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Right-Wing Groups Are Turning Election Denialism Into an Organized Force

The effort is an extraordin­ary invest­ment in bolster­ing the false narrat­ive of wide­spread voter fraud.

The City of Detroit Department of Elections performs a Public Accuracy Test of their equipment, which is made by Dominion Voting Systems, in advance of the August 2 Primary, at their office in Detroit, Michigan, on July 28, 2022.

Several former Trump advisers and offi­cials who promoted base­less claims of wide­spread vote fraud and worked to over­turn the 2020 elec­tion ahead of Janu­ary 6 are now enmeshed in a new effort to chal­lenge votes, voter eligib­il­ity, and elec­tion results in 2022 and beyond.

At the center of this effort is the Conser­vat­ive Part­ner­ship Insti­tute, a right-wing nonprofit funded in part by Trump’s lead­er­ship PAC and home to several key former Trump aides. It is organ­iz­ing a network of groups and indi­vidu­als commit­ted to taking more control of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion in future contests.

The network has published mater­i­als and hosted summits across the coun­try with the aim of coordin­at­ing a nation­wide effort to staff elec­tion offices, recruit poll watch­ers and poll work­ers, and build teams of local citizens to chal­lenge voter rolls, ques­tion postal work­ers, be “ever-present” in local elec­tion offices, and inund­ate elec­tion offi­cials with docu­ment requests. The effort is an extraordin­ary invest­ment in sustain­ing and bolster­ing the false narrat­ive of wide­spread voter fraud.

In form­ing the network, the Conser­vat­ive Part­ner­ship Insti­tute has spun a smat­ter­ing of grass­roots organ­iz­a­tions rooted in elec­tion deni­al­ism into a larger and more coordin­ated web of groups that includes estab­lish­ment entit­ies like Herit­age Action for Amer­ica, an affil­i­ate of the Herit­age Found­a­tion. The Repub­lican National Commit­tee — spear­head­ing its own unpre­ced­en­ted recruit­ment drive for poll watch­ers and work­ers — has parti­cip­ated in some of the network’s summits. Cleta Mitchell, a Repub­lican lawyer and public face of the effort, made the plan clear to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon: “We are arming the army of patri­ots, that’s our goal.” (Bannon has also weapon­ized elec­tion deni­al­ism to drive activ­ists to serve as poll watch­ers and staff other offices in a concer­ted effort that he has dubbed the “precinct strategy.”)

The Conser­vat­ive Part­ner­ship Insti­tute reflects a spider­web of connec­tions to key figures involved in the Janu­ary 6 insur­rec­tion or the wider effort to over­turn the elec­tion results. Mitchell helped Trump chal­lenge elec­tion results in court ahead of Janu­ary 6, promot­ing flimsy legal claims that judges threw out. She parti­cip­ated in the infam­ous phone call with Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger on which Trump pressed him to “find 11,780 votes.” Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Mead­ows is a senior part­ner at the insti­tute and was the keynote speaker at its Geor­gia summit. Dan Scavino — Trump’s former social media director who promoted the Janu­ary 6 rally — is a digital fellow at the insti­tute. Other members of the insti­tute and its orbit also worked to over­turn the 2020 elec­tion.

The network’s efforts are laced with danger­ous false­hoods. Some groups in the network peddle the lie that the 2020 elec­tion could still be decer­ti­fied. Several summit speak­ers have previ­ously embraced false claims that the 2020 elec­tion was marred by wide­spread voter fraud. A speaker at an Arizona summit was part of a bogus slate of pres­id­en­tial elect­ors and was recently issued a grand jury subpoena by the Justice Depart­ment.

An insti­tute guide published and shared at summits and else­where encour­ages indi­vidu­als to create their own local task forces in order to be “ever-present at the elec­tion office and board meet­ings, to hear and see and learn things that are only learned by being there.” The “Citizens Guide to Build­ing an Elec­tion Integ­rity Infra­struc­ture” also advises task force members to become elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers but fails to describe crit­ical differ­ences between partisan monit­or­ing efforts and offi­cial roles that must serve all voters. It instructs citizens to get exhaust­ive inform­a­tion to locate “bad addresses” and chal­lenge voter eligib­il­ity, without explain­ing common missteps that other organ­ized efforts to chal­lenge voters have previ­ously made, such as fail­ing to account for the ways elec­tion offi­cials record the addresses of student voters, unhoused voters, and milit­ary voters. And it encour­ages state-level activ­ists to identify whether offi­cials in attor­ney general offices are “friend or foe.”

In endors­ing combat­ive yet vague instruc­tions and promot­ing the unjus­ti­fied specter of wide­spread fraud, the unpre­ced­en­ted effort to organ­ize an “army” of citizens could lead to voter inter­fer­ence and intim­id­a­tion, improper mass voter chal­lenges, elec­tion secur­ity breaches, and other forms of lawbreak­ing in Novem­ber.

Groups in the network occa­sion­ally echo progress­ives’ rhet­oric, such as messages stress­ing the import­ance of protect­ing vulner­able voters. When paired with false beliefs about wide­spread voter fraud, however, those messages can carry sinis­ter under­tones and could lead to inter­fer­ence with voters and those who lawfully assist them. The Amer­ican Consti­tu­tional Rights Union, a group that has presen­ted at the summits, promotes misin­form­a­tion on its website concern­ing the legal­ity of assist­ance to elderly voters, describ­ing certain limit­a­tions on such assist­ance in a false or mislead­ing way. The group also claims that it made over 1,000 phone calls and sent more than 3,000 letters to nurs­ing homes and senior living facil­it­ies in the 2020 elec­tion “warn­ing against fraud and provid­ing import­ant legal details.” A differ­ent Pennsylvania group inspired by the insti­tute’s work urges activ­ists to find out the polit­ical affil­i­ation of every nurs­ing home admin­is­trator in the state.

In the new land­scape of elec­tions in 2022, states, offi­cials, civic groups, and the media can take action to protect against dangers to our demo­cratic process. States should enact laws and insti­tute prac­tices to prevent elec­tion system breaches, taking quick action to cure breaches when they occur. Law enforce­ment should take seri­ously threats to elec­tion work­ers and respond appro­pri­ately. And elec­tion offi­cials, tech compan­ies, civic groups, and the media should pree­mpt misin­form­a­tion by shar­ing accur­ate and contex­tu­al­ized inform­a­tion about elec­tions.

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