RNC links up with ‘Stop the Steal’ advocates to train poll workers
Recordings of recruitment “summits” show party officials working with Cleta Mitchell and other leaders of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The Republican National Committee has been relying on a stable of the party’s most prolific spreaders of false stolen-election theories to pilot a sweeping “election integrity” operation to recruit and coach thousands of poll workers in eight battleground states, according to new recordings of organizing summits held this spring in Florida and Pennsylvania obtained by POLITICO.
On the tapes, RNC National Election Integrity Director Josh Findlay repeatedly characterizes the committee’s role as supporting in-state coalitions — delivering staff, organization and “muscle” in key states to the person they identify as the quarterback of the effort to create a permanent workforce: Conservative elections attorney Cleta Mitchell, who was a central figure in former President Donald Trump’s legal strategy to overturn the 2020 election.
“Cleta Mitchell, she’s like the best election and election law expert out there. We’re not going to tell her what to do,” Findlay told a March 31 Pennsylvania session organized by Mitchell.
Publicly, the RNC has insisted its goal is to ensure there are enough trained poll workers to protect the electoral process and ensure partisan parity at polling centers. The recordings, however, indicated that the RNC is relying heavily on people who have spread false or unproven claims of irregularities and conspiracies. The recordings feature Findlay speaking at a number of Mitchell’s “Election Integrity Network” summits, which her group has hosted in battleground states including Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The RNC is just “part of the team,” he told a Florida summit the same month.
While Republicans have said the aim of their “election integrity” effort is to ensure there are well-trained poll workers during the next election, the recordings also feature Mitchell speaking openly about the need to challenge efforts by nonprofit groups aligned with Democrats to create a “new American majority” of young voters, people of color and unmarried women.
“It’s a place the left sees as a great target of opportunity, and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” she said, referring to Democratic efforts to register voters from traditionally underrepresented voting blocs.
Mitchell was on Trump’s post-election phone call directing a Georgia elections official to “find” him 11,700 votes after losing the state, and is she among those currently under subpoena in a criminal investigation by the Fulton County district attorney. Days after the 2020 election, she was exploring ways to keep Trump in power via a slate of fake electors from several battleground states. White House call logs show she is also among a handful of individuals with whom Trump spoke on Jan. 6, 2021, the day the Capitol was attacked, and she is suing to block the House Jan. 6 committee from obtaining her full phone records.
Mitchell, in a response to POLITICO, said her comments about the “new American majority” were referring to an executive order by the Biden administration directing federal agencies to help citizens register to vote and to educate them on how to do so. The effort amounts to turning “every federal agency into a Democratic turnout machine — using our tax dollars in the process,” said Mitchell.
The RNC says its poll watching and working program has been in place for recent primary elections in Georgia and Texas, where “turnout has risen, reported issues have been resolved and elections have run smoothly,” said RNC spokesperson Gates McGavick.
“The RNC works with other groups who have an interest in promoting election integrity, but the party’s efforts are independent from any outside organization,” said McGavick. “Fearmongering stories like this undermine confidence in elections and unfairly smear Americans who are simply getting involved in the civic process,” he said.
The RNC, in its email response, said Democrats also have a major Election Day operation through their national party and noted that the Democratic National Committee’s website features a webinar on how to become a poll worker. The RNC also disputes that it trains poll workers. It calls sessions in which statewide “election integrity” directors coach recruits on how to challenge votes and voting processes “workshops,” and all poll workers must attend separate trainings by county clerks.
Yet the DNC’s “voter protection” program is different because it focuses on expanding voting access, including through more locations and through mail-in voting. The webinar does not train poll workers, rather informs them how to apply, and the DNC says it does not have a national initiative to train poll workers.
‘Number one goal’
RNC chair Ronna McDaniel has walked a fine line in calling for robust election security measures in response to Trump’s unproven claims of voting irregularities in the 2020 election, while avoiding fully embracing more sensational allegations there was widespread fraud and the election was “stolen” from him.
The approach around placing partisan poll workers is similar: steering clear of any public statements expressly supporting the “Stop the Steal” wing of the party while collaborating with some of its leading advocates around what the RNC considers, according to minutes of a spring training meeting in Memphis provided by Documented, its “number one goal” of building a permanent army of 15,000 GOP poll workers.
In workshops hosted by the RNC, GOP activists behind the party’s “election integrity” drive have primarily emphasized rooting out voting fraud — including “ballot stuffing” through the mail for which no evidence exists — as their key goal.
The recordings suggest the goals are broader. At an April 5 Arizona summit, Mitchell spoke mostly about an emerging “new American majority” of people of color, young people and unmarried women that could make conservatives “obsolete.” Her private comments are significant because Democrats have long insisted it is these fears of displacement — and not legitimate election administration concerns — behind the GOP drive to tighten access to voting for certain groups, including through mail.
POLITICO obtained the recordings from Documented, a non-partisan investigative watchdog that says it believes “corporations and wealthy donors have far too much power and influence” and that “democracy itself is under attack.” Documented got the tapes from attendees.
Other major summit partners include conservative grassroots organizations Heritage Action for America and Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, who became part of Trump’s legal team in Georgia, where there is a criminal investigation into Trump and his top legal advisers. Toni Shuppe, who led a far-right effort to “audit the vote” in search of fraud in Pennsylvania, is leading that state’s coalition. In Arizona, Gina Swoboda, a former Trump campaign official who runs the Voter Reference Foundation, is heading the effort. Her group has continued to spread claims about voting discrepancies and published millions of voters’ names, birthdates and addresses.
None of these coalition partners responded to requests for comment.
The recordings feature keynote speakers continuing to push Trump’s false election claims.
“They [Democrats] know they can’t win unless they cheat,” Jim DeMint, a former Republican senator who chairs the Conservative Partnership Institute, the activist group that houses Mitchell’s initiative, said at the Florida gathering.
POLITICO previously documented the RNC’s efforts to build “an army” of poll workers prepared to challenge elections clerks in primarily Democrat-dominated precincts in Michigan and keep them in constant contact with roving party attorneys. In its email response, the RNC also said its staff training and recruitment of volunteers focuses on the “need to comply with federal and state laws protecting voting rights” and any individual who “does not follow the law will be promptly dismissed.”
Findlay, in his summit appearances, repeatedly makes clear Mitchell and in-state coalition leaders are the braintrust of that effort. “When we started this (election integrity) department, we said, ‘Well, what can we do? Cleta knows more about election integrity than anybody in the country … What can we do to participate,’” he said in Florida on March 25.
Findlay was referencing Mitchell’s activities around the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, which saw thousands of Trump loyalists enlist as poll watchers and which the RNC considers a model for upcoming elections. He’s made similar remarks in Pennsylvania and other states about the RNC taking its lead from Mitchell.
“We can recruit. We can train, we can ship volunteers,” he said in Florida.
In Pennsylvania, the statewide coalition director is Shuppe, who has also promoted QAnon conspiracies that the online furniture retailer Wayfair was selling trafficked children on its website and Pizzagate, an unfounded theory that prominent Democrats were running a pedophile ring.
Another speaker at a March 31 Pennsylvania summit was CPI’s Ned Jones, who during his remarks floated conspiracies about “rogue” postal service workers tampering with mail-in ballots. Kerri Toloczko, who is atop the Florida coalition, suggested during the same gathering that Wisconsin service union workers may have been involved in casting votes for nursing home residents with dementia.
Toloczko did not respond to a request for comment.
A growing force
The summits, organized by Mitchell’s “Election Integrity Network,” are largely kick-off events. They are followed by regular calls, meetings, and other organizing efforts involving several grassroots conservative groups.
CPI is a conservative think tank funded in part by Trump’s political action committee and run by DeMint and Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff. In its annual report, CPI states that it is aiming to create “permanent election integrity coalitions” in eight target states. “Cleta, her full time job at CPI is to do nothing but this,” Meadows told a Georgia summit in February.
A former associate general counsel for the Trump campaign, Findlay has also been caught up in investigations around the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. In late July, the Washington Post reported Findlay is among those for whom the Department of Justice has issued subpoenas seeking any communications regarding a scheme for GOP state lawmakers to overturn the will of the voters by submitting slates of alternate electors.
“They bring democracy to your doorstep. I wanna pause right here. We don’t live in a democracy. … We live in a constitutional republic.”
Texts the Jan. 6 committee obtained from Meadows show lawmakers referencing meetings at CPI in the post-2020 election period. Two days after the Nov. 3, 2020, election, it was Mitchell who contacted Trump lawyer John Eastman, the legal mastermind of Trump’s failed strategy, and encouraged him to engineer a legal argument to challenge electoral vote certification in Congress.
A transcript shows Mitchell played a major role in a conversation in which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find him additional votes. Amid the controversy, Mitchell resigned from her position as a partner with the law firm Foley & Lardner and landed at CPI shortly thereafter.
CPI is a growing force: According to its annual report, the group raised $19.7 million in 2021, which includes a $1 million grant from Trump’s Save America PAC, which raised millions by fanning Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
Not ‘a democracy’
While training sessions previously published by POLITICO show Republican recruits overwhelmingly concerned about election fraud, Mitchell’s remarks in Arizona focused primarily on what many Democrats have long insisted is the real motive behind the entire GOP effort: targeting certain groups.
She made extended remarks about Democrats’ goal, since former Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Push” coalition of the 1980s, to register more people in minority communities to vote and create a new American majority of young people, people of color and unmarried women. “There was a book ‘Brown Is the New White’ talking about changing demographics in America was going to render conservatives obsolete,” she said.
“That is their goal,” she said of Democrats and outside groups aligned with them like unions. “They believe you can expand access to democracy by underrepresented populations.” Mitchell said they “target the most vulnerable people of our society,” citing the story of an allegedly elderly woman with dementia who allegedly obtained a voter registration form at a health clinic.
“You see it all over,” she said, as she decried the availability of information on voter registration at public venues like health clinics and universities. “We see people who are in need, who are hurting, who need help,” she said, referring to elderly, disabled, low-income Americans and students in need of financial aid receiving “education” on how to vote from outside groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the availability of voter registration information on government websites or venues serving the needy.
In her response to POLITICO, Mitchell said: “I showed the attendees the language taken from left-wing sources,” adding that President Joe Biden and “left-wing” groups are conspiring to use federal resources to “register and turn out the vote of the most vulnerable people in our society and pressure them to vote for Democrats.”
“That sort of enterprise should be paid for by candidates or political parties,” Mitchell said, without offering evidence any agency is pressuring individuals to vote for a particular party by providing them with registration materials.
In the tapes, Mitchell also disparaged the Democrats’ recent warnings about threats to democracy.
“They bring democracy to your doorstep. I wanna pause right here. We don’t live in a democracy,” Mitchell said, to a round of applause from the crowd. “But to the left, everything is about democracy, the democracy fund, the democracy this, the democracy that.”
“We live in a constitutional republic,” she said.