Three of the most prominent rightwing groups which spread election denial lies and advocate for restrictions on voting rights in the US have joined forces in a secret attempt to woo top election officials in Republican-controlled states.

Led by the Washington-based conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation, the groups have created an incubator of policies that would restrict access to the ballot box and amplify false claims that fraud is rampant in American elections. The unstated yet implicit goal is to dampen Democratic turnout and help Republican candidates to victory.

Details of the two-day “secretaries of state conference” held in Washington in February were obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with the Guardian.

Officials from 13 Republican-controlled states, including 10 top election administrators, participated in the event. Attendees discussed controversial “election integrity” ideas of the sort weaponized by Donald Trump.

Among the participants were nine secretaries of state and Virginia’s election commissioner, all of whom preside over both statewide and federal elections in their states including next year’s presidential contest. A list of attendees namechecks the chief election officials of Indiana, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Documented also obtained the conference agenda which lists a number of Trump associates among the speakers. They include Ken Cuccinelli who, as acting deputy secretary for homeland security, played a key role in setting elections policy for the Trump administration.

Cuccinelli now runs the Election Transparency Initiative which is fighting Democratic efforts in Congress to shore up voting rights, and has been active in pushing state-level vote restriction measures.

The keynote speech was given by Ken Blackwell, former secretary of state in Ohio. He was an early adopter of Trump’s lie about rigged elections, championing the idea in the 2016 presidential race which Trump won.

Blackwell now chairs the Center for Election Integrity at the America First Policy Institute, a rightwing thinktank led by former Trump officials. The center has been touting election-related model legislation.

Heritage was careful to organize the conference amid tight secrecy. Among the records obtained by Documented is an email from Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer at the foundation who leads their election work.

Responding to a query about the event from a Texas official, Von Spakovsky said: “There is no livestream. This is not a public event. It is a private, confidential meeting of the secretaries. I would rather you not send out a press release about it.”

Email to Texas Senator Paul Bettencourt's staff from Hans von Spakovsky, obtained by Documented

Von Spakovsky has long been at the forefront of efforts to undermine US elections by claiming falsely that fraud is endemic. He helped spearhead the attack on voting by mail during the pandemic, holding private briefings with Republican state election officials – a drive that became a core part of Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.

Heritage and its political arm, Heritage Action for America, have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting their own model bills that impose strict restrictions on voting. They have targeted the investment on key battleground states such as Arizona, Georgia and Michigan that could hold the balance of power in the 2024 presidential race.

Heritage began hosting annual gatherings of Republican secretaries of state at the start of the Trump presidency in 2017. February’s in-person conference was the first to be sponsored by three rightwing powerhouses of election denial and voter suppression – Heritage, together with the Public Interest Legal Foundation (Pilf), and the Honest Elections Project (HEP).

Pilf is a conservative legal group that sues election officials to force them to purge voter rolls, a process that has affected eligible US voters. The group is led by J Christian Adams, a former justice department lawyer who tried to use the Voting Rights Act to claim voting discrimination against white people.

Trump’s former lawyer Cleta Mitchell also sits on the Pilf board.

HEP is a conservative dark-money group closely tied to the Republican operative Leonard Leo who was instrumental in engineering the current conservative supermajority on the US supreme court. Reporting by ProPublica and the New York Times last year revealed that Leo has received control of a staggering $1.6bn to advance rightwing causes.

Concern about the potential of top election officials to subvert democracy intensified during the 2022 midterm elections when a number of individuals committed to Trump’s stolen election lie also ran for office. They formed the “America First Secretary of State Coalition” which became a conduit of far-right conspiracy theories linked to QAnon.

Most of those candidates failed in their bid to take over the reins of election administration in their states. But the Heritage conference suggests that the desire to deploy Republican secretaries of state as channels of voter suppression and election misinformation remains very much alive.

Though chief election officials are tasked with ensuring that ballots are fair and impartial, the Heritage conference was attended only by Republican secretaries of state.

The Guardian asked Heritage to explain why its conference was held in secret and with only Republican attendees. The group did not answer those questions.

Von Spakovsky said that the event was an “educational summit intended to provide information on current issues in elections and ensure that our election process protects the right to vote for American citizens by making it easy to vote and hard to cheat”.

He disputed the argument that security measures at the ballot box such as voter ID suppressed turnout. “The claim that secure elections somehow promote greater restrictions is outrageous and has been clearly disproven,” he said.

Von Spakovsky also pointed to Heritage’s election fraud database, which he said sampled “proven instances of election fraud from across the country”. The database records 1,422 “proven instances of voter fraud” stretching back to 1982 – a 41-year period during which billions of votes have been cast in the US.

Several of the participants at the conference have election denial and voter suppression track records. They include Florida’s secretary of state, Cord Byrd, who, soon after being appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis last spring, refused to say whether Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election.

Byrd runs Florida’s “election integrity unit” that was set up by DeSantis last year to investigate election crimes, even though there is scant evidence of substantial voter fraud. More than a dozen citizens accused of illegally voting have been arrested at gunpoint under DeSantis’s crackdown on supposed voter fraud.

Another attendee – Jay Ashcroft, secretary of state of Missouri – has been a leading proponent of that state’s new restrictive voting law. His office has been named in numerous lawsuits in the last year for imposing extreme constraints on voter registration, including a recent lawsuit accusing Ashcroft of illegally blocking a ballot measure.

Tennessee’s secretary of state, Tre Hargett, another listed participant, has been accused by Democratic leaders in Tennessee of purging thousands of voters from the official rolls.

Panel discussions laid out in the agenda were held on several of the core talking points of the current Republican party. The opening discussion, moderated by Von Spakovsky, was on “Auditing Expertise”.

The main speaker was Paul Bettencourt, a state senator in Texas who has sponsored several bills making it harder to vote including a measure that would deploy armed “election marshals” to oversee polling stations.

Before the conference-goers attended a cocktail reception and dinner held at an upscale restaurant in downtown Washington, day one ended with a session entitled: “Realistic Eric Fixes and Reforms”. Eric – the Electronic Registration Information Center – is a non-profit group run collectively by 28 states which is used to finesse the accuracy of state voter rolls.

In recent months it has become the target of rightwing conspiracy theories fueled by Trump who claimed falsely that it was rigged to benefit Democrats.

Ashcroft, the Missouri secretary of state, was one of the speakers in that session. Earlier this month he announced that he was pulling Missouri out of Eric, making it one of the first Republican-controlled states to quit the organization along with Alabama, Florida and West Virginia.

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