Fueled by Falsehoods, a Michigan Group Is Ready to Challenge the Vote

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In private meetings, activists, lawyers and G.O.P. officials laid out their strategy. “If there is a close election, it’s going to be up to us to fix it,” one said.

Poll workers sorted absentee ballots for processing while being monitored by poll watchers and challengers on Sunday at Huntington Place in Detroit.
Credit...Nic Antaya for The New York Times

Alexandra BerzonKen Bensinger

Nov. 7, 2022

DETROIT — The invitation went out in early July.

Republican activists, lawyers and elected officials in Michigan who call the results of the 2020 election fraudulent would unite with a single focus: “to provide ongoing citizen oversight, transparency, and accountability” in elections. They adopted the name Michigan Fair Elections and the simple slogan, “Choose Freedom.”

Over the next months, the participants got to work trying to remake democracy in the nation’s 10th largest state under the banner of integrity.

They recruited and trained challengers to spot and document minute ballot irregularities; filed lawsuits to undermine protections for the vote-counting process; and debated the merits of calling 911 on poll workers deemed to be violating rules. In weekly Zoom meetings, they discussed friendly insiders positioned on Michigan canvassing boards, which certify results; repeated debunked conspiracy theories about election machines, ballot “mules” and widespread voter fraud; and obsessed over the idea that Democrats “cheat” to win elections.

“If there is a close election, it’s going to be up to us to fix it,” said Erick Kaardal, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group in Chicago, during an Oct. 27 Zoom attended by more than 50 people. “We’re the team that’s going to have to fix an election in Michigan if it’s rigged.”

The New York Times reviewed more than 20 hours of recordings of Michigan Fair Elections meetings, along with training sessions and organizing calls from closely linked groups. What emerged was a picture of an organization fueled by falsehoods, bent on trying to influence the 2022 midterms and determined to change the voting system in ways that would benefit Republicans.

The Michigan group has counterparts around the country. Since the 2020 election, activists have rallied behind Donald J. Trump’s claims about rigged elections and set out to find evidence to prove their theories and change the system. They have staked out ballot drop boxes, recruited thousands of volunteers to monitor voting in the midterm elections and filed legal challenges.

In Michigan, the organizers behind the effort include both Republican stalwarts and grass-roots activists. Attendees on the calls included Cleta Mitchell, the longtime elections lawyer who tried to help Mr. Trump overturn his 2020 loss; Ann Bollin, the chairwoman of the Elections and Ethics Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives; Patrick Colbeck, a former Michigan state senator who has called election denial a “spiritual battle”; and Sandy Kiesel, a Michigan activist who runs a group still pushing to decertify the 2020 election nearly two years after Mr. Trump left office.

The coalition grew out of Ms. Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network, which has established groups doing similar work in states including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia.

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Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

“What you’re doing is really reclaiming our country,” Ms. Mitchell said at a meeting in August. “Just remember that what we are collectively trying to do is save our country from the radical left.”

Someone with access to video and audio recordings of the calls shared them with The Times. Several participants confirmed the material’s authenticity.

In a statement to The Times about her work, Ms. Mitchell said her network “is about following the law and restoring the election process to one that is accurate, honest, and protects the secret ballot for all voters.”

Patrice Johnson, who sent the July invitation and oversees meetings of Michigan Fair Elections, referred requests for comment to Mr. Kaardal, who did not respond to queries.

Ms. Kiesel said in an interview that she wanted “to unify the United States through transparent and trusted elections.” She said that although she attended some meetings she is not a member of the coalition.

Election officials and governance experts say that if there is an erosion of trust in elections, Mr. Trump and his supporters are causing it. In Michigan, election officials say they are prepared for activists and lawyers to challenge close races in court by asking the judges to discard thousands of ballots in Democratic strongholds such as Detroit and Grand Rapids, and by filing lawsuits that seek to delay or block the certification of results.

On one recent Zoom meeting, Mr. Kaardal spoke about plans to try to force the entire governor’s race to be rerun. Mr. Colbeck last week called for a “full forensic audit” — a buzz word for the type of discredited, partisan examination of votes conducted in Arizona last year — regardless of the outcome.

But election experts say that they have confidence that the system is sound and that votes will be fairly and accurately counted. Millions of Americans already have cast ballots early without widespread disruption or trouble. Still, they say that such endeavors could further dent public confidence in the electoral system, which could have repercussions in the future.

“I think it really undermines public confidence in the system because to some people where there’s smoke there’s fire,” said Dan Korobkin, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “It’s true our democracy didn’t fall apart in 2020, and maybe it won’t in 2022, but how many years in a row can you have that kind of situation until we really are in deep trouble?”

One focus in the meetings has been defeating a ballot proposal backed by Democrats that would amend the Michigan constitution to make voting easier and force canvassing boards to certify results, among other measures.

The Michigan Fair Elections participants see it as a crisis.

“It’s a nuclear bomb to our elections,” Marian Sheridan, the grass-roots vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party, said in an Oct. 13 meeting.

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Credit...Nic Antaya for The New York Times

Instead, she and others associated with the group support a measure requiring voter ID and barring outside groups from donating money to election offices. The measure failed to get on the ballot, but participants hope to push it through the legislature ahead of the 2024 election, along with legislation that would make it easier for voters to sue elections officials.

Ms. Sheridan did not respond to requests for comment.

The most pressing issue on the calls in recent months has been preparing for the midterm elections. Planning has included some talk of monitoring ballot boxes and demanding hand recounts, strategies pursued by groups in other states, but the Michigan coalition has largely kept its focus on the courts.

“Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits,” Mr. Colbeck said in a meeting in early August. (A promoter of theories about hacked election machines, Mr. Colbeck is a close associate of Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow and a leading figure in the election denial movement.)

Some groups involved have been preparing for lawsuits by stationing trained volunteers — labeled “challengers” in Michigan election law — at the vote-counting centers to collect what they claim will be evidence of problems.

Late last month, Braden Giacobazzi, an activist and engineer from the outskirts of Detroit, led one of a series of poll challenger trainings for the Election Integrity Force and Fund, a group headed by Ms. Kiesel. The goal, he said, is documenting activity that can be used later in legal challenges. “You just keep gathering data, all of that as evidence,” Mr. Giacobazzi, who has been kicked out of counting centers twice in the past two years, said to around 50 new recruits.

Mr. Giacobazzi said in an interview that he follows the law and wants to try to help catch fraud if there is any, to ensure a more transparent process.

In September, the Election Integrity Force and others sued Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as well as its secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, in a bid to decertify the 2020 election.

In another recent lawsuit, Mr. Giacobazzi and the Election Integrity Force joined with Kristina Karamo, Republican candidate for secretary of state, to ask a judge to effectively declare the absentee ballot system used in Detroit unlawful.

Over the course of a four-hour hearing on that case last week, their lawyers referred to debunked conspiracy theories from the discredited film “2000 Mules.”

“This is again part of a right-wing fever dream,” said David Fink, a lawyer for the city of Detroit, during the hearing.

In a ruling issued on Monday, Judge Timothy Kenny rejected the claims, noting that the plaintiffs’ demands would disenfranchise 60,000 voters who had already cast ballots. Every one of 12 accusations submitted “are unsubstantiated and/or misinterpret Michigan law,” he wrote.

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Credit...Nic Antaya for The New York Times

Conspiracy theories frequently crept into Michigan Fair Elections’ planning meetings. In an Oct. 27 meeting, Ms. Kiesel said a lawyer had sent letters to 1,600 elections clerks in Michigan advising them to recount ballots by hand based in part on a debunked theory about voting machines.

In another meeting, Ms. Kiesel boasted that her group had tried to challenge 22,000 voters before the August primaries. The secretary of state’s office said the challenges were invalid, but last week Ms. Kiesel sent out thousands more.

“Groups that ignore the law and spread misinformation and lies do nothing of value,” Ms. Benson said in a statement.

Participants on the calls share updates on their recruitment of both poll monitors and poll workers, the temporary workers who run polling places.

On a call in August, Matt Seifried, the Republican National Committee’s elections integrity director for Michigan, said the party had installed 1,500 Republican poll workers in the state during the August primary. Some 500 of them were in Detroit alone, up from just 170 in 2020.

“That is a huge accomplishment,” Mr. Seifried said.

Danielle Alvarez, a spokeswoman for the R.N.C., said the party’s election integrity operation is separate from outside groups.

By last week, there were 1,100 people signed up statewide to be poll challengers as election officials begin to process absentee ballots. On Election Day, Mr. Seifried said in a Zoom meeting on Thursday, there will be 30 lawyers ready to take calls from challengers who spot problems, with 65 more at polling locations, plus additional lawyers inside counting rooms in Democratic strongholds.

During that meeting, Mr. Kaardal, the lawyer from the Thomas More Society, gave a final motivational speech.

“Everyone on these phone calls should be very proud that we advanced the election integrity effort this far,” he said, reminding the 75 participants that there was no time to rest.

“We start our forensic investigation on Election Day.”

Nick Corasaniti and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.

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