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Analysis

Undermining Elections from Within and Without

Partisans are working to disrupt our elections. Rather than resist, some state legislators are helping them.

June 1, 2022

You’re read­ing The Brief­ing, Michael Wald­­­­­­­man’s weekly news­­­­­­­­­­­­­let­ter. Click here to receive it every week in your inbox.

When Donald Trump called Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger to demand that he “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” hint­ing at crim­inal prosec­u­tion, he was joined by a surpris­ing parti­cipant: Cleta Mitchell.

Mitchell has long been a prom­in­ent right-lean­ing attor­ney, repres­ent­ing the National Rifle Asso­ci­ation as well as senat­ors like Oklaho­ma’s James Inhofe and Flor­id­a’s Marco Rubio. She was a part­ner in the DC office of influ­en­tial law firm Foley and Lard­ner, until the firm ousted her for her involve­ment with Trump’s effort to over­turn the 2020 elec­tion. She is a seri­ous lawyer. Trump and Mitchell’s phone call is now the subject of a grand jury probe in Atlanta.

Mitchell, mean­while, hasn’t given up trying to politi­cize and under­mine our elec­tions.

This week, the New York Times published a story detail­ing Mitchell’s far-flung campaign to assemble an army of hyper-partisan poll watch­ers that will disrupt, discredit, and intim­id­ate elec­tion offi­cials. Among other things, the train­ees are encour­aged to research the back­grounds of histor­ic­ally nonpar­tisan elec­tion offi­cials and categor­ize them as “friend or foe.” 

Mitchell claims she is doing noth­ing more than the law allows, indeed encour­ages. “The Amer­ican elec­tion system envi­sions citizen engage­ment and we are train­ing people to assume the roles outlined in the stat­utes,” she told the Times

While these partisan poll watch­ers are push­ing their roles to (and some­times beyond) their abso­lute legal limits, partis­ans in state legis­latures are work­ing to loosen or erase those limits. What we are witness­ing is a coordin­ated campaign to under­mine elec­tions from both within and without. 

The Bren­nan Center’s most recent edition of the Voting Laws Roundup, our peri­odic review of state-level laws affect­ing elec­tion integ­rity, bears this out. Six states — Alabama, Arizona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — have enacted nine laws that raise the like­li­hood of partisan inter­fer­ence in our elec­tions. And at least 17 such bills intro­duced this year are still moving through five state legis­latures.

Some of those laws connect unnerv­ingly with Cleta Mitchell’s work. Oklaho­ma’s H.B. 3677, for example, would make it a felony to obstruct the view or restrict the free move­ment of a poll watcher, which could empower aggress­ive inter­fer­ence at polling places. State legis­lat­ors are rolling out the red carpet for Mitchell’s poll watch­ers. 

Virgini­a’s 2021 gubernat­orial elec­tion gave us a taste of where this move­ment is lead­ing us. Elec­tion offi­cials in 13 polling places complained that poll watch­ers were disrupt­ive. In at least one instance, a would-be voter left without cast­ing a ballot after feel­ing intim­id­ated. “Everything [the poll watch­ers] saw that they didn’t under­stand was fraud in their minds and that’s how they would frame the ques­tions,” complained one Virginia regis­trar.

Ask your­self: Would you want to work as an elec­tion offi­cial know­ing that partis­ans are scour­ing your history for reas­ons to cast you as their enemy, then show­ing up to hound you at the polling place with the bless­ing of state legis­lat­ors?  

Even without the state legis­lature getting involved, the rematch between incum­bent Geor­gia governor Brian Kemp and Demo­cratic chal­lenger Stacey Abrams would have been a flash­point in the fight over elec­tion integ­rity. But new laws add fuel to the fire. As detailed in our Voting Laws Roundup, Geor­gia state legis­lat­ors have handed more power to partis­ans on local elec­tions boards and expan­ded author­ity to invest­ig­ate elec­tions crimes, despite very little evid­ence such crimes are a signi­fic­ant prob­lem. Add in the prospect of hyper-partisan poll watch­ers, and it’s a recipe for a messy elec­tion.

Watch this space.