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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.