Early voters dropping off ballots in Berks County, Pennsylvania, are confronted by a sight surprising for elections in the United States: A pair of uniformed sheriff’s deputies armed with guns and tasers guarding the ballot box.
Directed by local election officials to question voters before letting them deposit their ballots, the deputies guarding the drop boxes underscore the growing schism in this country over the debunked claims that the 2020 election was marred by rampant vote fraud.
To some in Berks County, the deputies are only trying to ensure a fair and clean election. Others say their presence and direct questioning risks intimidating voters and stoking baseless conspiracy theories.
Having deputies at drop boxes “can obviously be very intimidating in the moment to those voters,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the nonpartisan Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. But it also “sends this broader message that our elections aren’t secure, that there’s widespread fraud … and what’s really abhorrent about this is, it’s based on a lie, it’s based on disinformation.”
The scene playing out in Berks County may be one of the more visible examples of law-enforcement intervention in the 2022 voting process. But there are others, and many of those efforts are tied to a fringe group of elected sheriffs influenced by former President Donald Trump’s repeatedly disproven claims of vote fraud. Those sheriffs have been telling their constituents they plan to police the midterm elections – even though that is normally the duty of election officials.
Some of them are aligned with so-called “constitutional sheriffs” groups that claim their members have the right to ignore or block federal or state laws they deem unconstitutional and to intervene in elections. While they make up a tiny minority of sheriffs across the US, these law-enforcement officials could play a vital role in efforts to cast doubt on elections and make it easier for partisan officials to overrule voters’ choices this fall and in 2024.
Group encourages law enforcement to get involved in elections
Sheriff Mark Lamb, of Pinal County, Arizona, has perhaps been the most vocal of the bunch. He co-founded Protect America Now, a group that claims to be engaged in “a battle for the soul of America.” The group counts about 70 sheriffs as members – including Berks County Sheriff Eric Weaknecht.
Emails obtained by CNN through public records requests show Lamb has reached out to sheriffs across the country to tell them things such as “Here’s how YOU can enforce election integrity.” In the emails, his group recommends sheriffs increase “patrol activity around drop box locations” and engage in “video surveillance” with “access points directly on Sheriff Department computers.”
The group also asks “patriots” to report suspected vote fraud to a hotline it operates in conjunction with the Texas-based election-conspiracy group True the Vote.
True the Vote is well known for backing a thoroughly-debunked disinformation film, “2000 Mules,” that baselessly claimed to uncover widespread drop-box ballot fraud in 2020. True the Vote’s leaders, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips, were found in contempt of court and jailed Monday by a Texas federal judge for refusing to hand over information purportedly backing their accusations against an elections-software company, Konnech, that is suing them for defamation. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich last month asked federal authorities to investigate True the Vote for potential tax-code violations tied to the use of false claims in its fundraising efforts.
“True the Vote attorneys are expediting an appeal seeking to have Englebrecht and Phillips released,” a spokesman for the group said in a statement, and quoted Engelbrecht asserting that the information sought by the court “was not covered under the terms” of the judge’s temporary restraining order. The group also dismissed Brnovich’s letter to federal authorities, saying it “is false and smacks of retribution for the AG’s own decision to ignore suspicious voting activity.”
Sheriff Lamb also has allied with Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), which claims about 250 members. Mack’s group has called on sheriffs to investigate “election fraud” and wrongly asserts that, “The law enforcement powers held by the sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county.”
Neither Mack nor Lamb responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
Mack is a former board member of the anti-government Oath Keepers, whose founder is currently on trial for seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol.
Mack’s group has held events around the country, and Lamb has done other outreach to recruit sheriffs to their ideas. At an August event in Phoenix put on by True the Vote, Lamb told participants he saw so much fraud in the 2020 election “that I thought, this is something that we cannot let happen again.”
A Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesman told CNN this week that deputies conduct “welfare checks” on ballot drop boxes as part of their routine patrols. An investigation by Arizona’s attorney general into election fraud allegations found no evidence of any such scheme in Pinal County or elsewhere in Arizona.
But such messages are finding receptive ears. At a July event in Las Vegas featuring CSPOA and True the Vote, Sheriff Richard Vaughan of Grayson County, Virginia, said that after watching “2000 Mules” – “if the federal government is not going to investigate that, I think the sheriffs should.”
In Kansas, Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden has spent months investigating conspiracy claims about vote fraud, even though election officials in that state have said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud. Hayden recently appeared to admit that he hadn’t found probable cause of any crimes, but he continues insisting that the 2020 election was rigged. “I honest to God don’t think that the people that are running the elections know what’s going on. I think they’ve been programmed in by some foreign entities, and they are manipulating the vote,” he said in a video posted in September to the online platform Rumble.
In Michigan, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, who launched his own fruitless probe of supposed election fraud, is now being investigated by a special prosecutor looking into an alleged criminal conspiracy to unlawfully obtain access to voting machines, as CNN has reported.
Vaughan and Leaf didn’t respond to requests for comment. Hayden’s office declined comment.
David Mahoney, former president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said such sheriffs represent a tiny fraction of the country’s more than 3,000 sheriffs, most of whom reject such ideas. He said in his 41-year law enforcement career in Dane County, Wisconsin, he never investigated election fraud – because such responsibilities fall to county clerks or state election officials, not sheriffs.
“If they think sheriffs across this country have the unique responsibility of enforcing vote fraud, show me the legal standing that allows that. We enforce laws that are on the books; we don’t make our own laws,” Mahoney said. “What really concerns me is that now we’re going to have this armed contingent of sheriffs who believe that by a physical, armed presence they’re going to protect the rights of voters, when I think it will have the opposite effect: to intimidate voters.”
Voter intimidation emerges as election concern
On a recent fall day in Pennsylvania, a steady stream of people made their way past maples and oaks in full color and into the Berks County Agricultural Center to deliver their votes – where armed deputies awaited to ask them questions such as, “Is this your ballot?”
Holly Manbeck, a lifelong resident who’d driven her mother to drop off her ballot, said she’d heard, “there is supposedly a lot of fraud going on,” though she explained, “I just know what I hear in the media.” But Manbeck wondered about the priority of assigning deputies to drop-box duty. “I don’t want our streets to be unsafe because they have police sitting here monitoring a box,” she told CNN.
David Leitheiser, a retired electrician who deposited his ballot last Friday, told CNN that while the officers were cordial and he felt comfortable dropping off his ballot, he worried that other voters might not. “I’m very, very concerned about voter intimidation,” he said.
Sheriff Weaknecht, of Berks County, declined to speak with CNN, either about the policy of having deputies monitor drop boxes, which dates back to the 2020 election, or about his membership in Lamb’s group, Protect America Now. In a Facebook post, Weaknecht said the deputies are there “to ensure voting integrity.” But in a county that in 2003 was subject to a federal court order for “hostile and unequal treatment of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking voters by poll officials,” the idea of law enforcement officers intruding at the front lines of the election process troubles civil rights advocates.
“The … aggressive law enforcement presence at drop boxes, especially here, where they’re in secure locations, in government office buildings, is unnecessary,” said Marian Schneider, senior voting rights counsel for ACLU Pennsylvania. “And any time you have law enforcement directly engaging with voters, you have a greater risk of crossing the line to voter intimidation.”
To prevent voters from being intimidated by police, Pennsylvania bars law-enforcement officers from being within 100 feet of a polling place during an election, with narrow exceptions. A ballot drop-box, which in Berks County is not located at a polling place, should be “effectively the equivalent,” said Georgetown’s McCord, adding that Berks County’s policy “certainly violates the spirit,” if not the letter of the law.
As recently as May, Berks County commissioners expressed frustration at local residents buying into election conspiracies. Commission Chairman Christian Leinbach asked residents to “stop getting caught up in some of the crazy accusations that are out there about the county, because the county cares about election integrity.”
In September, though, commissioners voted unanimously to have sheriff’s deputies question voters at drop boxes. “We’ve heard you can go to the Internet and Google ‘election integrity drop boxes’ and find out all kinds of things,” Leinbach told CNN after a recent meeting. “I believe that our drop boxes are secure. They are not intimidating.”
But Pennsylvania’s acting Secretary of State, Leigh Chapman, wrote to Weaknecht on September 21 to express her concern that the county’s “policy may have the effect of intimidating eligible voters and deterring authorized agents from legally casting ballots in Berks County.” She asked him not to station deputies at drop boxes or question voters, noting that the county has a significant population of Hispanic voters, that “it is well documented that in past decades law enforcement has intimidated voters, particularly in communities of color,” and that the policy “could adversely impact the fundamental right to vote.”
Chapman sent a similar letter in May to the district attorney in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, after he assigned detectives to watch that county’s five drop boxes during the primary election, partly in person and partly via video feed. Jim Martin, the Lehigh district attorney, told the Morning Call newspaper he’d spoken with Chapman and agreed to send her a report on his monitoring efforts.
“There’s a segment of the population that’s going to feel reassured by the presence of uniformed and armed law enforcement around drop boxes,” said Schneider, of the ACLU. “There’s other segments of the population that aren’t going to feel so great about that.”
CNN’s Drew Griffin, Scott Bronstein, Audrey Ash and Yahya Abou-Ghazala contributed to this report.