This article was published in partnership with The Intercept.
On election day in November, some polling places could be patrolled by off-duty police officers and veterans, according to a plan hatched by Republican operatives.
The idea is a reprise of once-illegal Election Day “ballot security” intimidation tactics, intended to challenge voter registration and remove voters from the rolls. At a strategy session in February attended by conservative donors and activists, several people expressed a specific need for Republican poll watchers in “inner city” and predominantly Native American precincts, according to audio recordings of the event obtained by The Intercept and Documented.
“You get some [Navy] Seals in those polls and they’re going to say, ‘No, no, this is what it says. This is how we’re going to play this show,’” said Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, a group that lobbies for voting restrictions and organizes volunteers to go into precincts and aggressively challenge voters who they believe are improperly registered. “That’s what we need. We need people who are unafraid to call it like they see it.”
The election strategy discussions occurred during a three-day conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Orange County, California, and was sponsored by the Council for National Policy, a secretive foundation on the religious right. The Intercept has previously reported from CNP gatherings.
Several GOP-aligned leaders gave remarks at the conference, including Ralph Reed, a key figure mobilizing conservative evangelical voters; Marc Lotter, a senior communications official with the Trump reelection campaign; FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon, and Ken Blackwell, a member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the now-shuttered group that sought but failed to find evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 election.
Using former soldiers and law enforcement as poll watchers was banned in 1981 by a judicial consent decree imposed on the Republican Party, but that ban was lifted in 2018 when a New Jersey judge declined to renew it. The ban came explicitly in response to an effort by the Republican National Committee to intimidate voters in African American communities by creating a so-called Ballot Security Task Force, threatening arrest and a $1,000 fine for improper voting.
Participants in the meeting also spoke of vote-by-mail initiatives as an impending threat to Republican power. Attendees did not identify any specific examples of voter fraud around vote-by-mail — rather, they expressed concern that the measure would benefit Democrats. The meeting, in February, came at least a month before the coronavirus pandemic raised the issue of vote-by-mail as a public health measure nationwide. Since then, Republicans all the way up to the president have repeated the claim that mail-in ballots proliferate voter fraud — a claim for which there is no evidence.
The groups at the conference have wasted no time in acting to implement the measures mentioned in the meeting. True the Vote has already made efforts to recruit former military and law enforcement to watch the polls, and filed a lawsuit to block New Mexico from instituting universal vote-by-mail as a response to concerns that in-person voting could expose voters to coronavirus.
Engelbrecht gave a lengthy presentation at the strategy meeting. True the Vote, Engelbrecht said, intends on rolling out a new phone-based app and other tools to monitor precincts in battleground states this year for alleged fraud.
“This is an absolute front-line fight. Around every corner, you find a new way to cheat this process,” said Engelbrecht. Democrats, she warned, would use “mob rule” to siege elections with fraudulent votes. “The swarming tactics of a radicalized socialist mindset is a dangerous thing to behold.”
“Of interest here, we have a new initiative called ‘Continue to Serve,’ which is about recruiting veterans and first responders to work inside the polls,” she said, before suggesting that former Navy Seals should be tapped to watch the polls. “You want to talk about people who understand and respect law and order and chain of command.”“Do you want to go into an inner city precinct or a tribal precinct and be the Republican there to oversee things? I mean, that is not a comfortable place to be and that is where the fraud happens.”
The idea to bring veterans and police into the fold as poll watchers piqued the interest of a number of attendees at the event. One unidentified participant during the meeting claimed that Democrats had long relied on voter fraud among Native American communities to win elections.
Trent England, executive director of the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, a local conservative think tank, agreed, recalling his own experience as a Republican volunteer and noting that Engelbrecht’s solution for “first responder” poll watchers could correct the problem among “inner city” and Native communities.
“Do you want to go into an inner city precinct or a tribal precinct and be the Republican there to oversee things? I mean, that is not a comfortable place to be and that is where the fraud happens,” said England. “We have to find people.”
Brad Smith, a former Federal Election Commission member under President George Bush, echoed Engelbrecht’s warnings and called for participants to seek training from the Republican National Lawyers Association. “We need poll workers and we need good ones,” Smith added.
Later during the discussion, Morton Blackwell, a member of the RNC, praised Engelbrecht’s proposal and said he would push for the RNC to “devote significant resources” into “ballot integrity.” Blackwell observed that since the court-ordered ban had long prevented the party from aggressive poll watching had recently been lifted, the RNC now has “unrestricted authority to weigh in on ballot security operations.”
The original consent decree came as a result of the Ballot Security Task Force, a plan used by the RNC to sway the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election, which Republican Tom Kean clinched by a mere 1,797 votes.
That year, RNC officials sent nonforwardable letters to voters in heavily African American neighborhoods. The party then recruited off-duty police officers, many of whom reportedly carried holstered guns, to patrol nonwhite precincts with lists of people whose names appeared on the 45,000 bounced letters, claiming that the list was enough evidence to show they were illegally voting.
The Ballot Security Task Force placed posters nearing polling stations that read: “Warning: This Area Is Being Patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force: It Is a Crime to Falsify a Ballot or to Violate Election Laws,” along with an offer for a $1,000 reward for any “information leading to arrest and conviction of persons violating New Jersey election law.” There was no effort to make clear that the deployed officers were working for the GOP or any disclosure that RNC had paid for the posters.
The Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit over the tactic, alleging that the task force harassed poll workers, refused prospective voters from entering polling places, ripped down Democratic posters, and forcibly restrained volunteers from helping voters cast their ballots.RelatedHow to Know If You Should Vote in Person
The resulting court order, which forced the RNC nationwide and the Republican Party of New Jersey to obtain advanced permission for certain poll watching and “ballot security” initiatives, had been in place for more than three decades. That changed finally in 2018, when District Judge John Michael Vazquez ruled that the order would not be renewed, lifting any future restrictions on the party. In a brief filing, Vazquez noted that he was ending the consent decree in part because the DNC had failed to show the RNC in violation of its terms.
“That consent decree was one of the dumbest things that they ever did,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and opponent of expanded voting rights who spoke alongside Engelbrecht during the session. Von Spakovsky said he wasn’t sure if the party had reinvested in ballot security measures since the ending of the court order.
“There is something that can be done, I can write to fellow members of the RNC and get resources directed to this,” chimed in Blackwell.
Later in the meeting, Engelbrecht called repeatedly for more collaboration among conservative groups, suggesting that participants at the meeting work with groups like the Republican National Lawyers Association to formulate plans to challenge registrations and disqualify voters.
“We have to have someone to be able to pass the baton off to. Because of the New Jersey consent decree, we are rusty,” said Engelbrecht.
The Trump campaign, notably, has voiced support for the end of the RNC consent decree. Last November, at the Republican National Lawyers Association conference, Justin Clark, a strategist and attorney for the Trump campaign, gave remarks on the importance of winning states like Wisconsin. During his speech, he explained “what is going to be different about Election Day operations in 2020 versus 2016.”
“There are a lot of huge differences,” said Clark. “First and foremost, the consent decree is gone, OK?” The end of the consent decree, he explained, would mean increased ballot security work, but also expanded coordination between various GOP committees and the Trump campaign, which he, called a “huge, huge, huge, huge, deal.”
“Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program,” said Clark.
The efforts to again recruit law enforcement and veterans to serve as partisan poll watchers has raised concerns with voting rights experts.
“Police violence has historically been used as tool for voter intimidation in America, especially in communities of color,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause. “This is why many states have laws stating police cannot be at polls,” Albert added. “Encouraging law enforcement to monitor polls is another old tactic that partisan operatives are trying to use to stop Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote.”
“If law enforcement joins in with groups like True the Vote, they will be making it very clear that they have no interest in serving as a trusted resource to the community,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.
“They haven’t been able to prove voter fraud, so they’re including law enforcement and military folks in search of a problem that doesn’t exist,” added Robinson. “We actually don’t have a problem with voter fraud, we have a problem with voter suppression, and in a country with incredibly low rates of voter participation, we want to create another barrier to voting?”
True the Vote has since released appeals on its website, along with a sign-up form, to recruit police officers and former military to serve as poll watchers.
“My brothers spilled their blood on the battlefield so people can vote their beliefs,” said Ed “Iron” Hiner, a retired Navy Seal and volunteer with True the Vote, in a recorded message promoting the effort. Hiner, who has been outspoken in the press in support of Eddie Gallager, the Navy Seal accused of murdering a prisoner and attempted murder of civilians in Iraq, described the poll watching program as a continuation of service for members of the military.
“Once you get out and retire like I did, there’s a hole, there’s something, you’re used to having a mission,” said Hiner, speaking next to Engelbrecht in the video.
True the Vote grew out of King Street Patriots, a local tea party chapter in Houston, Texas that was involved with intimidating voters at multiple polling locations in predominately nonwhite neighborhoods during the 2010 election. Volunteers with the group were reportedly seen “hovering over” voters, blocking lines, and engaging in confrontations with election workers. In 2012, True the Vote deployed poll watchers in Wisconsin who attempted to prevent students from voting.
Blackwell, Engelbrecht, and True the Vote did not respond to a request for comment. The group, organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit claims that it is nonpartisan and simply devoted to upholding “election integrity.” The organization, however, maintains extensive ties to the Republican establishment.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in
Brent Mudd, one board member, previously served as the treasurer for the Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. Greg Phillips, another True the Vote board member, worked at the same Gingrich Super PAC and was previously an official with the Alabama and Mississippi state Republican parties.
True the Vote is also supported financially by a number of foundations run by prominent conservative donors. Eric M. Javits and Lawrence Post, two frequent donors to Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, are among the disclosed donors to True the Vote. Richard Sackler, a member of the billionaire family that founded Purdue Pharma, the company that invented Oxycontin and marketed the highly addictive opioid to millions, also donated to True the Vote, tax records show.
In recent days, the issue of election integrity has come into focus as Republican officials lobbied furiously against postponing in-person voting in Wisconsin and have opposed universal vote-by-mail policies as a safety measure for other elections this year.
True the Vote has filed a lawsuit to block New Mexico from instituting universal vote-by-mail as a response to concerns that in-person voting could expose voters to the coronavirus. The True the Vote lawsuit, prepared by James Bopp, who identifies himself as an election adviser to Trump, alleges that the push to mail a ballot to every voter in New Mexico “would violate the voters’ fundamental rights, including the fundamental right to vote” because voters had not expressly voted on such a plan. The group has also blasted Democratic efforts to provide federal funding for other states to expand vote-by-mail efforts.
The barbs against distance voting mirror a wider push among Republicans. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters. They go collect them,” Trump exclaimed at the White House on Tuesday. “They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.”
The GOP has strained to present actual evidence for vote-by-mail fraud. One of the rare examples of a campaign going door to door to collect and manipulate ballots was North Carolina Republican Mark Harris, whose victory in 2018 was invalidated over widespread evidence that his consultants illegally collected and forged ballots from voters.
There is no evidence of widespread voting fraud in America. Studies have revealed isolated cases of a few voters voting improperly for both major parties, but no determined effort to break the rules has been discovered.RelatedAfter Florida Held Its Primary Amid Pandemic, Two Poll Workers Tested Positive for Coronavirus
But there is a belief among some conservatives that vote-by-mail, which costs less to administer than in-person polling and tends to increase overall turnout, could boost the Democratic Party. Earlier this month, David Ralston, the Georgia state Speaker of the House, said that Georgia’s shift to mail-in ballots “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives,” in part because it “will certainly drive up turnout.” He later walked back the comments, claiming he misspoke.
The fear of expanded voting rights contrasts sharply with the experience of the Republican Party of Florida, which has outperformed Democrats in vote-by-mail ballots. Trump, in fact, voted by mail in 2018 as a New York resident and also voted by mail this year in Florida, his newly adopted state of residence.
During the Ritz-Carlton election strategy meeting, England, of the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, also raised the concern that vote-by-mail would help Democrats.
Republicans, England said, were once competitive in Oregon, Washington, and California. “And ever since they went to vote-by-mail — somebody told me this, I haven’t done the research myself — but I don’t think a single Republican has won statewide in Oregon or Washington since they went to vote by mail.”
That claim is unfounded. Washington state’s current state treasurer and secretary of state, both elected by mail, are Republicans. Oregon has historically elected many statewide Republicans using vote-by-mail. Another state that has universal vote-by-mail, Utah, currently has a statewide elected government composed entirely of Republicans.
Asked about his remarks, England said in an email that he didn’t speak about vote-by-mail at the conference, though “the topic probably came up.”