The right-wing media's smear campaign against former Georgia election worker Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, detailed to the January 6 House Select Committee last week, is just one part of a larger anti-democratic effort to undermine free and fair elections. The same right-wing actors who pushed the debunked conspiracy about the 2020 election were also pushing to replace seasoned election workers such as Moss and Freeman with election deniers and QAnon-aligned conspiracy theorists who will side with authoritarian efforts to overturn elections. Podcaster and former Trump aide Steve Bannon has been central in pushing this next step, and calls for election workers has also been featured on the right-wing network One America News Network.
The “Georgia suitcase” conspiracy theory was based on misidentified footage shared by the Trump campaign and Rudy Giuliani. It proliferated through right-wing media, including Fox News, OAN, and The Gateway Pundit, which used it to bolster their stolen election lies. This amplification led to intense harassment and threats against Moss, her mother, and her grandmother, ultimately driving Moss and Freeman into hiding. As they testified, they are still afraid to be seen in public or identified by their names, nearly two years after the election, and they’ve left their jobs in election administration, afraid for their safety.
While Moss and Freeman were dealing with the aftermath of the conspiracy theory, some in right-wing media started calling on far-right extremists to sign up as election workers themselves. As former OAN host Christina Bobb (now a Trump lawyer) recently said, “We need everybody to get involved, secure the elections, and actually take back those important offices like attorney generals and chief law enforcement officers.”
OAN has long been a hotbed for election related conspiracy theories, extending far beyond recruiting extremist election workers. During the summer of 2021, Bobb used her platform on OAN to promote the sham “audit” of the 2020 presidential election in Arizona. She founded a non-profit called Voices & Votes that donated over $600,000 to the effort. During that same period, OAN promoted MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s “cyber symposium” more than 150 times, and aired over 30 hours of the event live. Bannon has also been giving publicity and support to this recruitment plan starting February 2021, when he partnered with Dan Schultz, a former tea party activist, to encourage infiltration of low-level positions in the Republican Party apparatus to take over election administration.
In the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, Schultz started appearing on Bannon’s show in February 2021 to promote his precinct plan to “take over the Republican Party” through grassroots organizing. This plan, galvanized by the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump by Democrat-favoring election workers and machines, quickly spread through far-right and QAnon-supporting online spaces and was hailed as “The Best Kept Secret to Taking over the Republican (GOP) Party.” And at the end of February, Trump endorsed the plan as a way to “take back our great Country from the ground up.”
In September 2021, ProPublica showed that the call to action is working, with a team of reporters writing that they “contacted GOP leaders in 65 key counties, and 41 reported an unusual increase in signups since Bannon’s campaign began. At least 8,500 new Republican precinct officers (or equivalent lowest-level officials) joined those county parties. We also looked at equivalent Democratic posts and found no similar surge.”
More recently, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who worked to overturn the 2020 election with unsubstantiated accusations and debunked claims, appeared on War Room in May and June to advocate for the Election Integrity Network, a conservative coalition that hosts training events for those interested in becoming election workers and surveilling for election fraud. She claimed that “for more than a decade, the left has been infiltrating our election offices. They have subverted the election process.”
Many precinct plan advocates claim that poll watchers are biased toward Democrats and that Republicans must balance that out in order to make sure elections are secure. However, since the overwhelming uptick in election worker signups appears to be a result of election denial on War Room and in other far-right spaces, it is clear that what is presented as a bipartisan effort toward fairness is being advertised on right-wing media as a key method to not “lose America.”
As The New York Times points out, of “concern is the [Election Integrity Network’s] intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a ‘friend or foe’ of the movement. Many officials already feel under attack by those who falsely contend that the 2020 election was stolen.” Election workers like Moss and Freeman may continue to suffer conspiracy theory-fueled harassment thanks to the plan’s proposed methods.
Politico revealed that in a Michigan-based training, grassroots activists and Republican Party operatives called for actions that could quickly become bigoted harassment, telling recruits they could contest voters if they “have good reason to believe that an individual is not a citizen, that an individual is not of legal voting age. If an individual does not live at the location that they’re registered at, or if the person is not registered at all.” They were also told they should “stand behind voter registration tables to ‘oversee the electronic poll book to make sure the person that is coming in to vote is who they say they are.’”
The danger lies not only in low-level local poll worker roles, but also in state-level political positions. As midterm primaries roll through, the GOP is pushing Trump-backed election deniers such as Arizona’s Mark Finchem, Nevada’s Jim Marchant, New Mexico’s Audrey Trujillo, and Michigan’s Kristina Karamo for secretary of state, where they could have the power – and the support – to overturn their states’ results.