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A $19.7 million DC-based organization led by former Trump officials who worked to overturn the 2020 election is working to create “permanent election integrity infrastructure” in key states to recruit conspiracy-minded activists to become poll workers and watchers.
Documented has obtained hours of audio and other materials outlining this effort.
The Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI)'s "Election Integrity Network" project is led by Cleta Mitchell, the Trump lawyer who played a key role in plotting to overturn the 2020 election.
In the 2022 election cycle, CPI's Election Integrity Network sought to build in-state coalitions focused on recruiting election conspiracy theorists to interrogate local election offices and to become poll workers and watchers. Although there were concerns about election deniers-turned-election officials disrupting voting, much of the impact is felt after Election Day: claims from CPI's conspiracy-minded poll watchers fed right-wing messaging campaigns to discredit elections in states like Arizona, and will be used to justify restrictive voting laws in 2023 and beyond.
CPI is working closely with the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the effort. As described by POLITICO, based on material provided by Documented, the collaboration means that the RNC "has been relying on a stable of the party’s most prolific spreaders of false stolen-election theories to pilot a sweeping 'election integrity' operation to recruit and coach thousands of poll workers in eight battleground states."
CPI's Election Integrity Network has also engaged with state Secretaries of State, for example hosting a private event in June of 2022 focused on the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a tool for performing cross-state voter registration checks that has become a target for right-wing conspiracy theories.
As Mark Meadows said of the project in March of 2022, "this fight is not just about what happened in 2020. This fight is about every future election, whether it is at a state level or a federal level or the highest office in the land."
CPI’s Election Integrity Network
CPI, which raised $45 million in 2021, is led by former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and boosted with a $1 million donation from former President Trump’s PAC. CPI has launched a number of projects led by former Trump administration officials and allies, including Stephen Miller’s America First Legal Foundation and Russ Vought’s Center for Renewing America, and is staffed with individuals who played a key role in laying the groundwork for the January 6 insurrection.
CPI’s “Election Integrity Network” project is led by Cleta Mitchell, the veteran lawyer who supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including joining the infamous call when the then-President urged Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find” 11,780 votes. Mitchell was also responsible for contacting John Eastman and asking him to engineer a legal argument to challenge electoral certification in Congress. Amidst the controversy, in January 2021 Mitchell abruptly resigned from her longtime role as a partner with the law firm Foley and Lardner and joined CPI.
Mitchell played a key role in promoting false claims of election fraud, and is now channeling that misplaced anger into mobilizing conspiracy-minded MAGA activists to enter the election administration infrastructure.
“We're all here because of what happened in 2020”
CPI's “election integrity” efforts grew directly out of Trump's failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election, according to Marshall Yates, a CPI Election Integrity Network official.
“We're all here because of what happened in 2020,” Yates said at an October 2022 event in New Mexico organized by the group.
“The election objection did not go as we wanted in 2020, on January 6, but we built up and this movement is here today partly because we didn't get to have the debate we needed in Congress,” Yates said, noting that he was previously Chief of Staff to Rep. Mo Brooks, a central player in Trump’s effort to block Biden’s victory in Congress. “We were shut out—for whatever reason that was, whatever happened, whoever planned it—but we didn't get to have that happen."
"But luckily it sparked a grassroots movement across the country for election integrity," Yates said. "And without all of us rising up and saying, putting our foot down and saying, no, we will not let what happened in 2020 ever happen again, we wouldn't be in this room."
“Permanent Election Integrity Coalitions”
In early 2022, CPI held daylong summits in Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. In October 2022, it also held a summit in New Mexico featuring John Eastman.
These were not one-day summits to simply rile up the base and build email lists—these were kick-off events to launch in-state election integrity coalitions, and are followed by regular calls, meetings, and other organizing efforts. The summits and in-state coalitions include the participation of other election denialist groups like Tea Party Patriots, Heritage Action, and Turning Point USA, as well as a range of fringe state-based groups, like Audit the Vote PA and Stand Up Michigan.
“The goal of what we're trying to do at this meeting today is to build a permanent election integrity infrastructure here in the state of Pennsylvania, and that infrastructure includes a statewide coalition,” said Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin at the Pennsylvania summit in March 2022.
“The vision I have for everyone is thousands of little brush fires all over the state,” said Carol Davis of FreedomWorks during the Pennsylvania summit. “They can't put them all out, folks.”
“Become a Presence in the Local Election Office"
Members of the CPI-led coalitions are encouraged “to become a presence in the local election office.” Activists are directed to regularly show up to elections offices in groups of two to ask questions, to attend election board meetings, to get involved with cleaning voter rolls, to file searching FOIA requests, and to scrutinize vote-by-mail procedures.
These activities add to an atmosphere of hostility that drives dedicated election workers out of public service, and have contributed to an "exodus of election workers since the 2020 elections."
CPI has pointed to election worker resignations as a sign of success.
At CPI's October 2022 summit in New Mexico, Election Integrity Network's Marshall Yates celebrated that "we've had numbers of [election officials] fired across the country," emphasizing "that's what we can do when we have these bad local election officials."
A test drive of CPI’s strategy in the Virginia governor’s race in 2021 highlighted how CPI's activities—carried out by people who believe in the myth of widespread fraud—led clerks to feel as if they were being accused of malfeasance simply for doing their job.
The CPI-led coalition in Virginia claims to have trained 4,500 poll watchers and election workers and organized 18 local task forces, and to have covered 85% of polling locations on Election Day 2021 and in the 45 days of early voting that led up to it.
At CPI summits, Cleta Mitchell and other CPI officials hold up Virginia, and Fairfax County in particular, as a model for coalitions in other states. But as the New York Times reported:
"In Fairfax, a Democratic bastion outside Washington, about three dozen activists associated with the coalition and the local Republican Party rotated through election offices, combing through voter registration applications, undeliverable mail and other materials. Christine Brim, the task force’s leader, appeared in person or emailed staff nearly every day, according to Scott Konopasek, the registrar at the time. The operation ate up county workers’ time with dozens of information requests, as well as informal interrogations, Mr. Konopasek said.
'Everything they saw that they didn’t understand was fraud in their minds and that’s how they would frame the questions,' he said. 'It was always accusatory.'"
The Fairfax County election registrar resigned in large part because coalition members were making his job so difficult, according to the New York Times.
At the October 2022 summit in New Mexico, Election Integrity Network's Yates celebrated the fact that "Fairfax County ran their registrar out," commenting that "these coalitions don't stop" when they think they have "a bad local election official."
Recruiting Poll Workers and Poll Watchers
A primary goal of the CPI-led coalitions is to recruit poll workers and watchers—with an emphasis on poll workers, because they have more authority. As a Heritage Action representative said at CPI’s Florida summit, poll workers can act as the “referee on the field” policing voters:
"We really do need poll workers. We need watchers, we need both. But the way I like to look at it is if you're a poll worker and you're the one handling, you know, the situation. I like to think of it as you know, you're the referee on the field rather than being someone sitting on the stands watching conservatives cry 'foul, foul.'"
A former Trump campaign lawyer, Linda Kerns, similarly emphasized at a CPI summit in Pennsylvania that “we do have to put poll watchers in, but election board workers are the most important and high value person that we can have in the polling place”:
"I’m going to repeat because its so important: election board workers they are, they're actually employees of the county for the day. They are more important, or they're higher value than poll watchers because election board workers actually sit at the election table. They're part of the process. And the poll watchers are in there, but they can only observe. So in Philadelphia, sometimes what most of the time, we can't find election board workers because we can't find Republicans in a lot of the precincts. We do have to put poll watchers in, but election board workers are the most important and high value person that we can have in the polling place."
Kerns also described how poll workers and poll watchers could support litigation:
"OK, so all we really have to say about poll watchers and election board workers is, and as a lawyer, I cannot do anything unless I have poll watchers and election workers in the polling place. If I'm an election court in Philadelphia and there are no Republicans in polling places or people in polling places telling me what's going on, I have nothing to bring to the judge."
Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor who now hosts a podcast popular right-wing election activists, has touted the CPI summits and focused on how CPI is recruiting and training poll workers. For example, in an August 2022 interview with Cleta Mitchell, Bannon said:
"Every time you have these summits, we send people. I get tremendous feedback from people that are now going to get engaged, they're going to be part of it, to change their lives, the camaraderie. But most importantly is the technical details--not war stories--but you teach them technical details about how to become election officials, how to be poll workers, right? Not just poll watchers."
FOIAs for Phantom Voters
CPI sessions have been a clearinghouse for conspiracy theories about “leftwing entities” allegedly colluding with election officials to facilitate fraud. In addition to conspiracies about “Zuckerbucks”—the theory that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg somehow corrupted the 2020 election by supporting groups that supported local election authorities during the pandemic—CPI officials have floated wild theories about a range of established nonpartisan groups that allegedly are involved with election fraud.
For example, CPI’s Ned Jones has posited that so-called “phantom voters” were somehow inserted into Pennsylvania’s voter record by a nonpartisan voter registration organization, the Center for Voter Information. At CPI’s Pennsylvania summit, he said:
“Number one is the Center for Voter Information. What they do is they do mass mailings to what they claim are commercially available lists in the spring, trying to sign up new voters. And in the fall, during election time, they sent out absentee ballot applications that are partially filled out. Now we've learned they had a special arrangement with the Postal Service. And I'll talk more about them in the next panel. But when their mailings are undeliverable, that is no one's at the address address that it's sent to. They don't get that mail back. What they get is a list from the Postal Service of undeliverable mail, and that's mailed to a voter who is no longer at their address. And we believe that somehow they use that information to create the phantom voters that we're all very familiar with right now.”
Coalition members are encouraged to investigate these conspiracy theories in their state and local election offices. One CPI document obtained by Documented instructs state coalition members to “Document the relationship between the state and local election offices and the leftwing entities that are intent upon skewing and manipulating the 2022 elections....from the INSIDE.... by obtaining and documenting where these leftist entities are, and what they are doing with local and state election offices and officials.”
CPI instructs coalition member to question elections officials, file open record requests, attend public meetings, and review meeting minutes in order “to learn if election offices in your state have had contact with and/or applied for participation with the leftist groups” identified by CPI, and to then share research findings with Jones and CPI.
“We need citizen eyes on every election office!,” the CPI document states.
RNC Election Integrity Program and CPI
CPI is working closely with the RNC in these efforts. RNC officials have been speakers at several CPI summits, and RNC state election integrity directors are taking part in state-wide election integrity efforts spearheaded by CPI.
The RNC created a permanent election integrity program in early 2021, following Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. The RNC's national election integrity director is Josh Findlay, who was associate general counsel for the 2020 Trump campaign, and claims to have "run the President's national war room out of the White House." The RNC has hired state election integrity directors in 16 key states.
Findlay has addressed multiple CPI summits, where he characterizes the RNC's election integrity efforts as focused on supporting CPI, helping with organization and staffing, and deferring to Cleta Mitchell—which is notable, given Mitchell’s role in pushing the big lie and in seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
At CPI’s Florida summit, Findlay described how the RNC engaged in the 2021 Virginia elections by taking its lead from Cleta Mitchell and others in the CPI-led coalition:
"When we got on the ground in Virginia, we said "Cleta, Lynn [Taylor, of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy], what can we do?" They were already doing trainings, they'd hit the ground running. Our state director's first day was the day of the summit in Virginia and they said, Well, look, we got a lot of materials done, but we've got to shift massive amounts of people for 45 days of early voting. We said, "well, your poll workers and poll watchers have gotta get credentials through the party. We're good at providing muscle. Let's contribute we'll help out with that." And we saw the great things that happened in Virginia, and we're just really excited to be part of that."
At CPI’s Pennsylvania summit, Findlay similarly described how the RNC supported the CPI-led Virginia coalition by helping to organize poll watcher shifts: “Cleta Mitchell, she's like the best election and election law expert out here. We're not going to tell her what to do.”
The RNC’s election integrity program is also playing a formal role in these CPI-led coalitions. In Pennsylvania, for example, the RNC election integrity state director, Andrea Raffel, worked directly with Cleta Mitchell to plan the summit, presented at the event, and is helping to lead the statewide coalition.
Raffel said her primary duties were to "find poll workers and poll watchers, looking to find judge and inspectors of elections to be in these important roles on Election Day."
During the presentation, she emphasized the importance of becoming a poll worker and provided details on how to become a poll worker.
CPI, a Charity, Pushing Boundaries of Tax Law
CPI is putting its tax-exempt charitable status at risk by so closely coordinating with Republican Party groups, NPR reported. As a 501(c)(3) charity, CPI is prohibited from supporting candidates or engaging in partisan political activity.
In addition to working closely with the RNC on training and recruiting election observers and poll workers, CPI has hosted political candidates at its events. For example, Governor Ron DeSantis gave the keynote address at CPI’s Florida summit in March of 2022.
DeSantis was on the ballot in the 2022 election, and his address amounted to a campaign speech where he urged people to vote in the election, and stressed that “We need everybody to come out and really, really have a huge, huge November in the state of Florida.”
Then-State Rep. Cord Byrd also told the crowd that “We want to make sure that we reelect the governor. We want to make sure we can maintain our, our current majorities that care about your right to vote.”
Philip Hackney, a former lawyer in the IRS' office of general counsel, told NPR that if he was CPI's attorney, DeSantis' appearance "would give me heartburn."
“Lying Is Their Native Language”
CPI president Jim DeMint presented the goals of the organization’s election effort in stark terms. “Everything we love and care about this country goes down the drain if the election system continues the way it is,” he said at a CPI election integrity summit in Arizona.
DeMint also brushed off accusations that CPI was helping to promote the “big lie” about the 2020 election being stolen, declaring instead that "climate change was a lie" and that "much of what they told us about covid was a lie:”
“And what we're doing today is what the left says is ‘the big lie.’ You're involved with the big lie. We know who lies. We know that Hunter's laptop was a lie. We know that climate change was a lie. We know much of what they told us about covid was a lie. We know telling us the borders are secure is a lie . . . Lying is their native language."
DeMint also declared that Democrats “want to cheat” and that “they know that they can’t win unless they cheat:”
"So we can't run a country, a free country, if people don't have any confidence in their elections, and that's where we are right now. And the only reason that they don't want you to ask questions is because they know they're lying. And they know that they can't win unless they cheat. I guarantee you. Anybody who doesn't want a photo I.D. is not worried about voter suppression. They want to cheat. We need to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
Cleta Mitchell: "We Don't Live in a Democracy"
At the CPI summit in Arizona, Mitchell indicated that a goal of CPI's election integrity effort is to thwart progressive efforts to expand access to democracy, as reported by POLITICO based on audio obtained by Documented. Mitchell said:
Do you all remember the original Rainbow Coalition? . . . We have Jesse Jackson in 1980s. His goal, his stated goal, was to mobilize millions of Democrats and people of color to defeat Ronald Reagan, create permanent levels of control over the Democratic Party in America.
I have to pause here. I picked up this picture of Jesse Jackson from the 1980s, and I saw the Pepsi logo. But then I looked, do you know what those flags are? You know the American flag. Do you know what that other flag is? The Communist Party of America. This was the 1980s. And Pepsi—you think that this is new? This business of the woke corporations throwing in with the left? This started a long time ago . . . (Note: Mitchell may probably referencing this picture, when Jackson gave the opening address at the Pepsi-sponsored Goodwill Games between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.)
But that was, I just thought, I picked this interesting photo of Jesse Jackson...But that is their goal. If we can mobilize people of color and get them registered to vote we will change America. What they call it now—and it is interesting, I didn’t know they would have this reference in the Citizens United movie—they call it the “New American Majority.”
And there's a lot of literature about this by leftist writers. There was a book ‘Brown Is the New White’ talking about changing demographics in America was going to render conservatives obsolete. And their new American majority—and this is the Center for Voter Information, or the Voter Information Center—they're very overt about this, and they're very active. Their goal is to make this numerical majority that they say consists of young people, people of color, unmarried women. That's one hundred and fifty million people constituting 64 percent of the people who can vote in America, and they are targeting those groups to change America.
What do they do? They believe you can expand access to democracy by underrepresented populations.
They use code words because they are nonprofits. They're not supposed to be doing political engagement, except for a limited amount for a 501c4. But they use this code word. So they're not saying ‘we're going to go control, will be controlled by Democrats.’ They use these code words and you see it all over; ‘expanded access to democracy by underrepresented populations.’ They say over and over.
‘They bring democracy to your doorstep.’ I wanna pause right here: we don't live in a democracy. [applause]
For the left, everything is about democracy. ‘The Democracy Fund, the democracy this, the democracy that.’ Biden gives speeches about you know, the attacks on our democracy. We live in a constitutional republic. [Applause]. [unintelligible.]
‘The new American majority’ . . . in 2020, they sent over 15 million absentee ballot application to people in fifteen states. . . this is huge. These things are huge.
These are steps that are huge because that puts them in the middle seat. . .. in Virginia, these two groups sent a letter to every registrar in Virginia telling them, ‘we're going to be sending out ballots to voters in your area, and we're going to be sending them to racial minorities, young people and unmarried women.’ That’s their new American majority. And they sent out 2.1 million applications for absentee ballots that were pre-populated meaning already had the information pre-printed. The only they didn't have the last four digits in the Social Security number. As Lynn [Taylor, of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy] told you earlier today, because of the local citizens task force in Fairfax County, they were there. They’ve been there, working day after day after day. And the registrar actually told his employees to stop requiring the last four digits of the social security number.
But fast forward. The point being. They did all that in Virginia, and all the bad laws. But because there were people, an army of poll watchers and workers, they were not able to prevail. I cannot overestimate that, saying that the reason we are here talking about the Virginia Model is because we know it works."