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2020 Election Deniers Seek Out Powerful Allies: County Sheriffs


LAS VEGAS — An influential network of conservative activists fixated on the concept that former President Donald J. Trump won the 2020 election is working to recruit county sheriffs to research elections based on the false notion that voter fraud is widespread.

The push, which two right-wing sheriffs’ groups have already endorsed, seeks to lend law enforcement credibility to the false claims and has alarmed voting rights advocates. They warn that it could cause chaos in future elections and further weaken trust in an American voting system already battered by attacks from Mr. Trump and his allies.

One among the conservative sheriffs’ groups, Protect America Now, lists about 70 members, and the opposite, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, doesn’t list its membership but says it conducted trainings on various issues for about 300 of the nation’s roughly 3,000 sheriffs in recent times. It’s unclear what number of sheriffs will ultimately wade into election matters. Many aligned with the groups are from small, rural counties.

But at the least three sheriffs involved in the hassle — in Michigan, Kansas and Wisconsin — have already been carrying out their very own investigations, clashing with election officials who warn that they’re overstepping their authority and meddling in an area where they’ve little expertise.

“I’m absolutely sick of it,” said Pam Palmer, the clerk of Barry County, Mich., where the sheriff has carried out an investigation into the 2020 results for greater than a yr. “We didn’t do anything improper, but they’ve solid a cloud over our entire county that makes people disbelieve within the accuracy of our ability to run an election.”

In recent times, sheriffs have normally taken a limited role in investigations of election crimes, that are typically handled by state agencies with input from local election officials. Republican-led state legislatures, at the identical time, have pushed to impose harsher criminal penalties for voting infractions, passing 20 such laws in at the least 14 states for the reason that 2020 election.

“That is all part and parcel of returning to a world where we’re using the criminal law in a approach to make voting harder,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, the interim co-director of the Voting Rights Project on the A.C.L.U. “All of the things that used to feel more fringy not feel so fringy, as we’re beginning to see this very much collective effort.”

The sheriff of Racine County in Wisconsin, the state’s fifth-most-populous county, is attempting to charge state election officials with felonies for measures they took to facilitate protected voting in nursing homes through the pandemic.

In Barry County in Michigan, a rural area that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, the sheriff has been investigating the 2020 election after becoming involved with efforts by people working on Mr. Trump’s behalf to try to achieve access to voting machines.

And the sheriff of Johnson County in Kansas, which incorporates suburbs of Kansas City and is probably the most populous county within the state, has said he’s broadly investigating the county’s 2020 election. At a recent meeting with election officials, he questioned their procedures and integrity, in accordance with a written account from the county’s top lawyer, who sent him a letter expressing concern that he was interfering in election matters.

The Johnson County sheriff, Calvin Hayden, said in an interview that sheriffs faced a learning curve.

“We don’t know anything about elections,” he said. “We’re cops. We’ve to teach ourselves on the system, which takes a protracted, very long time.”

The Trump Investigations

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Quite a few inquiries. Since Donald J. Trump left office, the previous president has been facing civil and criminal investigations across the country into his business dealings and political activities. Here’s a have a look at the notable inquiries:

Jan. 6 inquiries. A House select committee and federal prosecutors are investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and examining the possible culpability of a broad range of figures — including Mr. Trump and his allies — involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. In a series of public hearings this summer, the committee laid out evidence that would allow prosecutors to indict Mr. Trump.

Trump’s social media merger. A federal grand jury in Manhattan has issued subpoenas regarding the merger of Mr. Trump’s social media company, Truth Social, with Digital World Acquisition, a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. Federal authorities are also investigating a surge in trading that preceded the announcement of the $300 million deal.

Westchester County criminal investigation. The district attorney’s office in Westchester County, N.Y., appears to be focused at the least partly on whether the Trump Organization misled local officials concerning the value of a golf course, Trump National Golf Club Westchester, to scale back its taxes.

The three sheriffs gathered with a number of hundred others at a forum this month in Las Vegas hosted by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

Attendees included leaders of True the Vote, a gaggle whose work spreading discredited theories of mass voter fraud inspired the conspiratorial film “2000 Mules”; Mike Lindell, the Trump ally and MyPillow chief executive; and other outstanding figures within the 2020 election-denial movement.

Speakers urged more sheriffs to open investigations of the 2020 election, which they in comparison with a rigged sporting event, presenting evidence that rehashed long-disproved theories. One speaker said the way in which that betting odds had modified on election night constituted proof of a stolen election.

A few of the arguments centered on the premise of “2000 Mules”: that a military of left-wing operatives wrongfully flooded drop boxes with absentee ballots in 2020. Many, including William P. Barr, Mr. Trump’s former attorney general and Georgia state officials, have pointed to major flaws within the supposed findings and the flimsy evidence presented.

Still, Richard Mack, the founding father of the constitutional sheriffs association, said the accusations made in “2000 Mules,” which was released in May, were a “smoking gun” and had persuaded him to make election issues his group’s top priority.

Mr. Lindell said in an interview that he and his team had offered the three sheriffs “all of our resources,” including computer experts and data on voters, but that he had made no financial commitments.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which was formally founded a couple of decade ago by Mr. Mack, is devoted to the idea that sheriffs are beholden only to the Structure and function the last word authority in a county — above local, state and federal officials and statutes. The group, whose leaders have promoted Christian ideology in government, has been energetic in supporting fights against gun control laws, immigration laws and federal land management.

Protect America Now, founded by Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Ariz., and Republican operatives, was announced shortly after the 2020 election. Its principles closely align with most of the constitutional sheriffs association’s, however it has employed more traditional political methods comparable to running ads.

Attempts to interview Mr. Lamb, who has not announced local investigations into election issues, were unsuccessful. Discussing his partnership with True the Vote at a Trump rally in Arizona on Friday, he said sheriffs would do more to carry people accountable for violating election laws. “We is not going to let occur what happened in 2020,” he said.

For conservative activists focused on voter fraud, an alliance with law enforcement seemed natural.

True the Vote initially approached state and federal law enforcement agencies with its election claims, but didn’t provide sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation, officials said.

In partnership with Protect America Now, the group has now raised $100,000 toward a goal of $1 million for grants to sheriffs for more video surveillance and a hotline to distribute citizen suggestions.

True the Vote’s executive director, Catherine Engelbrecht, said in a speech on the Las Vegas event that in sheriffs, she had found a receptive audience for her claims.

“It’s the sheriffs,” she said. “That’s who we are able to trust.”

Some conservative activists have also floated the thought of accelerating the presence of sheriffs wherever ballots are solid, counted and transported, echoing a proposal by Mr. Trump in 2020 that didn’t gain steam.

Deputizing volunteers could even be an option, said Sam Bushman, the national operations director for the constitutional sheriffs association.

Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for secretary of state of Nevada and an attendee in Las Vegas, said that if elected, he would attempt to “bring sheriffs back in” to the election process.

“The deputies are going to be there on the locations to look at for any anomaly,” he said in an interview.

For voting rights groups, the potential presence of law enforcement officers at polling locations evokes a darker period in American democracy, when the police were weaponized to suppress turnout by people of color.

For this reason history, state and federal protections limit what law enforcement can do. In California and Pennsylvania, for instance, it’s a criminal offense for officers to indicate up on the polls in the event that they haven’t been called by an election official. In other states, including Flor­ida, North Caro­lina, Ohio and Wiscon­sin, officers must obey local elec­tion offi­cials on the polls, in accordance with the Brennan Center for Justice.

Sheriffs interviewed on the Las Vegas event said they were aware of such restrictions and didn’t wish to impede voting. The Barry County, Mich., sheriff, Dar Leaf, said he was more focused on 2020 relatively than looking ahead. Others, like Mr. Hayden, said they were considering increased video surveillance of drop boxes.

Mr. Mack said, “I don’t think any sheriff is attempting to intimidate people to not vote.”

Some sheriffs from rural Trump-voting counties said they didn’t observe major problems to repair in their very own counties but supported more sheriff involvement overall. Richard Vaughn, a sheriff in rural Grayson County in Virginia, said he wanted officers to be involved in observing vote counts, and would support elections investigations “in areas where there are allegations.” “A variety of individuals are losing confidence,” he added.

Election experts say the activities of the three sheriffs already raise concerns.

Sheriff Hayden of Johnson County, Kan., said he had began investigating elections after receiving 200 citizen complaints.

He’s scrutinizing “ballot stuffing,” “machines” and “the entire issues you hear of nationally,” he said in an interview. Asked what he meant by ballot stuffing, he described the practice of delivering absentee ballots on behalf of other voters. (Through the 2020 election, Kansas didn’t have a law regarding that practice; last yr, it passed laws allowing people to return not more than 10 ballots from other voters.)

Mr. Hayden said in an announcement that he disagreed with the county lawyer’s depiction of his meeting with election officials and that he was treating the elections work like several other investigation.

“Our residents wish to have, and should have, confidence of their local elections,” he said.

Mr. Leaf has led an effort to try to research voting machines.

Emails obtained last yr from his department by the news site Bridge Michigan showed that a lawyer identifying Mr. Leaf as his client had communicated about seizing machines with Trump allies who were attempting to prove 2020 election conspiracy theories.

In December 2020, Mr. Leaf met with a cybersecurity specialist — who was a part of the Trump allies’ network — to debate voting machine concerns, Mr. Leaf said in an interview.

Mr. Leaf said he had also been supplied with a personal investigator for election matters by one other lawyer of his, who previously helped Sidney Powell, a former lawyer for Mr. Trump, bring a conspiratorial lawsuit looking for to overturn Michigan’s 2020 results.

At one point, someone connected to Mr. Leaf’s investigation gained access to a voting tabulator, in accordance with state police records. State authorities intervened and commenced investigating Mr. Leaf’s office.

Over 18 months, Mr. Leaf’s investigative efforts have modified focus several times, and he has had three search warrant requests rejected for lack of evidence, Julie A. Nakfoor Pratt, the county’s top prosecutor, said in an interview.

Mr. Leaf said in an announcement, “I took an oath and obligation as sheriff to research all potential crimes reported to my office, including election law violations.”

In Wisconsin, Mr. Schmaling has tried to charge statewide election officials with violating the law by temporarily suspending election oversight work in nursing homes.

Those officials, who serve on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the state’s bipartisan arbiter of election matters, voted for the suspension in March 2020, because the pandemic was first raging. After investigating a grievance in November 2021, Mr. Schmaling said he had found eight instances of potential fraud.

No fraud charges were filed in any of the cases.

But in November, Mr. Schmaling issued criminal referrals for five of the six members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, recommending that the district attorneys within the counties where they live charge them with crimes including felonies.

Three of the district attorneys have dismissed the referrals; two haven’t yet made a call.

Mr. Schmaling, who said his nursing home inquiry took up a whole bunch of hours, described his decisions as routine. “The larger picture for me is we exposed something that was improper, something illegal,” he said. “My goal is to make sure that the law is followed.”

But others involved said the actions were an overreach of power.

“The concept the answer for an election whose results you didn’t like is, after the actual fact, to threaten criminal charges for that public work of a government official is shocking,” said Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chair of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, who faced a criminal referral. “It’s chilling. It’s the antithesis of how democracy works.”

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