Two years after Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, the false claim that the 2020 election was “rigged” or “stolen” continues to inform America’s political landscape. As the 2022 midterms draw near, individuals animated by these false claims—including election deniers, QAnon adherents, conspiracy theorists and extremists—are attempting to insert themselves and their beliefs into the electoral process. Their goal: to prevent the midterm elections from being “rigged”—in other words, won by Democratic candidates.
The ADL Center on Extremism (COE) has identified multiple tactics being employed by election deniers, conspiracy theorists and pro-Trump extremists to affect the U.S. election process. These tactics raise serious concerns about individuals motivated by these false claims interfering with the electoral process, preventing voters from casting their ballots or preventing results from being certified. The continued spread of the these “stolen” election lies—and the tactics it has inspired—runs the risk of further normalizing right-wing extremist activity and further eroding trust in the electoral process, undermining one of the core foundations of our democracy.
“Local action, national impact”
Emboldened by the false claim that the 2020 election was “rigged,” some election deniers and conspiracy theorists are getting involved in their local elections, eager to do their part to identify possible election “fraud” and prevent the midterm elections from being “stolen.” Some are signing up to work the polls on Election Day, while others are joining their local precinct committees, affecting the process from the ground up.
Becoming poll workers and watchers
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser turned QAnon celebrity, has regularly touted the mantra “local action, national impact,” encouraging his followers to get involved in their local communities by becoming poll workers, speaking at government meetings or running for local office. "A poll watcher on any given election day can be as important as a United States Senator or the President of the United States,” Flynn said at the Reawaken America conference in Idaho last month. “Because you know what you're doing? You're watching what they're [the election officials] doing.”
Inspired by Flynn and other prominent election deniers, people sympathetic to the “stolen” election conspiracy theory have signed up to become poll workers this November. The people who work these hyper-local positions are vital to making sure elections run smoothly, and are responsible for checking voters in, setting up election equipment and tabulating votes. Other conspiracy-minded people have signed up to become poll watchers, officials who are tasked with observing the counting and recording of votes, ensuring that all ballots are counted correctly and reporting suspected irregularities to local officials. In some states, poll watchers have the power to challenge an individual voter’s right to vote.
On far-right forums like patriots.win, Truth Social and Telegram, dozens of users have posted about signing up to work the polls on November 8. “Just signed up to be a poll watcher in Cincinnati, hope many more of my fellow Patriots will join me,” one user wrote in a popular QAnon Telegram chat. “I am going to be a poll worker but here in Upstate NY, we use Dominion voting machines, so what will I be able to do as a poll worker when I know the machines can manipulate votes??,” another wrote on Truth Social.
Flynn himself has joined the fray. According to the Daily Beast, Flynn, who recently joined the Sarasota County GOP’s executive committee, has signed up to be a poll watcher in Sarasota County, Florida in November, a development that could inspire some to follow in his footsteps. “I signed up to be a poll worker in North Idaho. Thank you, Gen. Flynn,” one QAnon follower wrote on Truth Social after the news broke.
Poll workers and watchers animated by the “stolen” election conspiracy theory can pose potential “insider threat” risks, seeking to use their positions to search for “evidence” of election fraud, tamper with election equipment and prevent voters from legally casting their ballots.
One such case emerged on September 28, 2022, when James Holkeboer, a Michigan poll worker and alternate state GOP delegate, was charged with two felonies after he allegedly tried to insert a USB drive into a computer containing confidential voter registration data at a precinct in Gaines Township, Michigan during the August 2 primary election. While it’s unclear why Holkeboer tried to tamper with the computer, and Holkeboer’s alleged actions did not impact the primary, the county clerk’s office will audit the precinct to reassure voters.
The so-called “precinct strategy,” developed by Arizona-based conservative activist Dan Schultz, aims to take control of the Republican Party from the ground up, by having “true” conservatives fill local precinct committee people positions. Precinct committeemen elect local party leaders and canvass precincts, among other duties, serving as a link between voters and political parties.
The precinct strategy has been heavily promoted by former Trump administration official Steve Bannon, who has frequently hosted Schultz on his show, War Room, to promote the strategy. "The precinct strategy...tries to empower conservatives to get involved and help boost turnout in those primary elections so we elect better Republicans, real Republicans, not the posers that we have,” Schultz said during a July 2022 appearance on War Room. “That's what the precinct committeeman strategy is all about with respect to elections. It's having more people on the ground urging their neighbors in their precincts [to vote].” Michael Flynn and former President Trump have also promoted the strategy.
Concerningly, the strategy has also been embraced by some members of the QAnon community, and Schultz has appeared on several QAnon-linked shows over the past year to promote it. “We decided to get involved last summer... my husband is a precinct committeeman and Secretary, we are both delegates to the state convention (where our votes count) and I was voted State Committee woman where I also have a vote in state politics,” one user wrote in a popular QAnon Telegram chat.
An influx of QAnon adherents, election deniers and extremists filling these positions has the potential to shift local parties to the far-right, allowing the “fraudulent election” lie and other conspiracy theories to spread without consequence. About half of precinct committee people positions across the country are vacant, due largely to lack of public awareness, making them easy for conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists to fill.
Intimidation, harassment and threats
While some election deniers and conspiracy theorists have set their sights on getting directly involved in the electoral process, others are looking to utilize different methods to prevent and expose suspected election fraud, including surveiling ballot drop boxes, bombarding election officials with frivolous records requests and lawsuits, and harassing or threatening election officials. These tactics have also been employed by pro-Trump extremists.
Drop box surveillance
Over the past few months, the ADL Center on Extremism (COE) has observed an uptick in calls for individuals to surveil ballot drop boxes, in order to keep an eye out for suspected “mules,” a term used to refer to ballot harvesters, third parties who collect and deliver ballots, a practice that is legal in some states. While surveiling drop boxes is not illegal, such tactics raise serious concerns about individuals animated by the Big Lie trying to prevent voters from casting their ballots, either by scaring off voters or by tampering with the boxes. It also raises concerns that election workers tasked with collecting ballots from these drop boxes could face potential harassment or threats simply for trying to do their jobs.
These calls to action stem from false claims promoted in 2,000 Mules, a popular election fraud documentary released in May 2022 by right-wing conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza. The film purports to expose a nefarious conspiracy in which at least 2,000 individuals were paid to illegally collect and deposit ballots into drop boxes in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (swing states) in order to "rig" the 2020 presidential election. While the film has been repeatedly debunked, its claims continue to animate election deniers across the United States.
Online, flyers encouraging people to “adopt a drop box” have circulated widely on far-right forums. Many of these flyers link to a website where individuals can sign up to learn more about how to conduct surveillance. “A vote must have a strict chain of custody...The drop box adheres to none of those standards,” the website states.
Online, users on far-right forums like Telegram, Truth Social and patriots.win have discussed tactics for monitoring drop boxes, such as recording the license plate information of suspected mules so that they can be reported to police and conducting “stakeouts” from their vehicles.
More concerningly, some users have called for drop box monitors to show up armed, even suggesting people should tamper with drop boxes so that ballots can’t be cast and to carry out “citizens’ arrests” on suspected mules. “1 armed guard per dropbox at all times. Citizens arrest or pepper spray anyone adding more than 1 ballot. Time to stand in the criminals [sic] way,” one person wrote on Telegram.
Unfortunately, some individuals have heeded these calls to action. The COE has already documented two cases in which QAnon adherents have engaged in drop box surveillance activity. In July 2022, a QAnon adherent monitored a drop box outside of Honolulu City Hall in Hawaii, and ahead of the August 2 primary in Arizona, a group of individuals, including at least one QAnon adherent, held a “dropbox tailgate party” to look out for possible mules. “We had a great time and in three hours two mules came and went without dropping ballots simply because we were there,” one of the participants claimed in a post on Truth Social. “We need to get this to trend all over the country.” The post, which was picked up by the Gateway Pundit, a conspiratorial website, went viral, and QAnon adherents and election deniers have since called for people to hold similar “tailgates” of their own.
Frivolous public record requests and lawsuits
During his “Moment of Truth Summit” in Springfield, Missouri in August 2022, prominent election denier Mike Lindell called for his followers to obtain copies of “cast vote records,” also known as CVRs, from every election office in the country. CVRs are electronic representations of how voters voted during an election; requesters believe they can use these records to identify potential fraud, a tactic that election experts say is flawed.
Since Lindell’s comments, election offices across the U.S. have been swamped with requests for these records and other election-related information, according to media reports. Maricopa County, Arizona Recorder Stephen Richer tweeted on August 29 that his office had received 173 requests for CVR records in a week, with more coming in each day.
This surge in election-related public records requests—driven by baseless claims of election fraud—is tying up time and resources as election officials try to prepare for the upcoming midterm elections, leading to some election offices hiring extra workers to handle the deluge of requests. Election officials have also raised concerns that the inadvertent release of this information could be used to hack voting systems.
Some failed political candidates and their supporters have also filed frivolous lawsuits contesting election results. In Colorado, several failed candidates, including Secretary of State candidate Tina Peters, requested a recount in El Paso County, claiming that the election results were inaccurate due to fraud. Following anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer’s defeat in Florida’s August 23 primary, a group of her supporters filed a lawsuit seeking to have the results declared invalid and a runoff election held. Other lawsuits have aimed to block the use of electronic voting machines and ballot drop boxes in the upcoming midterm election.
Targeting election workers and officials
Since the 2020 election, election workers and officials have faced a slew of harassment and threats from individuals who believe the election was “stolen,” falsely accused of helping to “rig” the 2020 election and covering up election-related crimes.
ADL, in partnership with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI), has documented 131 cases of threats and harassment targeting U.S. election officials and poll workers between January 1, 2020, and September 23, 2022. Georgia was the state with the most elections-related grievances, followed by Pennsylvania and Michigan.
For example, in July 2022, Colorado state police arrested a man after he allegedly called in a threat to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. “Hey, I've got a message for the Secretary and I want you to pass it along: The angel of death is coming for her in the name of Jesus Christ," the caller reportedly said. In Arizona, two Maricopa County election workers became the targets of online harassment and threats after a political candidate accused them of deleting election files. “This person needs to be tracked down and executed for treason,” one user wrote on patriots.win.
During an August 2022 briefing, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite, Jr. said the Department of Justice’s election threats task force had reviewed more than 1,000 tips about threats to election workers since it was formed in July 2021, with about 11 percent leading to investigations. Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin—states that were all won by President Biden in 2020—accounted for 58 percent of the threats.
Local officials responsible for certifying election results have also come under fire, with election deniers trying to intimidate officials into not certifying results. Following Joey Gilbert’s loss in the Nevada gubernatorial primary in June, a group of his supporters crashed the Clark County commissioners meeting, urging commissioners to vote against certifying the results and to conduct an audit or revote with paper ballots (the commissioners voted unanimously to certify the results). In nearby Esmeralda County, officials delayed the certification of primary results by a day after residents raised concerns about the election process. The county conducted a hand recount, which was livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page, eventually voting to certify the results.
Online harassment and threats against election workers and officials have dissuaded some from participating in the electoral process. Over the past two years, election workers and officials across the United States have quit their jobs, citing harassment and threats. Election officials fear that an uptick in harassment and threats will occur following the midterms, driven by baseless claims of widespread election fraud.
General threats of violence
On far-right forums, users are calling for violence and Civil War if Democrats win the November midterms, as well as calls for individuals involved in “rigging” elections to be executed. "If the leftists actually try to ‘federalize’ elections and dems magically win in the mid terms [sic], there will be violence,” one patriots.win user posted.
While violent rhetoric is commonplace in these spaces, such language can normalize violence as a solution to social and political problems. It can also lead to voters and election workers becoming targets of harassment, and threats dissuade some individuals from participating in the electoral process.
Disclaimer: As a 501c3 non-profit organization, ADL takes no position on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for office.