Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

GOP spends millions on election volunteers to search for fraud

By Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey The Washington Post

The Republican National Committee is spending millions this year in 16 critical states on an unprecedented push to recruit thousands of poll workers and watchers, adding firepower to a growing effort on the right to find election irregularities that could be used to challenge results.

The RNC was until recently barred from bringing its substantial resources to bear on field operations at polling sites because of a decades-old court order. Now, the party apparatus is mobilizing volunteers to scrutinize voting locations for suspected fraud.

“It’s super, super critical that if issues are identified, they’re identified real time,” Melissa Conway, the RNC’s election integrity state director in Texas, said in a virtual meeting last year, so that Republicans can “have a legal footing in addressing the election and if need be, doing any overturning of the election.”

The new “election integrity” operation, which grew from former president Donald Trump’s complaints about botched legal challenges to the 2020 election and his persistent false claims of mass voting fraud, is already bringing in a significant stream of recruits to swing state voting sites.

The RNC has so far signed up more than 14,000 poll workers and 10,000 poll watchers nationwide, and political director Elliott Echols said the party plans to have more than 5,000 in each state for the November midterms. Republican officials said the project, involving dozens of dedicated staffers, is an effort to level the playing field with Democrats at polling sites.

“There were there were a lot of problems in 2020, there absolutely were, regardless of what people say,” RNC senior adviser Justin Riemer said. “You don’t have to think the election was stolen to think there were a lot of problems and want to be involved in the process.”

Historically, many poll workers have been retirees who come back election after election, and both parties at the local level have traditionally worked with election officials to staff their precincts.

What’s different is the messaging, both to recruits and to party backers, about the reasons for the plan. While Democrats have set up legal hotlines and mobilized volunteers by stressing a need to help those denied a chance to vote, the Republican operation is centered on challenging ballots, spotting potential fraud - and for poll watchers, reporting those concerns directly to party attorneys on Election Day, according to the RNC.

That worries advocates and some election officials, who say the intense focus on fraud could cause problems at voting sites.

“People shouldn’t have a vested interest one way or another when doing the work of an election inspector,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the nonpartisan executive director of Milwaukee’s Election Commission, which received a record number of poll worker appointments from both parties this cycle. “The concern is if they understand that when they’re on the job they should check their politics at the door.”

The RNC’s program is the latest operation on the right since 2020 to focus on the smallest building blocks of American elections: polling precincts where people vote. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump strategist who now hosts a popular podcast, has since last year encouraged Trump supporters to fill local party posts as a gateway to monitoring elections. Cleta Mitchell, one of the lawyers involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 results, has hosted workshops in swing states attended by RNC and local party officials to discuss mobilizing poll workers and poll watchers.

“We are arming the army of patriots, that’s our goal,” Mitchell recently said on Bannon’s show.

The prospect of election deniers staffing polling precincts raises new concerns for administrators, civil rights groups and Democrats who say that Republicans are positioning themselves to sabotage the casting and counting of ballots in ways they could not in 2020. Some election officials say they’re already seeing poll worker trainees with clear agendas driven by Trump’s claims.

In Brookfield, Wis., a Republican-leaning city outside Milwaukee, City Clerk Michelle Luedtke said one recent trainee asked about Dominion voting machines, a target of false claims of rigged votes by Trump allies; another wanted to know how to check if voters were lying about where they lived. Luedtke said she asked the trainees, who were not party appointees, to meet with her after the session to address their concerns. Neither did, and they did not show up to work the polls.

“I make it clear during training that electioneering in any form will not be tolerated from any poll worker,” Luedtke said. For workers appointed by a party, she can ask the party to address the behavior and submit someone else. “That part gets a little hairy,” she said.

The concern about disruptions inside precincts hasn’t materialized so far in this year’s primaries, since the parties aren’t competing head to head. The RNC is using primaries as a dry run, testing its new operations ahead of the November midterms, and officials say they have seen few issues - and little fraud.

Riemer said overzealous poll watchers would be dismissed, and poll workers are the responsibility of local elections officials.

“You are not seeing examples of the voter fraud police running around stopping people from voting,” Riemer said. “It is specifically stated in the training that they are to be courteous, they are supposed to work cooperatively with the officials and not be in there like a bull in a china shop.”

The RNC’s state-based staffers are holding “election integrity training” events that encourage activists to become poll workers and poll watchers. The RNC says it’s not actually training poll workers at these sessions, because those positions typically require training by local election administrators. Poll watchers, by contrast, are usually trained by local parties. The RNC is also providing reporting software to take reports from poll watchers and connect them with party lawyers ready to sue.

Democrats say that’s a clear contrast to its volunteer recruitment operations.

“Republicans are recruiting and training partisan election deniers as poll workers and watchers, and laying the groundwork to cancel votes in elections they don’t win,” Ammar Moussa, a DNC spokesman, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, the DNC is educating voters on how to become a poll worker and protecting the right to vote. The difference between the two parties’ priorities could not be more stark.”

The RNC is also already using information gathered from its recruits to put additional pressure on election administrators.

The RNC’s state election integrity director in Wisconsin, Ryan Retza, emailed Woodall-Vogg in March to ask about reports from Republican poll workers and watchers saying her staff was accepting multiple ballots from people without checking their IDs. Woodall-Vogg replied that there was no requirement or recommendation to check IDs so she has instructed staff not to, since it might be considered an unlawful imposition. The next day, Woodall-Vogg received a formal letter from a lawyer representing the RNC and the Wisconsin Republican Party citing “firsthand knowledge from observers and inspectors,” using the state’s term for poll watchers and workers. An RNC spokeswoman said the information came from a Republican poll watcher who talked to several poll workers. The lawyer’s letter asked the clerk to instruct her staff to check IDs. She did not respond.

“For too long the power has been with the local election administrators,” Josh Findlay, the RNC’s national director of election integrity, said in a virtual meeting from July 2021. “Hopefully we don’t have to wait until you know the vote has already been cast or whatever it is to sue after the election is already over to try to fix things. We want to be able to catch things in real time.”

The genesis of the RNC’s program came after the 2020 election, as Trump railed for months - without evidence - of mass vote fraud, and as a series of lawsuits led by Rudy Giuliani and based on outlandish claims suggesting voting machines had been manipulated by foreign agents, flopped in court.

Trump repeatedly pressed RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on what she was doing to ensure he could more successfully challenge a 2024 loss.

“We can’t let them steal this one,” he said, according to one person with direct knowledge of his comments, which stem from his baseless claim that mass fraud cost him the 2020 election.

As the RNC came under pressure from Trump, donors, campaign lawyers and its own members to take action on election fraud, it tapped Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway to survey Republican voters on how many believed the election was stolen. It found about 70% who said they did, according to a person familiar with the process. (RNC officials have concluded in recent months that the issue has faded some in the minds of voters.)

McDaniel told associates that she had to make “election integrity” one of her top three issues because so many voters cared about it. Trump advisers also repeatedly pushed McDaniel, the committee and RNC staff to take fraud more seriously or place more election deniers in charge of local parties.

In February 2021, McDaniel convened a special committee to review the RNC’s efforts on election integrity and make recommendations. Jason Thompson, an RNC member from Georgia, led the autopsy of the RNC’s Election Day operations in 2020. He faulted the RNC for bungling litigation after the 2020 election - a scathing rebuke that he said led RNC lawyers to mark his section of the report “confidential.”

“A lot of the attorneys hired by the Trump campaign should not have been involved in any way because they didn’t know what they were doing. People were trying to get their 15 minutes of fame on TV but weren’t making any sort of difference with anything they were filing,” Thompson said. “People like me were really angry about what happened and wanted to see it changed.”

The 2020 campaign also scrambled to find observers for counts and recounts, leading to chaotic and threatening mobs forming outside counting centers in Detroit and Phoenix. Findlay has blamed a lack of training and advance planning for hampering Republicans’ ability to substantiate claims of fraud in 2020.

“Honestly, some Republican areas were caught a little flat-footed, and we wanted to make sure people were aware of all of what they could and should do,” said Jane Brady, Delaware’s GOP chair, who served on the RNC’s committee.

Recounts, audits and even Republican-led reviews in the pivotal states confirmed Joe Biden’s win and did not find evidence of widespread fraud that could have affected the outcome. Yet the hope persists among many Republicans that they could have proved fraud if they had been better organized.

The task force concluded that the RNC needed to reinvent its field operations, shifting from an obsolete focus on Election Day to a year-round presence dedicated to “election integrity.”

Such operations were off-limits for the RNC for almost 40 years. In the 1981 gubernatorial election in New Jersey, Democrats accused the RNC of using outdated lists to challenge the voter registrations of Black and Hispanic voters and hiring police and field workers to patrol polling precincts under the banner of a “National Ballot Security Task Force.” The lawsuit resulted in a settlement that prohibited the RNC from activities including fielding poll watchers.

“When a candidate would talk about election integrity, I would literally have to get up and leave the room or disconnect the phone, that was the extent to which we were barred,” Findlay said in March on a panel in Arizona hosted by Mitchell, according to a tape provided by Lauren Windsor of the Undercurrent, a liberal journalist who makes undercover recordings of conservative officials. “It literally took that judge dying” to end the restrictions, Findlay said, to applause and laughter in the room. A different judge allowed the consent decree to expire at the end of 2017.

By its own account, the RNC was playing catch-up after decades out of action. The RNC’s final report did not fully embrace Trump’s falsehoods that the election was stolen but, instead, recited complaints about changes in voting procedures and a perceived lack of transparency. Some Trump advisers wanted the RNC to take a firmer stance and fire Riemer, who led the writing of the report, because he did not support many of the campaign’s more spurious claims.

Findlay, who took over implementing the RNC’s new program, was more given to falsely impugning the legitimacy of the 2020 results. He previously worked as a lawyer on the Trump campaign, running the national “war room” at the White House leading up to election night and in the following days.

“I saw firsthand everything that the Democrats were doing last cycle to try to cause mistakes, confusion and abuse in the election,” Findlay said in an April 2021 virtual meeting hosted by Texas RNC member Toni Anne Dashiell.

On the conference call, Findlay echoed baseless claims that pandemic safety procedures were part of a Democratic plot to steal the election. Even absent a master plan, Findlay suggested the measures opened the door to fraud.

“By eliminating as many election rules as they can, they created an environment where anybody that wanted to commit election fraud or mistake or abuse could,” Findlay said. “This time around we need a thousand people out there with telescopes looking at the night sky examining every single thing that the Democrats do.”

Findlay piloted the program in last year’s Virginia governor’s race. He and a state-based director, Thomas Lane, helped organize poll watchers to cover 14,000 shifts across 45 days of early voting and ran the hotline to report issues to lawyers. At the March panel with Mitchell, Findlay said the team was able to quickly address a report that voters at one precinct were being required to wear masks.

“Virginia was just the start,” Findlay said on the recording. “We’re in the testing phase right now before 2022.”

Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race by more than 63,000 votes.

On the panel, Findlay claimed another victory in Texas, where the Harris County election administrator said she would resign in March after the county GOP sued her for allegedly mishandling a primary beset with late openings and malfunctioning machines.

“Because we had people in place, we were able to bring all these things to the attention of the media,” Findlay said.

But the Harris County officials disputed that the RNC played a significant role in highlighting problems, noting that the central problem - 10,000 ballots that weren’t properly entered - was discovered by the elections office itself. Leah Shah, a spokeswoman for the elections administrator, said the Republicans did not provide enough poll workers, causing some locations to close or rely on staff from the elections office or the Democratic side. The county GOP’s lawsuit was dismissed, and the party is appealing.

“If the party claims responsibility for the resignation of the current elections administrator, one has to ask themselves whether that was the goal all along: sow chaos in a multitiered fashion, act in bad faith, with the end result of undermining a public servant,” said the administrator, Isabel Longoria, whose resignation takes effect next month. Longoria spoke in reference to the Texas Republicans’ law passed in 2021 that restricting drive-through and 24-hour voting that the county offered in 2020.

In Michigan, the RNC has signed up 5,600 people to be poll workers, including 850 in Detroit, state election integrity director Matthew Seifried said in a recording of a May training obtained by Politico. In another meeting, in October, he said the RNC would focus efforts on the heavily Democratic cities of Detroit, Pontiac and Southfield.

Conway, the RNC’s election integrity director in Texas, has appeared at Republican groups across the state encouraging people to become poll workers. At one presentation, Conway said she personally witnessed tens of thousands of improperly handled mail-in ballots as a poll worker in Harris County in 2020, according to a local news report.

Conway said she became interested in election integrity because the candidates she supported weren’t winning.

“I wanted to know why and it’s because even in the great state of Texas, that something is incredibly broken with our election systems and there’s been this disconnect,” Conway said, according to the report in the Hill Country Community Journal.

Conway has conducted multiple trainings in Travis County, home to Austin. The county GOP staffed 91% of the polls in this year’s primary, up from a previous rate of 17%, according to the county’s Republican Party spokesman, Andy Hogue, and 478 out of the 587 Republican poll workers were new recruits. The Republicans fielded so many poll workers for the primary runoff that some even filled slots that were ordinarily held for Democrats, Hogue said.

“Some come in from a conspiratorial direction, some completely speculative, others have actual situations where they’re like, ‘well, I think there was cheating going on,’ ” Hogue said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, the answer is always the same: get involved locally, keep an eye on the polls.’ … Concerns that votes aren’t being counted in Georgia, that really helped voters to identify with the need to get involved. We capitalized on that quite a bit.”

Conway also assisted the San Antonio-area GOP in submitting 450 poll workers to cover 250 locations, according to Gary Teal, Bexar County Republican Party executive director. In Texas, party-appointed election judges in charge of polling places have powers including the ability to issue arrest warrants.

“These are the people who go to the election department and pick up the equipment and keep in their trunk over the weekend,” Teal said. “These are the most important people in our election system.”