Far-right "constitutional sheriffs" now turn to hunting "fraud" in midterm elections

Right-wing sheriff guru: "We will not let happen what happened in 2020." To voting rights groups, it's a threat

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 20, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb speaks during the Rally To Protect Our Elections conference on July 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb speaks during the Rally To Protect Our Elections conference on July 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A controversial group of right-wing sheriffs that has spread false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election and propagated Donald Trump's Big Lie is now vowing to monitor this year's midterm elections through surveillance of drop boxes and a hotline for reporting purported election fraud. 

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) supports the far-right fringe belief that under the U.S. Constitution county sheriffs have extensive power that supersedes all other federal, state or local authorities. It has recently partnered up with a Texas nonprofit called True the Vote, which has peddled conspiracy theories about voter fraud. Now the two groups are promising to keep on investigating allegations about a "stolen election" in 2020 and also to police future voting. For election authorities and voting rights advocates, the combination is ominous.

This partnership provides an insight into the role the "constitutional sheriff" movement is playing in sowing doubts about the election process and monitoring how voters cast their ballots. Such efforts amount to voter intimidation and voter suppression in many cases, advocates say. 

Having county elected officials spreading conspiracy theories "makes it more difficult to break down the walls of voters that we're talking to," said Natali Bock, co-executive director of Rural Arizona Action. "There is a cynicism that takes root when you have these outlandish stories." That kind of "misinformation spreads like wildfire," she continued, "and instead of just being able to present facts, now we are have to do a lot of relationship building."

Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, has emerged as a prominent figure in the movement that is lending law enforcement credibility to false election fraud claims. He helped found Protect America Now, a coalition of almost 70 sheriffs from different parts of the country who say they are working together to protect America against "an overreaching government." In partnership with True the Vote, the coalition has raised more than $100,000 toward a goal of $1 million for grants to fund sheriffs surveillance of ballot drop boxes and an anonymous hotline for tips about voter fraud. Lamb's office did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

"Sheriff Lamb is the continuation of every other [form of] voter suppression that has happened," Bock said, "only now it's the more dangerous form because he carries a badge and a gun and is seated at an elected position of power." Bock's organization does advocacy and outreach work in Pinal County (which is south and east of Phoenix) as well as other parts of rural Arizona.

Lamb's rhetoric is dangerous, Bock adds, because it may embolden other far-right extremists to the point of violence, which can endanger voters and election workers. There's also the danger of perpetuating a "cycle of cynicism" among historically marginalized communities that have faced voter suppression, which may prevent them from participating in the democratic process.

"Communities of color are experiencing apathy around voting and the democratic process," she said, before asking: "Is it apathy? Or is it the conclusion of generations of oppression?"

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Lamb promoted his coalition's partnership at a July rally in Prescott, Arizona, saying that "sheriffs are going to enforce the law… We will not let happen what happened in 2020." A fervent Trump supporter, Lamb also endorsed a slate of election-denying candidates backed by the former president. Lamb continues to recruit sheriffs from counties across the United States, and has published ads defining his coalition's mission as "fighting back against a liberal takeover."

County sheriffs in at least three states have launched their own supposed investigations of election fraud, fueled by the right-wing conspiracy theories in circulation since the 2020 election. In Michigan, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf has been under state investigation for allegedly tampering with voting machines. Last year, Leaf seized a Dominion voting tabulator from Irving Township and allegedly "tore it apart," later returning it with a broken security seal, the county clerk told News 8.

Leaf's lengthy investigation into election fraud has been fruitless, with the Barry County prosecutor finding no evidence of any wrongdoing. His is just one example among dozens of others launched by election deniers across the country. These efforts have failed to expose any instances of voter fraud, but voting rights advocates say they are negatively impacting voter turnout.

Law enforcement's role in policing the election can dissuade voters from casting their ballots, said Sharon Dolente, a senior adviser at Promote the Vote Michigan. That "chilling effect" won't just impact individual voters, but also entire communities, especially those that have historically been disenfranchised.

"Individuals who were questioning the [2020] result were only questioning the results specifically in Black and brown communities in Michigan. I don't think that's an accident, right?"

"There were many instances after the 2020 election where individuals who were questioning the result were only questioning the results specifically in Black and brown communities in the state of Michigan," Dolente said. "I don't think that's an accident, right? I think that is a response to the political power and will those communities expressed, and it's an effort to dampen that."

Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, has played a pivotal role in recruiting sheriffs, lawyers and conservative activists to the purported crusade against voter fraud movement. When federal and state law enforcement dismissed her group's claims, she turned to county sheriffs for help. 

Engelbrecht was featured in "2000 Mules," a documentary by right-wing pundit Dinesh D'Souza that claimed to provide new evidence that the 2020 election had been stolen. In it, Engelbrecht made unfounded allegations about the widespread abuse of ballot drop boxes, charges she has repeated many times on right-wing media. 

In July, Engelbrecht joined CSPOA founder Richard Mack, a former Arizona county sheriff, to announce their partnership at a training event in Las Vegas. Mack said that investigating election fraud was his group's top priority, referring to it as a "holy cause." He has also served on the board of Oath Keepers, the militia group some of whose members now face seditious conspiracy charges for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

An extensive 2021 report by the Anti-Defamation League describes the CSPOA as an "anti-government extremist group" and outlines Mack's extensive ties to "militia and sovereign citizen movements" and his associations with white supremacists. (He has said he does not share their views.) He has led training sessions on many occasions that the ADL says are meant to indoctrinate law enforcement officers into extremist movements. Some of those have been led by KrisAnne Hall, a far-right activist who believes that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments are unconstitutional. 

Although it's too early to gauge the effects of this new far-right movement, Florida and Georgia have passed restrictive laws on absentee voting and the use of ballot drop boxes, two principal targets of Trump's false claims about widespread voting fraud. 

A 2021 report by the Anti-Defamation League describes Richard Mack's sheriffs' association as an "anti-government extremist group" and outlines Mack's extensive ties to "militia and sovereign citizen movements."

In Georgia, where Black and brown voters came out in record numbers, Joe Biden won by about 12,000 votes, and Democrats later won two narrow runoff elections for U.S. Senate seats. Even though Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has repeatedly said there was no widespread fraud in the state's elections, lawmakers enacted sweeping changes to its voting law that advocates say are likely to harm minority voters.

"By creating these new bureaucracies and this new red tape," said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, lawmakers are "creating a cycle of voter intimidation." This is "a relic of the past", she went on, and too close to "what we saw in Jim Crow, with folks coming to people's doors with guns and pitchforks, trying to ask, 'Are you the registered voter here?'" 

Her group has developed an election protection program meant to help dispel any doubts voters have about the election process and to ensure they don't encounter barriers while casting their ballots. But Dennis says Georgia's new law, SB 441, which authorizes state police to launch a probe into any allegations of voter fraud, worries her. Such unfounded allegations, she says, can create a "domino effect," damaging voters "who are not in areas that are inundated with news and disempowering their voices at the ballot box," Dennis said. "I think in Georgia particularly, [there] is a coordinated effort to purposely do that."

Dolente, who has been doing voting rights work in Michigan for 20 years, strikes a similar note. Alongside efforts to restrict voting access for people from historically disenfranchised communities, she says there is also a coordinated effort to spread misinformation in these communities. But despite dozens of lawsuits launched in 2020 and 2021 to look for election fraud in her state, she said, authorities couldn't find any.

"The system is safe and secure and the voters of Michigan know that," Dolente said. "They can concoct as many investigations as they like and it's never going to come up with a different result."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Constitutional Sheriffs County Sheriffs Elections Far-right Mark Lamb Reporting Voter Fraud