A woman drops her midterms ballot in the drop box near the Maricopa County Juvenile Court Center in Mesa, Arizona. 
Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

In the lead-up to the November midterm elections, groups that have allied themselves with former President Donald Trump and Republicans have encouraged people to stake out polling sites — with the explicit goal of building a case to challenge election outcomes, introducing a new facet to the efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Early voting locations in Arizona have already been the sites of some high-profile incidents of alleged or potential voter intimidation. In one incident, two armed people in tactical gear and affiliated with the group Clean Elections USA were seen at a ballot drop box in Mesa, Arizona. After two nonprofit groups filed suit last week against Clean Elections USA, alleging voter intimidation, a federal judge ruled that the group’s tactics did not amount to a “true threat” and that activists were allowed to gather at the ballot boxes.

Arizona has been the site of several alleged instances of voter intimidation, but similar incidents are happening elsewhere — including in swing states like Pennsylvania, as Mary McCord, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff Thursday.

Axios reported earlier this week that members of extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are being encouraged to sign up as volunteers in local election offices, putting people who wish to disrupt elections alongside the volunteer force that is a critical part of the election process. And groups like True the Vote and One More Mission which have the financial and logistical support of some well-known Trump insiders — are mobilizing volunteers.

These activities are contributing to an environment around the upcoming election so volatile that the Department of Justice addressed it publicly at a news conference last week. Attorney General Merrick Garland said “the Justice Department has an obligation to guarantee a free and fair vote by everyone who’s qualified to vote and will not permit voters to be intimidated” around the midterm elections.

Whether thousands of people will be spurred to extreme actions this year based on a conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen, the midterms are rigged, and Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States is unclear, maybe even doubtful. But even the possibility of violence could have a deterrent effect on voters.

“It creates the conditions whereby, around the country, it could deter people from voting, and cause people to be nervous because they don’t know what could happen in their own areas, so I think the effects are much wider than what’s happening in a particular county in Arizona,” Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles and the director of its Safeguarding Democracy Project, told Vox.

“It harkens back to a time when some voters, such as African American voters in the South, faced threats and intimidation when they tried to go and cast a ballot.”

Some of the “Stop the Steal” players are at work in the midterms

Elections are often a challenging time in democracies in the sense that they represent a contest for power and resources, Lilliana Mason, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute, told Vox.

“The period around elections becomes much more volatile when we’re all competing over what we think of as our own status in society,” she said. “But there’s also the added complication of basically the entire Republican Party pushing this narrative that no election can be legitimate if Democrats win, so it’s not only a status competition, which already creates the potential for violence — it’s a stolen status competition.”

It’s worth remembering that the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, was the violent culmination of the “Stop the Steal” campaign. That campaign was a concerted and coordinated effort on the part of Trump loyalists, including Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Michael Flynn, and Cleta Mitchell, to sow doubt around the legitimacy of the 2020 election, first by spreading conspiracy theories about voter fraud with no basis in fact. Then after the election, Trump and his supporters filed lawsuits (which were dismissed) and demanded audits (which didn’t change the results of the election).

Some of those same actors are involved in the current poll-watching efforts. As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported, a group called One More Mission is attempting to recruit military veterans and law enforcement to serve as poll watchers. The group is funded by the America Project, which is headed by Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Overstock.com chief Patrick Byrne, and Flynn’s brother Joseph. Since his brief time in the White House, Michael Flynn has become among the most recognizable proponents of right-wing conspiracy theories, and Byrne wrote an entire book about his election fraud theories.

Eastman, for his part, is encouraging people to use observations from their activity at election sites to file legal challenges in elections that Democrats win, as Politico reported this week.

“Document what you’ve seen, raise the challenge. And [note] which of the judges on that election board decline to accept your challenge. Get it all written down,” Eastman told a group of volunteers organized through Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network to observe or work at polling sites or challenge elections after the midterms. “That then becomes the basis for an affidavit in a court challenge after the fact.”

Eastman is under investigation by the Justice Department for his part in attempting to overturn the 2020 election.

Volunteers do work as poll watchers at some polling places, and they can observe the process and report any irregularities, Hasen told Vox. “Often they volunteer with a political party, and they’re there to observe and make sure that all the rules are being followed and that is generally a positive thing, because that helps to assure that everyone’s following the rules and provides a few more sets of eyes that can verify in the event of that there are some claims of any kinds of irregularities,” he said.

That’s not what’s happening with efforts like Clean Elections USA, One Last Mission, and Truth the Vote, though. “What’s happening now looks much more like vigilantism,” Hasen told Vox. “There’s no reason to be staking out drop boxes in tactical gear with weapons. That is something that is at least likely to cause fear and intimidation among voters. That’s not something that normally happens.”

Protecting the election process is critical

As the midterms get closer, experts are vocally concerned about intimidation at the polls, predicated on a misunderstanding about the election process and what’s normal or acceptable when voting.

McCord told PBS that her organization has received reports of “people setting up cameras to videotape people as they’re trying to drop their ballots in ballot boxes,” as well as “people questioning voters or suggesting that what they’re doing by voting is illegal, particularly if they’re maybe depositing of a ballot of an elderly family member or friend.” That kind of behavior can “intimidate people into thinking they’re doing something wrong, so they won’t show up,” McCord said.

Since the 2020 contest, election workers have described a barrage of threats and intimidation, causing many to leave their jobs. Wandrea “Shaye” Moss testified before the January 6 committee earlier this year about how she and her mother, Ruby Freeman, both of whom were election workers in Fulton County, Georgia, had their lives upended following Trump and Giuliani’s false claims that they were committing election fraud. Moss and her mother are Black, and Moss’s testimony included the racist threats and violent intimidation she and her family had experienced.

The New York Times also reported last year on election officials leaving their jobs — some due to ordinary reasons like retirement or being voted out of office, but many because they were burnt out from managing the 2020 elections in the midst of a pandemic and because they feared for their safety or jobs given the vitriol around the 2020 elections.

As Bloomberg reported earlier this week, many high-level electoral officials in Pennsylvania have left their jobs due to stress and the political environment, and officials in 10 of 17 Nevada counties have retired, left their post, or chosen not to seek reelection after 2020, according to a Reuters investigation.

That leaves a dearth of experienced election officials who have run these contests before, know what to expect, and can assess irregularities, Hasen told Vox.

“First, you’re losing people with the kind of experience, knowledge, expertise, respect in the community, but also they’re sometimes being replaced with people who are coming in with a partisan axe to grind or who have embraced false claims that the last election was stolen,” he said. “That creates a whole new set of problems when they try to run an election the next time.”

While most people — voters, volunteers, and election workers — are operating in good faith and upholding the principle of free and fair elections, that approach isn’t necessarily a given.

“Democracy requires truth and reality, and especially what we’ve been seeing from folks like Trump is an intentional muddling of truth and reality, an intentional creation of [an environment of] ‘I don’t know what’s happening, nobody really knows what’s happening, and so therefore, anything could be true,’ encouraging people to ‘just listen to what my leader tells me,’” Mason said. “That’s not democracy, that’s actually autocracy, that’s authoritarianism — listening to the leader over anything that is actually real.”

That intentional confusion and doubt around what Mason said are “legitimate” — what is normal, correct, and legal — as far as the electoral process is concerned has already damaged confidence in the system. That was the point.

But the midterm elections are a critical moment to forcefully and clearly deal with intimidation and disinformation, Hasen told Vox.

“If there are acts of intimidation that aren’t adequately dealt with, I think that’s going to embolden people for 2024,” he said. “Now’s the chance, when there’s not a presidential election on the ballot, to make sure we’re doing things right and fairly and nipping this kind of stuff in the bud, because it’s only going to get worse come 2024.”

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