A conservative attorney who brought John Eastman into Donald Trump's orbit is training an army of election deniers to aggressively monitor polling places.
Cleta Mitchell, a campaign finance lawyer who has worked closely with Ginni Thomas, is holding summits around the country as part of her Election Integrity Network, and recordings obtained by The Guardian show election deniers providing false and inflammatory instructions to guests interested in becoming poll watchers.
“I’m very familiar with the groups that are staging this," said Gary Sims, the elections director in North Carolina’s Wake County. "Some of these individuals I’ve been dealing with for over a decade now. It’s just that, honestly, after the events and post-events of 2020, these groups have a charged-up base. Before, they didn’t have an audience. Now they have an audience because of that. So they are capitalizing on that audience.”
“What they stated was, I want to say disinformation, not misinformation, because it was not true,” Sims added. “It’s actually intentionally trying to villainize us.”
The nonprofit organization is funded by the Conservative Partnership Institute -- where Trump's former chief of staff Mark Meadows is a senior partner -- and has gotten money from the former president's PAC and some of his donors, and the summits host speakers from FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, Citizens United and Heritage Action, while West Virginia secretary of state Mac Warner and Josh Findlay, the RNC’s national director of election integrity, spoke at events -- which cost $20 to attend and bar reporters.
“We don’t allow media to come to our summits, mainly because they’re never nice to us,” Mitchell said at the event. “They make fun of us.”
Mitchell's organization aims to motivate 2020 election conspiracy theorists to develop relationships with local law enforcement to determine whether they are “effective or silent partners," and they were directed to learn who was responsible in the state attorney general's office for working with election officials and decide whether they're a "friend or foe."
"[That's] absolutely outrageous," said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “They’re citizens, they’re professionals -- they’re our neighbors. If we start to view our fellow citizens as our enemies, we’re lost.”
Barb Byrum, the clerk in Ingraham County, Michigan, said she was glad to see more people interested in the election process, but she's worried that inexperienced poll watchers might not understand how the process works and spread bad information -- accidentally or intentionally.
“You have those people who may have worked the precinct who intentionally don’t understand the procedures and that can then, with some level of authority, spread misinformation,” Byrum said.
She has already received about 100 GOP applications, where she usually gets only a handful, and she has encouraged local clerks to give first-time election workers, whether Republican or Democrat, jobs with less responsibility, such as handing out "I voted" stickers, and she's watching out for volunteers who raise red flags.
“If they are prepared to act in bad faith, or slow down the process, or create any mischief or mayhem on election day," Byrum said, "I will make sure they are held accountable in my county."