Placing operatives as poll workers and building a “hotline” to friendly attorneys are among the strategies to be deployed in Michigan and other swing states.
Video recordings of Republican Party operatives meeting with grassroots activists provide an inside look at a multi-pronged strategy to target and potentially overturn votes in Democratic precincts: Install trained recruits as regular poll workers and put them in direct contact with party attorneys.
The plan, as outlined by a Republican National Committee staffer in Michigan, includes utilizing rules designed to provide political balance among poll workers to install party-trained volunteers prepared to challenge voters at Democratic-majority polling places, developing a website to connect those workers to local lawyers and establishing a network of party-friendly district attorneys who could intervene to block vote counts at certain precincts.
“Being a poll worker, you just have so many more rights and things you can do to stop something than [as] a poll challenger,” said Matthew Seifried, the RNC’s election integrity director for Michigan, stressing the importance of obtaining official designations as poll workers in a meeting with GOP activists in Wayne County last Nov. 6. It is one of a series of recordings of GOP meetings between summer of 2021 and May of this year obtained by POLITICO.
Seifried also said the RNC will hold “workshops” and equip poll workers with a hotline and website developed by Zendesk, a software support company used by online retailers, which will allow them to live-chat with party attorneys on Election Day. In a May 2022 training session, he said he’d achieved a goal set last winter: More than 5,600 individuals had signed up to be poll workers and, several days ago, he submitted an initial list of more than 850 names to the Detroit clerk.
Democrat Janice Winfrey, who serves as the clerk, would be bound to pick names from the list submitted by the party under a local law intended to ensure bipartisan representation and an unbiased team of precinct workers.
Separately, POLITICO obtained Zoom tapings of Tim Griffin, legal counsel to The Amistad Project, a self-described election-integrity group that Donald Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani once portrayed as a “partner” in the Trump campaign’s legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election, meeting with activists from multiple states and discussing plans for identifying friendly district attorneys who could stage real-time interventions in local election disputes.
On the recording, Griffin speaks of building a nationwide network of district attorney allies and how to create a legal “trap” for Winfrey.
“Remember, guys, we’re trying to build out a nationwide district attorney network. Your local district attorney, as we always say, is more powerful than your congressman,” Griffin said during a Sept. 21 meeting. “They’re the ones that can seat a grand jury. They’re the ones that can start an investigation, issue subpoenas, make sure that records are retained, etc.,” he said.
POLITICO obtained about a dozen recordings from people who were invited to listen to the meetings. Seifried referred POLITICO’s requests for comment to the RNC. Griffin, through the Thomas More Society, which runs Amistad, did not return repeated calls and texts to spokesperson Tom Ciesielka.
A spokesperson for the RNC said the party is attempting to rectify an imbalance in favor of Democratic election workers in large urban areas, particularly Detroit, a city that votes reliably Democratic by more than 90 percent. Just 170 of more than 5,400 Detroit election officials were Republicans in 2020, according to the RNC.
“Democrats have had a monopoly on poll watching for 40 years, and it speaks volumes that they’re terrified of an even playing field,” said RNC spokesperson Gates McGavick. “The RNC is focused on training volunteers to take part in the election process because polling shows that American voters want bipartisan poll-watching to ensure transparency and security at the ballot box.”
In the introduction graphic on his training presentation, Seifried says the RNC’s goal is to “make it easy to vote and HARD TO CHEAT.”
But election watchdog groups and legal experts say many of these recruits are answering the RNC’s call because they falsely believe fraud was committed in the 2020 election, so installing them as the supposedly unbiased officials who oversee voting at the precinct level could create chaos in such heavily Democratic precincts.
“This is completely unprecedented in the history of American elections that a political party would be working at this granular level to put a network together,” said Nick Penniman, founder and CEO of Issue One, an election watchdog group. “It looks like now the Trump forces are going directly after the legal system itself and that should concern everyone.”
Penniman also expressed concern about the quick-strike networks of lawyers and DAs being created, suggesting that politically motivated poll workers could simply initiate a legal conflict at the polling place that disrupts voting and then use it as a vehicle for rejecting vote counts from that precinct.
Democratic National Committee spokesperson Ammar Moussa said the DNC “trains poll watchers to help every eligible voter cast a ballot,” but neither the DNC nor the state party trains poll workers. The DNC did help recruit poll workers in 2020 due to a drop-off in older workers amid the pandemic; but he says it is not currently doing so and has never trained poll workers to contest votes.
On the tapes, some of the would-be poll workers lamented that fraud was committed in 2020 and that the election was “corrupt.” Installing party loyalists on the Board of Canvassers, which is responsible for certifying the election, also appears to be part of the GOP strategy. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, Republicans nominated to their board a man who said he would not have certified the 2020 election.
Both Penniman and Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said they see a domino effect that could sow doubts about the election even when there was no original infraction: A politically motivated poll worker connecting with a zealous local lawyer to disrupt voting, followed by a challenge to the Board of Canvassers that may have nothing to do with the underlying dispute but merely the level of disruption at the polling place.
“You shouldn’t have poll workers who are reporting to political organizations what they see,” Hasen said. “It creates the potential for mucking things up at polling places and potentially leading to delays or disenfranchisement of voters,” especially “if [the poll workers] come in with the attitude that something is crooked with how elections are run.”
‘The precinct strategy’
The recordings are among the first windows into what former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon, who’s been urging listeners to his podcast to take on election leadership positions, calls “the precinct strategy.”
But Penniman, the election watchdog, believes the strategy is designed to create enough disputes to justify intervention by GOP-controlled state legislatures, who declined to take such steps in 2020.
“Come election day you create massive failure of certification” in Democratic precincts, Penniman said. “The real hope is that you can throw the choosing of electors to state legislatures.”
Participants in the recorded training sessions said their goal is to root out fraud, not just achieve more Republican poll workers in majority Democratic precincts.
Among panelists at a May 14 “Election Integrity” summit in Detroit was Jacky Eubanks, a Trump-endorsed state house candidate who warned “kids my age who are communists do and will staff our elections” in urging Republicans to become “paid, full-time elections workers” to police absentee ballot signatures, according to a recording of the summit.
Speaking separately to Macomb County Republicans, Eubanks also recently said, “The election system is rigged, and who best to steal it but our clerks.”
During the May 14 election-integrity summit, Seifried said the party is now actively recruiting lawyers and that he wanted to “start reaching out to law enforcement.”
Patrick Colbeck, a former member of the Michigan state Senate and former gubernatorial candidate, said at the same summit that he is “working with another organization right now” on “developing a kit for law enforcement” because many don’t understand election law and it will give them “tools that identify and enforce election fraud more effectively.”
Eubanks did not respond to requests for comment. In an email to POLITICO, Colbeck said there should be “regular training” for law enforcement on election laws.
A focus on Michigan
A central theater for the party’s “election integrity” organizing, Michigan is among a number of battleground states where party loyalists are being groomed to serve as inspectors in the next presidential election. Seifried estimated the RNC is committing $35 million to election integrity efforts nationwide, similar to what it spent in the last cycle in battleground state efforts. He is one of 16 state directors.
For decades, the RNC was barred from so-called “ballot security” measures after it settled an early 1980s case in which it was accused of voter suppression in violation of the Voting Rights Act, including sending armed police officers off duty to polling places in minority areas. In 2018, a federal judge allowed that consent decree to expire.
“The 2020 election would have been the first year that the RNC could have done anything with election integrity,” said Seifried in the tapes.
Of all former President Donald Trump’s battleground-state allies, Republican operatives in the state of Michigan came the closest to throwing the 2020 election — and the nation — into a constitutional crisis. So many volunteer challengers overwhelmed Detroit’s TCF Center, where votes were being counted, that police intervened because Covid safety protocols had been breached.
The poll watchers accused poll workers of “bullying” them and blocking them from voting tables due to pandemic social distancing requirements. They also falsely alleged “phony ballots” were smuggled into the center, helping lay the predicate for a weeks-long delay in certifying the state’s electoral votes. That’s despite the fact that then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden had won the state by more than 154,000 votes.
In the recorded meeting with activists in March, Seifried said there “was a lot of disorganization, a lot of lack of preparedness and I’ve heard horror story after horror story,” referring to the GOP watchers barred by police due to Covid restrictions.
“We’re going to have lawyers that work to build relationships with different judges so that when that happens, we’re going to have lawyers that have relationships with the police chiefs in the different areas, with the police officers in the different areas so that when that happens with preexisting relationships already established so that they can’t lie,” Seifried said during an October 2021 training session in Oakland County.
A GOP-led committee found no evidence of widespread fraud in Michigan’s 2020 election and recommended the state’s attorney general investigate those who made false claims “to raise money or publicity for their own ends.” Numerous lawsuits were dismissed in court.
In the tapes, Seifried cites specific grievances from 2020: that “unsolicited” absentee ballots were mailed by the Secretary of State, that not all clerks were required to match signatures on absentee ballot applications, that the number of ballot drop-off locations were dramatically increased and that Democratic areas received more outside funding to increase voting access than Republican areas.
‘How to Challenge a Voter’
In 2022 and 2024, instead of untrained volunteers, the goal is for GOP recruits to have undergone training and be equipped with new tools, according to Seifried.
Before sharing a slide on “How to Challenge a Voter,” Seifried outlined a series of scenarios under which recruits could contest voters or voting processes, though he cautioned it is illegal to challenge every vote.
“You have to have good reason to believe that an individual is not a citizen, that an individual is not of legal voting age. If an individual does not live at the location that they’re registered at, or if the person is not registered at all,” he said during a March 2022 meeting.
This also includes if a voter received an absentee ballot but is voting in person. He also urged recruits to approach clerks, including attending “public accuracy” meetings to question them about how voting machines work, recording machine numbers, requesting copies of tabulator results before and after voting begins and challenging clerks to prove their machines are not connected to the internet.
When asked about the strategy, an RNC spokesperson initially said recruits are not being trained to challenge voters. The RNC later responded by citing a Michigan election law excerpt that election workers “shall” challenge a voter if the inspector “knows or has good reason to suspect” the voter is ineligible and noted that a judge would ultimately review the case.
In an October meeting, Seifried said priority targets are Detroit, Pontiac and Southfield, which are heavily Democratic and minority areas. “Those are the ones that we need to focus all our efforts on,” he said.
Grassroots groups aligned with Trump are helping with recruitment. They include “Stand Up Michigan,” whose members adapted the Village People’s hit “YMCA” to “MAGA,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. While the law stipulates election inspectors must be trained by local clerks, candidates are also being coached on things to look out for by operatives in RNC-sponsored workshops.
Chris Thomas, who served for 36 years as elections director under one Democratic and three Republican secretaries of state, said he’s spent time with Seifried, who seems to be trying to be “above board” about his plans to create more equal representation among poll workers.
“He claims not to be a ‘Stop the Steal’ type but obviously all of the people he’s talking to are,” said Thomas. ”They’re going to be all ginned up thinking they’re going to see all kinds of stuff.”
“If Seifried is honest with them,” he will tell them they won’t see much, added Thomas. “There’s little to no history of election inspectors challenging people” based on qualifications to vote, and if they create chaos, “that’s just going to get them [the poll workers] thrown out.”
The potential for conflict is clear. In a training in March, Seifried told recruits to stand behind voter registration tables to “oversee the electronic poll book to make sure the person that is coming in to vote is who they say they are.” Voters should be challenged by alerting precinct chairs and then recruits should call the RNC legal hotline or log the complaint in a website with a live chat so “we can communicate with you real time.”
“Ideally, you guys will all be the election inspector,” said Seifried. “You have so much more authority because you’re the one that’s actually administering the election.”
While Seifried stressed challengers “cannot obstruct voting in any way” and not to be “adversarial,” Thomas said it is wrong to suggest a first-time worker would be in charge of a poll book and such workers have “no right to require inspectors to toggle through” poll books.
The first question in the Zoom chat: “How do we stop the counts if the person of authority doesn’t respect the challenges made like at TCF in Detroit?” Another asked what to do if someone is “clearly” using a fake I.D. to vote. Seifried said to “try challenging it.”
The effort has been underway for months, and GOP officials are planning to use Aug. 2 primary elections in Detroit as a dry run, according to Seifried.
“The early hours on election day Aug. 2 will tell the story about whether this is a legitimate operation or an attempt to slow the process to discourage voting,” said Thomas.
Pressuring the Detroit clerk
The approach is proceeding as planned.
In an interview, Winfrey, the Detroit elections clerk, confirmed that the RNC delivered a list of more than 800 names in early May and that she is likely to give “a good number” of the individuals roles as long as they attend training sessions and are confirmed registered voters.
“Before every election we always reach out to both the Democratic and Republican parties to let them know we are recruiting poll workers” and “we get what we get,” or mostly Democrats in a majority Democratic-voting city.
The list comes nearly a year after Griffin, during a June, 2021 meeting, outlined how GOP lawyers could corner Winfrey into either hiring their recruits or establishing the basis for a lawsuit. “How do we build the proper evidence and how do we build a trap for Janice Winfrey?” said Griffin.
Submitting a list of people “whom she’s not going to hire” would open “up the door for a mandamus lawsuit for them to start following the law,” or seating more Republicans. Two months later, in a separate meeting, Griffin reiterated the strategy is building lists of Republican poll workers who might be rejected and hence “creating the evidence for future cases.”
When informed of the tapes, Winfrey said she is “not shocked” and “not in any way intimidated.”
“Apparently they think I’m stupid,” she said. “Apparently they think I don’t follow the law. I’m not surprised by their ignorance.”