Conspiracy Theorists With Badges and Guns: Pro-Trump Sheriffs Vow to Police Elections

Sheriff Mark Lamb and True the Vote's Catherine Engelbrecht released a video announcing their ProtectAmerica.Vote partnership.

An Unholy Alliance of Election Deniers, ‘Constitutional Sheriffs,’ and Profiteering Propagandists Threatens Elections

Two years after former President Donald Trump began aggressively attacking the integrity of the 2020 election to justify his efforts to stay in power, an unholy alliance threatens the fair conduct of elections this fall and again in 2024. A national network of conspiracy theorists and right-wing political operatives have been joined by far-right sheriffs, whose determination has been fortified by lies about election fraud and fueled by a belief that they are waging a holy war against the forces of evil.

Richard Mack, a former Arizona county sheriff and former board member of the anti-government extremist organization Oath Keepers, summoned members and supporters of his Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association to a July gathering in Las Vegas, where he delivered an urgent message:  The country’s county sheriffs, Mack said, must launch investigations into voting fraud in the 2020 election—investigations that he thought could put Trump back in power.

“I would love for the investigations to prove that he indeed won the election, and I think at the time the Supreme Court would have to rule that he gets put back in because it was based on criminal activity,” Mack said. Though he wasn’t sure enough sheriffs would step up and “do their duty” to make investigations into the 2020 election happen, Mack urged sheriffs to take an active role in policing this year’s elections.

Mack is the founder and leader of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which teaches local sheriffs that they are the supreme law enforcement officer in their counties, and that it is their duty to resist state and federal “tyranny.”

Mack and other MAGA-minded sheriffs like Mark Lamb turned their focus to policing elections after seeing “2000 Mules,” a film produced by right-wing propagandist Dinesh D’Souza and True the Vote leaders Catherine Englebrecht and Gregg Phillips, longtime promoters of election fraud conspiracy theories. Experts from across the political spectrum debunked the movie’s claims about voter fraud, but Trump and many of his supporters have embraced and promoted its inflammatory claims.

The Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol and evidence gathered by the House select committee investigating the insurrection have provided clear evidence that lies about election fraud can drive people to violence. In the weeks before Election Day, the embrace of “2000 Mules” and its inflammatory claims by public officials and far-right activists has already led to multiple reports of armed voter intimidation by vigilantes at ballot drop boxes. It could also increase the potential for violence at the polls.

“The involvement of ‘people with guns and badges’ to intimidate voters, and attempts to access voting equipment, could become ‘go-to-tactics,’” Bulwark editor Charlie Sykes told Reuters. “It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say this is extremely dangerous.”

Armed Enforcers for the Anti-Democracy Coalition?

Mack founded CSPOA in 2009, a period of far-right ferment after the election of former President Barack Obama. As a leader of the self-described “constitutional sheriffs” movement, he has painted the federal government as authoritarian, referring to federal agencies as “the gestapo” and suggesting there were “some startling and irrefutable comparisons between Barack Obama and Adolph Hitler.”

Mack became a right-wing folk hero when he successfully challenged a Clinton-era federal gun law in the mid-90s. In 2014, Mack was back in the spotlight when he joined Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with federal officials promoted a public relations strategy of putting women up front if shooting started.

Political scientists Emily Farris and Mirya Hollman recently conducted a survey of sheriffs’ attitudes and concluded that “Mack’s group has successfully radicalized a generation of sheriffs to believe that the office has seemingly unlimited power and autonomy.” That attitude is particularly dangerous among sheriffs, who compared to other law enforcement officials often have little structural oversight and accountability.

“We can and must take America back county by county and state by state,” Mack wrote in his 2014 book, “Are You a David?” That message is central to his current organizing efforts and one that he delivers to sheriffs and other law enforcement officials, often in state-sanctioned training sessions.

After the release of “2000 Mules” in May, Mack began shifting CSPOA’s focus from training sheriffs about his view of their constitutional superpowers to urging them to mobilize against “voter fraud.” He has described the movie’s oft-debunked claims as “overwhelming” and “compelling” evidence and said that “every sheriff and every chief of police in this country should be following up with a criminal investigation on the claims made in ‘2000 Mules.’”

Richard Mack speaks at CSPOA press conference on election fraud.

While Mack claims that his “2000 Mules”-inspired “election integrity” efforts are nonpartisan— he declared in a July press release that he simply wanted to know whether the claims made in “2000 Mules” are true and called for “honest, professional, and independent investigations”—it’s clear where his support lies when speaking to right-wing audiences. On a right-wing radio show in July, he called Trump’s defeat “a horrible, heinous crime” and “one of if not the worst crime committed against the American people in the last 100 years.”

“This is a coup against the American people,” Mack declared during a September appearance on another radio show. He recently told listeners of the right-wing Liberty Monks podcast that they “must vote for any Republican that we possibly can” to “punish the Democratic Party” and “stand against the destruction of America.”

Other sheriffs have taken up Mack’s call to investigate the 2020 presidential election and police future elections. One of Mack’s allies, Sheriff Calvin Hayden of Johnson County, Kansas, has “promoted unsubstantiated suspicions of election fraud,” according to the Kansas City Star. Hayden also offered to have his staff collect ballots from drop boxes, a move rejected by local officials as an attempt to interfere with the election.

Mack has also backed Dar Leaf, a sheriff in Berry County, Michigan, who is under investigation by the state’s attorney general over the conduct of his investigation of election equipment. Leaf has been represented by an attorney who was sanctioned by a federal judge for her role in Sidney Powell’s legal efforts to overturn the election results. Turning the system of governance on its head, Mack has said Leaf has the right to arrest state officials who interfered with his investigation.

From Insurrection to Elections: Sheriff Mark Lamb and Protect America Now

Mack isn’t the only far-right law enforcement official who was fired up by “2000 Mules.” Mark Lamb, sheriff of Arizona’s Pima County, was also drawn in by True the Vote’s conspiracy fraud claims. After viewing an interview that right-wing activist Charlie Kirk did with Engelbrecht—an interview that has been viewed more than 2 million times—Lamb contacted Englebrecht and brought his Protect America Now organization into a formal partnership with True the Vote. In October, Mack met with the Arizona Oathkeepers to talk about “election integrity” and the partnership being between Lamb and True the Vote, the Arizona Mirror reported.

An admirer of Mack and the CSPOA, Lamb built a national following through reality TV shows before turning energy toward Trumpian politics and the promotion of false voter fraud claims with the launch of his own organization in 2021.

Lamb founded Protect America Now in the month following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The insurrection, Lamb said, was not Trump’s fault, adding, “I don’t know how loud we have to get before they have to listen to us and know we will no longer tolerate them stripping our freedoms away.”

Describing Lamb as “charismatic and ambitious” in a 2021 profile, Politico reported that at an anti-vaccine rally that year, Lamb told supporters, “We’re going to find out what kind of patriots you are. We’re going to find out who is willing to die for freedom.”

Protect America Now’s website declares, “We support Sheriffs and law enforcement members that believe in God, Family and Freedom.” The group asks for a monthly donation of $17.76 to “help us win this battle for the soul of America.” It promotes a hard-right line on immigration and other issues. In videos on Protect America Now’s YouTube channel, Lamb warns that crime is running rampant and “liberals want to take our guns.” In another, Lamb says, “together, we are fighting back against the liberal takeover.”

In June, True the Vote and Protect America Now announced ProtectAmerica.Vote, a partnership that it said would “empower sheriffs” to “support election integrity” and would bridge the gap between voters and law enforcement to “ensure we have secure elections in this country.”

Engelbrecht has said she embraced the sheriffs after the FBI dismissed True the Vote’s allegations of voter fraud. “It’s like the lights went on,” she said at a CSPOA event this July. “It’s the sheriffs. That’s who can do these investigations; that’s who we can trust; that’s who we can turn over information to.” True the Vote says its partnership with the constitutional sheriffs will include raising grant money and providing equipment to sheriffs to expand ballot drop box surveillance and investigate fraud claims.

Lamb claims his partnership with True the Vote is a nonpartisan effort, but he makes no secret of his support for Trump and Trump’s stolen election claims. Trump “loves the rule of law,” Lamb said at a Trump rally in Arizona this July. “We’re gonna make sure that we have election integrity this year,” Lamb pledged. “We will not let happen what happened in 2020.”

Local critics say Lamb has politicized law enforcement. Pinal County, where Lamb is sheriff, experienced ballot shortages during the August primary, and Lamb, true to character, suggested on right-wing media that there might be something more at play than incompetence by election officials and vowed to investigate.

Inspired by Lies: ‘2000 Mules’ as Political Warfare

Right-wing filmmaker and author D’Souza describes his propaganda movies as weapons of political and spiritual warfare. By that measure, the “2000 Mules” movie has proven itself effective in mobilizing Trump’s troops.

Far-right wing media have boosted Dinesh D’Souza’s “2000 Mules” even though its claims have been widely debunked.

In “2000 Mules,” D’Souza dramatized claims made by Engelbrecht and Phillips that liberal nonprofits had mobilized “ballot harvesting” operations to stuff drop boxes with illegal votes. But for all the wild hype about their use of mobile device geolocation data and security camera footage from ballot drop boxes, election experts have repeatedly said that there’s essentially no there there. Even former Trump administration Attorney General William Barr dismissed the movie’s claims as laughable in testimony before the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The movie’s claims have also been declared bogus by experts in cell phone tracking technology and by election officials. As critics have pointed out, despite all the data, footage, and money available to the producers, the film does not show a single documented instance of the kind of fraud it claims to expose. Georgia election officials tracked down one person the movie accused of being a “mule” and determined that the person was depositing his own ballot and his family members’ ballots, as permitted by law. On Oct. 26, a Georgia voter sued D’Souza, Englebrecht, Phillips, and True the Vote for wrongly accusing him of casting illegal votes.

Among the other demonstrably false claims in the movie was that True the Vote’s geolocation data was so accurate that it helped solve a murder case.

But MAGA world activists primed to believe Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories ate it up. Trump himself hosted a premiere for the film at Mar-a Lago in May. Many Republican officials and proponents of election conspiracies like MyPillow founder Mike Lindell have joined Trump in promoting the film and its claims.

As the film took MAGA world by storm, it came to the attention of far-right militias, too. It was cited by Lions of Liberty, an Arizona “preparedness” group connected to the far-right Oath Keepers that is organizing armed surveillance of ballot boxes, and by Matt Shea, a far-right former state legislator known for his handbook on “biblical warfare,” who is organizing similar efforts in his state.

The release of the book version of “2000 Mules” was delayed at the last minute by the publisher after it had been printed and sent to bookstores containing potentially libelous accusations against several nonprofit groups it accused of mobilizing voter fraud. Before a toned-down version was released, Engelbrecht and Phillips distanced themselves from the book, saying they were looking ahead to future elections and their work with sheriffs.

Before ‘2000 Mules’: True the Vote’s History of Election Fraud Conspiracies

True the Vote is well known among voting rights experts for its long history of promoting voter fraud conspiracy theories and supporting actions to restrict voting.

“True the Vote and groups like it are well-documented voter intimidation scams,” former Harris County Clerk and current Houston mayoral candidate Chris Hollins told Texas Monthly this summer. “They’re created to amplify conspiracy theories, funded by wealthy right-wing activists, to tie the hands of election administrators and embolden partisan poll watchers.”

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center points to True the Vote’s “long history of anti-voter conduct, including orchestrating mass challenges to voters,” some as recent as the 2021 Georgia runoff elections.

True the Vote leaders Engelbrecht and Phillips—business and reportedly romantic partners—have profited from unproven claims of voter fraud. The organization has been the subject of multiple investigations and exposés revealing their repeated failure to make good on outlandish claims while funneling money raised by their nonprofit group into their own pockets via loans and payments to for-profit companies they run.

True the Vote was founded after the 2008 election and grew out of a local Tea Party organization in Houston, Texas, called the King Street Patriots, which was accused of conducting “1960s style” voter intimidation during the 2010 election cycle.

For the past decade, True the Vote has promoted alarmism about voter fraud and resisted voting rights protections. It falsely claimed, for example, that the Obama administration was intentionally registering noncitizens to vote and charged that renewing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would encourage “race-based segregation.” As “voter fraud” and “election integrity” became right-wing justifications for voter suppression, True the Vote pulled in money from right-wing funders and activist groups, including the Bradley Foundation, Donors Trust, the Judicial Confirmation Network, and State Policy Network.

True the Vote’s Catherine Engelbrecht railed against a bill she said would “blow up our elections” in a March 2020 YouTube video.

When Trump was elected in 2016 while losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Phillips stroked Trump’s ego by claiming that Phillips could verify that 3 million noncitizens cast votes in the election. While Trump touted the baseless and repeatedly debunked claim that he was the actual popular vote winner, True the Vote never released any evidence to back him up.

Though True the Vote claims that its so-called “election integrity” work is nonpartisan, the group aggressively promotes the interests of right-wing Republican candidates. In 2018, a New Jersey judge decided not to renew a 1981 ban on the Republican Party recruiting soldiers and cops as poll watchers to intimidate Black voters. True the Vote saw this as an opportunity. At a 2020 gathering of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of influential right-wing and far-right leaders, Englebrecht touted True the Vote’s “Continue to Serve” initiative, which she said would recruit retired military and law enforcement as poll watchers. One participant suggested it would be especially useful in “inner city” and Native American precincts.

True the Vote’s credibility has been challenged by some on the right, even by other Big Lie and voter suppression advocates. After Trump’s defeat in 2020, True the Vote officials took $2.5 million from Fred Eshelman, a Trump-supporting billionaire who believed that the group was going to use state-level election data to prove Trump’s fraud claims in court. When they seemingly did little more to overturn the election than pay piles of cash to their companies and their lawyer, right-wing movement consigliere James Bopp, for a few short-lived lawsuits, Eshelman sued in an unsuccessful effort to get his money back.

Conspiracy Theories as Spiritual Warfare

Just as Christian nationalist ideology and the belief that keeping Trump in office was a sacred cause energized the Jan. 6 insurrection and suffused much of the MAGA movement, True the Vote’s leaders and their far-right sheriff allies rely on spiritual warfare rhetoric to justify their actions and motivate their followers.

Before the 2020 election, True the Vote partnered with Intercessors for America, a group of pro-Trump “prayer warriors,” to spread right-wing talking points about the threat of voter fraud. On an online prayer call in May 2020, Englebrecht called the struggle over expanded voting by mail a “spiritual battle” for “control of the free world.”

After the release of “2000 Mules,” Intercessors for America claimed that the movie documented “an indisputable and alarming gravy train for fraudulent votes.” Intercessors for America defended Engelbrecht and Phillips from critics, portraying them as victims of persecution.

This August, True the Vote held a gathering focused on voter fraud that it called “The Pit,” a name taken from a biblical passage that says God will grant his disciples relief from days of trouble “until a pit is dug for the wicked.” On a “prayer call” promoting the event, Intercessors for America’s Kris Kubal said that election fraud is “demonic” and an “evil from Satan.”  True the Vote, she declared, was involved in a “supernatural battle.” Phillips agreed that “there is so much evil around all of this right now.”

“God wants us to expose that pit and shut it down, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Engelbrecht said. True the Vote leaders did not release compelling new evidence of voter fraud at “The Pit,” but they did announce the creation of a “fusion center” that would gather “actionable intelligence” for local sheriffs to act on.

Like Engelbrecht and Phillips, Mack portrays his “constitutional sheriff” movement and its involvement in election issues in spiritual terms. In his 2014 book, “Are You a David?” Mack argued that “modern-day Davids”—by which he meant sheriffs and other local public servants—are “the only viable solution for the restoration of our God-given rights, in conjunction with our willingness to repent and return to God’s law as a people.” At a July press conference Mack organized during the right-wing “Freedom Fest” held in Las Vegas, he urged sheriffs to “join us in this holy cause.”

Sheriffs: The Law or a Threat to the Law?

There is a long history in this country of corrupt local sheriffs abusing their power, from Jim Clark leading attacks on civil rights marchers in Alabama in the 1960s to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva overseeing a department notorious for violent deputy gangs threatening public safety today.

In 2020, the research group Political Research Associates identified 136 sheriffs aligned with the far-right “patriot” and militia movement in which Political Research Associates situates Mack’s CSPOA. The research group noted that at the time, 90 percent of the 3,081 county sheriffs in the United States were white men, and that “there has been a concerted effort in the last decade to mobilize sheriffs toward further supporting and expanding systems of racialized social control and expulsion.” The Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the Women’s Donor Network, noted that “The alarmingly skewed demographics of sheriffs suggest a system hard-wired for abuse, and their track record of mistreating women and people of color confirms it.”

Some sheriff’s offices have connections to, or have been infiltrated by, other far-right extremist groups. The Brennan Center found that sheriff’s deputies in Washington state and Louisiana had publicly supported and joined the Proud Boys—whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the attack on the Capitol—and noted that a sheriff’s deputy in Orange County, California, was photographed wearing a patch that included the word “Oath Keeper” and the logo of the Three Percenters on his bulletproof vest. The Washington state and Louisiana deputies were fired; the California deputy was not.

Added to this already toxic mix are messages from the likes of Mack and Lamb that sheriffs must investigate electoral fraud. Such declarations are a “significant overreach of authority,” David Mahoney, a former president of the National Sheriffs Association, told The Guardian.

So what role, if any, should sheriffs play in our elections?

“There is a critical role for law enforcement to play in protecting our election: they should be offering protection to election officials and election workers that have come under attack as a result of lies being spread by groups like True the Vote,” the Brennan Center’s Sean Morales-Doyle told The Guardian in August.

It is not difficult to imagine the chilling effect of being accused of voter fraud by a person with a badge and gun, what Jessica Pishko called “part of an escalating campaign to police the vote” in a recent story for Bolts magazine. “The prospect of increased involvement of armed officers recalls the days of voter intimidation in the Jim Crow South (and beyond), and could also help encourage extremist vigilante violence by perpetuating baseless rumors of fraud, often against Black and Latinx communities,” Pishko wrote.

Recent reports of armed bands gathering at ballot drop boxes and challenging voters suggests that Pishko was right. (This week a federal court ordered a group in Arizona to stop intimidating voters with their armed and body-armored presence at ballot drop boxes.)

The multi-faceted campaign to corrupt elections by convincing millions of Americans that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by Black and Brown voters is a threat to democracy. It has created and inflamed a large group of enraged Trump supporters and sparked harassment and threats against election officials. It has led to a wave of state laws designed to restrict registration and voting. It has led to Trumpist partisans and conspiracy theorists becoming poll workers and running for political offices where they will have the power to interfere with the administration of elections. And it has led some armed vigilantes to set up intimidating “security” operations at voting locations.

Added to this volatile mix are groups of sheriffs riled up by falsehoods and propaganda, pumped up an ideology of virtually unchecked power, and spurred on by the belief that they are engaged in a holy war to save America from destruction. Voters and other public officials must be alert to the abuses that could flow from these new partnerships and be prepared to hold individuals accountable for any actions to intimidate or interfere with people exercising their right to vote.


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