Amid reports of harassment outside ballot drop boxes and threats to election workers, experts are sounding the alarm about another potential source of election interference ahead of the 2022 midterms: a growing coalition of far-right "constitutional sheriffs" who are gearing up to insert themselves into upcoming elections.
The "constitutional sheriffs" movement, which has ties to the Oath Keepers and other antigovernment fringe movements, is based on the legally dubious belief that sheriffs are the ultimate law enforcement authority within their counties, superseding state and federal officials, including the U.S. president. In recent years, self-appointed constitutional sheriffs have refused to enforce various laws that they deem unconstitutional, from state and federal gun laws to pandemic-era mask mandates.
But now, experts warn, key figures in the movement have teamed up with prominent election deniers as part of a new campaign that seeks to lend law enforcement credibility to the false notion, promoted by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, that voter fraud is rampant in U.S. elections.
Leading this charge are two major constitutional sheriffs groups — the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and Protect America Now — which have aligned themselves with True the Vote, a conservative vote-monitoring group whose widely discredited claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election were the basis for the film "2000 Mules."
The campaign calls on sheriffs to use their supposedly unsurpassed authority to investigate and intervene in the administration of elections using a variety of questionable tactics, from surveilling polling stations and ballot drop boxes, to potentially seizing voting equipment and deputizing citizens.
"I think that's something we very much need to be worried about," Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said at a recent conference in Pittsburgh.
In fact, Beirich has been following the constitutional sheriffs movement since her days at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she previously headed the anti-hate organization's intelligence-gathering arm. She said the recent effort by constitutional sheriffs groups to insert themselves in election-related issues is the thing she's currently "more worried about than anything else."
Beirich’s comments came during the second-ever Eradicate Hate Global Summit conference last month, which drew a wide variety of experts, academics and advocates as well as federal government officials and representatives from the tech industry. Over three days, conference attendees discussed pressing topics, including addressing the prevalence of violent extremism in law enforcement and the military, and the rise of hate-fueled violence among young people.
Yet the panel on constitutional sheriffs, which took place on the final day of the conference, struck a particularly urgent tone.
In addition to Beirich, panelists included Emily Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University and the co-author of a recent survey of the country’s roughly 3,000 sheriffs, which found that a substantial minority (more than 200 of over 500 who responded to the survey) agree with the constitutional sheriffs' belief that their authority supersedes that of the state or federal government.
More than 300 sheriffs surveyed (who make up roughly one-tenth of the country’s sheriffs) said they are willing to "interpose" on behalf of their constituents to oppose a state or federal law that they believe is unjust or unconstitutional.
"It really is a growing movement that has [an] increasing number of actors in it, which is really concerning," said panelist Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism that published a 20-page report last year on the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and its founder, former Graham, Ariz., Sheriff Richard Mack, who was also a founding member of the Oath Keepers’ paramilitary group.
Pitcavage explained how, in just over a decade, Mack has not only turned the association into "an unusually successful extremist group" but, through relentless outreach, speaking engagements and law enforcement trainings, has managed to create "a constitutional sheriff's ecosphere or movement" centered around his thesis that the county sheriff is the "last line of defense" against government "tyranny."
While opposition to state and federal gun control laws has always been a core issue for the constitutional sheriffs, it was the coronavirus pandemic that really gave Mack’s movement a boost, as sheriffs around the country capitalized on frustrations over lockdowns by promising not to enforce stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and other public health measures that they deemed unconstitutional.
The pandemic-era momentum gave rise to new organizations, like Protect America Now, a nonprofit coalition of sheriffs that promises to fight "those who want to trample on our Constitution" and asks supporters to donate $17.76 a month. Several smaller groups like the Idaho Constitutional Sheriffs or the Sheriff Brigades of Pennsylvania are dedicated to electing constitutional sheriffs in every county of their respective states or commonwealths.
Pitcavage pointed out that support for the constitutional sheriffs movement has also extended beyond law enforcement circles, from groups that oppose vaccine mandates to local governments. In the last year, at least three counties in Nevada have paid $2,500 to become lifetime members of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
"You actually have governmental entities as members of extremist groups," Pitcavage said.
More than anything, though, Pitcavage and his fellow panelists were most alarmed by the recent alliance between leaders of the constitutional sheriffs movement and True the Vote, the Texas group behind some of the most popular, yet widely discredited claims regarding voter fraud in the 2020 election.
In June, Protect America Now leader Mark Lamb, who serves as sheriff of Pinal County, Ariz., and True the Vote’s Catherine Engelbrecht, announced that their groups had joined forces to create ProtectAmerica.Vote, a new initiative to "provide local sheriffs with information, resources, and tools to support election integrity in their county."
As part of this joint effort, the groups promised to launch a "national election integrity voter hotline" to connect citizens with tips to sheriffs, run ads on the radio, TV and online in states to "educate voters," and raise money for grants to outfit sheriffs with video surveillance equipment so they can have "real-time eyes on voting in their county."
A month later, Engelbrecht appeared at an event hosted by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Organization in Las Vegas, where Mack announced that election issues were now his group’s top priority. The event also reportedly featured speeches from other prominent election deniers such as Trump ally and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, as well as a handful of county sheriffs who claim to be investigating the 2020 election.
Neither Mack nor Lamb responded to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for True the Vote also did not respond to a request for comment.
During the panel discussion in Pittsburgh, Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official who now runs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law Center, said that while the news of the alliance between the sheriffs' movement and True the Vote set off alarm bells for herself and other experts, many were initially hesitant to draw attention to it "out of concern it would just give it a whole lot more publicity."
"But now it's to the point [where] we're actually seeing examples of sheriffs starting to ask questions of election officials," McCord told conference attendees in Pittsburgh.
Specifically, McCord cited the reported activities of Johnson County, Kan., Sheriff Calvin Hayden, who appeared at the constitutional sheriffs event in Las Vegas this summer.
Hayden is one of a handful of county sheriffs who claim to be investigating fraud in the 2020 election, despite repeated reassurances from state and local officials that there's no evidence to support such claims.
Hayden's sudden interest in voting procedures raised red flags for some local officials earlier in the summer. Peg Trent, Johnson County's chief legal counsel, outlined these concerns in a July 7 memo in which she described a meeting days earlier between herself, Hayden and other local election officials. In the memo, Trent wrote that during the July 5 meeting, the sheriff had "inquired of County staff about prior election processes, challenged the integrity of elections in Johnson County, and requested that local law enforcement participate in the current election procedures."
Specifically, Trent said that Hayden questioned the placement of ballot drop boxes at public libraries in 2020, proposed limiting the hours ballot drop boxes would be available in future elections, offered to have his staff pick up ballots from drop boxes in unmarked vehicles and requested to have a sheriff's deputy in the room to observe the counting of ballots.
"As we discussed, my concern is that these requests give the appearance that the Sheriff’s office is attempting to interfere with an election," Trent wrote.
At the time, Hayden issued a statement disputing Trent’s account of the meeting; he insisted that his office has “no intention of asserting ourselves into any election” but that they’d simply made suggestions in response to a request “by the Board of County Commissioners to provide security.”
Hayden, via a spokesperson, declined to provide additional details about this request or answer any other questions from Yahoo News.
In response to requests for comment from Trent and the Board of County Commissioners, Theresa Freed, assistant director of public affairs for the Johnson County government, told Yahoo News in an email that “county staff has been directed that there’s an ongoing criminal investigation and cannot disclose information related to the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation.”
In an emailed statement, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab's office disputed the "unfounded claims" on which Hayden's investigation is based, noting that "to date, not a single instance of election fraud from the 2020 General Election has been prosecuted in any court in the 105 counties in the state of Kansas."
Not long after the Pittsburgh conference, McCord's team at Georgetown and States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes free and fair elections, released a fact sheet for state and local election officials on how to respond to similar inquiries by sheriffs aligned with the constitutional sheriffs movement.
The guidance explains that sheriffs typically do not have the authority to oversee the administration of elections — a role that is "ordinarily performed by other state or local officials" — and urges local election officials who receive requests for information from sheriffs seeking to assert that authority to "immediately consult with the municipal attorney (such as the city or county attorney), the district or commonwealth attorney, county or state election officials and their legal advisors, and/or the state attorney general."
“Left unaddressed, sheriffs who overstep their roles may not only violate the law, but also may give the impression of attempting to interfere in an election or preventing duly authorized election officials from fulfilling their responsibilities,” the fact sheet says.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, many states have laws restricting law enforcement officials from "policing polling centers because of the potential that their presence will intimidate and deter voters," which is prohibited under federal law.
During a recent episode of his podcast, Mack dismissed concerns about sheriffs or other uniformed officers intimidating voters as "woke crap."
"To have a uniformed officer, or private security guard in uniform, they're all there to do one thing and that is to provide a safe and peaceful and accommodating, friendly atmosphere for people to come and vote," Mack said.
In another recent podcast appearance, Mack said, “Sheriffs should actually be verifying how the votes are tabulated in his county."
But Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers University expert in voter fraud, said that the presence of a uniformed officer, especially one with a gun, could be perceived as "very threatening" to voters, particularly people of color. Unless state or local law allows for it, or they're called for a specific reason, law enforcement officials who show up to patrol voting sites "will be coming very close to a line of violating federal law about intimidating voters."
It's unclear what exactly sheriffs are planning to do on Election Day, but recent reports of voter intimidation at ballot boxes in Arizona show that individuals seem compelled to act. In an October incident, one of several reported voter intimidation incidents in the state, at Maricopa County headquarters, a group of "camo clad people" reportedly took a photo of a voter and the voter's license plate as the voter was dropping off mail-in ballots at a drop box.
Days after the reported encounter, Paul Penzone, the sheriff of Maricopa County, a region that includes Phoenix, said he increased security around drop boxes to ensure that people can vote safely.
In an interview with Yahoo News, Penzone said that while he believes sheriffs do "have a responsibility to investigate a crime that effectively impacts the vote within our community," as they would any other criminal offense, they also have an obligation to make sure that such investigations are based on facts and evidence, and that they don't exceed the authorities of their office regarding probable cause.
If a sheriff or any other law enforcement official fails to find evidence to support the belief that there was fraud in the election, but continues to promote that narrative anyway, "then you are doing a disservice to the people that you are sworn to protect," Penzone said.
Penzone said he is not aware of specific efforts or plans by sheriffs or law enforcement agents to monitor polling stations or ballot drop boxes. But he said: "What I have seen is sheriffs taking a more dominant role in partisan events that have, in many ways, done two things: undermine confidence and provoked aggression."
Unlike police chiefs and commissioners, who are typically appointed by mayors or city councils, most county sheriffs are voted into office, meaning they must campaign for reelection every few years like any other partisan politician.
Still, Penzone, a Democrat and former Phoenix police sergeant who defeated Maricopa’s controversial longtime Republican sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016, insists that law enforcement officials, including elected sheriffs, should be "nonpartisan," "objective" and "pragmatic."
"Being an elected official in law enforcement is not an entitlement, it's a responsibility," Penzone said. "We're supposed to be caretakers of the oath of office, not people who take the oath, and then leverage it for our own ideology."
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Mark Lamb did not appear at an event hosted by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Organization in Las Vegas.