Given the numerous election deniers running right now—for the U.S. House and Senate, for governor and for secretary of state—the 2022 midterm elections’ consequences for the state of democracy are hard to overstate. But beyond the likes of Kari Lake or Doug Mastriano, who are garnering loads of national attention, there are hundreds of local officials whose races will shape the fate of future elections: county sheriffs. Just as a smaller-scale series of local acts of intimidation and violence led us to the violent attempt to overthrow the election on January 6, 2021, there’s a growing nationwide movement of self-proclaimed “constitutional sheriffs” who are preparing for their own slow-motion insurrection.
Adherents believe that county sheriffs are empowered to enforce the law in accordance with their personal interpretation of the Constitution, that their law enforcement authority supersedes that of states and the federal government. There is “no valid basis in the text or history of the U.S. Constitution” for this, as Georgetown University Law Center and the States United Democracy Center have outlined in depth. However, fueled by this political ideology, one rooted in white supremacism, these “constitutional sheriffs” and their supporters in far-right and paramilitary groups are gearing up for the first national election after the insurrection.
A new investigation by Jessica Pishko, published at Reveal, exposes the alliances and ties between far-right groups such as the Oath Keepers and a national network of sheriffs who have embraced election denial and have “appointed themselves election police.” Election deniers have also encouraged constitutional sheriffs to run in 2022. You can hear constitutional sheriff rhetoric in a number of incumbent candidates in states such as Washington, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. Though constitutional sheriffs’ groups had been on the wane in recent years, Pishko reports, the pandemic and the “Stop the Steal” movement has given them new life, infusing them with new members and granting them a bigger platform with anti-vaxxers and election deniers.
More than half of Arizona’s current sheriffs, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, “are at least partially aligned” with the constitutional sheriff movement. Some have also joined the election denial effort, such as Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes, who spoke to the Yavapai County Preparedness Team in Arizona, an organization that has some association with the Oath Keepers, as it was planning surveillance of ballot drop boxes in Arizona—“Operation Drop Box.” As the head of the Preparedness Team said at its meeting ahead of the midterms, “Everybody is worried about civil war.” Richard Mack, a former board member of the Oath Keepers and founder of the influential Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, has also visited Arizona to speak to the group. Democrats are “getting away with murder,” he told a gathering of the Preparedness Team, and “all we are asking for is that every county sheriff look at what happened in his county and make sure that we don’t fall prey.”
Elsewhere in Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb is working with True the Vote, who were behind the debunked election-denying 2000 Mules film and who have collaborated with QAnon influencers. Lamb is “promising to act as a liaison between them and law enforcement,” as Media Matters reported. In addition to supporting “Stop the Steal” and blaming the January 6 insurrection on Hillary Clinton, among others, Lamb led a “posse” in response to Black Lives Matter protests, recruiting civilians, though his county saw no protests.
The campaign Lamb has joined, called Protect America Now, encourages sheriffs to “be ready to enforce the law and protect our constituents from any form of illegal activity,” according to documents Pishko obtained. It also offers the sheriffs “much needed grant resources to help you secure the voting procedures in your county with equipment, personnel, and increased citizen communication.” Among its recommendations are increased “patrol” at ballot drop boxes and reporting any suspicious activity to a national hotline run by True the Vote. “When other areas of government breakdown,” their letter to sheriffs says, “our local Sheriffs step in to make sure the law is enforced.”
Through such outreach, invoking election “security,” other sheriffs have enlisted in their efforts, pledging to carry out “investigations” into alleged election fraud across the United States. In Johnson County, Kansas, Sheriff Calvin Hayden failed to identify any election fraud. His investigation, The Kansas City Star reported, “hasn’t led to any charges or arrests but has helped build his profile among election deniers.” As he told supporters at an August meeting, “We’ve got to find somebody” who can say definitively that fraud is happening. At the same meeting, Hayden also told supporters, “I’m so sick and tired of hearing, ‘You’re hurting our democracy. You’re hurting our democracy.’ We don’t have a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic,” a far-right trope.
Those behind “Operation Drop Box,” the ballot box surveillance effort, stood down after they faced legal action for their desire to monitor voting locations while carrying guns. But that was just one part of the larger effort pushed by True the Vote and others, who have been coordinating to monitor ballot boxes on a much larger scale, as Pishko uncovered. As of October 27, Jen Fifield at Votebeat reported, more than 4,500 people signed up with True the Vote to monitor ballot boxes nationwide. “Their list of volunteers is growing by dozens a day,” Fifield noted, “especially since the news of voter intimidation at the sites began to spread.” That is, as the media has tracked these groups, as voters have lodged complaints, their numbers are growing.