How the CPI became the most powerful messaging force in the MAGA universe
GROSS: Let’s talk about Cleta Mitchell, who runs the Election Integrity Network at the CPI. And she is a lawyer who was closely connected to Trump and was one of the lawyers advising him on how to overturn the results of the election. Describe her role in that, in the election.
SEVERNS: Yeah. Mitchell was someone who was out after Trump, making the case that the election had been stolen. And, you know, what we’ve seen at CPI is that she’s been able to, in some ways, really carry out that work as leader of this Election Integrity Network. She’s been traveling around the country holding trainings with volunteers who seem to agree with Mitchell. And they are doing trainings in poll-watching and observing and in filing public records requests.
You know, I recently – actually, for another story – spoke to someone who had worked in Fairfax County, Va., and the elections office in 2021. They have these odd off-year elections in Virginia, and that’s one place that Mitchell and her organization had been working that year. And he said it was unlike anything he’d ever seen, that the number of people requesting to come in and observe the work of the election officials, the number of public records requests they were getting – they had a person basically tasked five days a week to just respond to these requests – and that in the past, he said that most people who were interested in doing these kinds of things and monitoring the elections process seemed to be kind of driven more by curiosity.
You know, he said that he would really try and explain to people what’s going on and that in 2021, it was the first time he really felt that folks were looking over his shoulder, trying to find something they were doing wrong. So I think that we’re seeing a real shift in the way that a lot of people who feel there was something that happened wrong during the 2020 election, how they’re approaching these upcoming elections.
GROSS: So part of the work of this Election Integrity Network is to keep challenging votes, to challenge the administration of voting. Is it almost a form of harassment?
SEVERNS: You know, I think that we’ll learn more after the midterm elections. I think that it’s certainly – so, you know, it’s so funny ’cause a public records request sounds so administrative. But when you are a small bureau of elections and you have just hundreds and hundreds of requests coming at you, it can really gum up the works, right? – same with if you have tons of people coming in, trying to kind of observe you every day and look for any little thing that they think you could be doing wrong. And so I think local elections officials in the past have had really quiet jobs, and now there’s a lot going on. And we’re going to learn a lot more about kind of the effects of these programs that I should say not just Mitchell, but others in the Republican Party are running as we go into the midterm elections.