US midterm elections 2022
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Steve Bannon has called on people sign up as election workers, saying it was a political ‘call to arms’. Photo: AP

Right-wing election ‘army’ sparks fear for US midterms

  • Influential figures like Steve Bannon have called for election deniers to sign up as poll workers and poll observers
  • The 2022 US midterm elections on November 8 could see Republicans seize control of Congress

Influential right-wing campaigners who endorse Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud are mobilising a vigilante-style “army” of poll watchers for the US midterms, a move analysts say threatens chaos, intimidation and violence.

The campaigners, including some who tried to overturn Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election such as his former aide Steve Bannon, are weaponising misinformation and so-called “election denialism” to encourage thousands of people to sign up as poll observers and challengers.

The mobilisation has made the midterms, just two weeks away, the biggest test of the US democratic system since Trump’s debunked assertion that the last election was stolen from him.

On his popular podcast “War Room” this month, Bannon rallied for his audience to sign up as election workers, saying it was a political “call to arms”.

“It (the midterms) can’t be like 2020,” he told listeners.

Last week, Bannon was sentenced to four months in prison for refusing to testify in the congressional probe of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters.

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He was allowed to remain free while he appeals.

“Steve Bannon’s early call for election deniers to sign up as poll workers and poll observers, along with disinformation questioning the integrity of the voting system … sows a real possibility for a chaotic election season,” Jennifer McCoy, professor of political science at Georgia State University, said.

“We may potentially see tremendous confusion as some voters are prevented from voting, and many challenges during the vote count as these new poll workers and partisan observers challenge results they may not like.”

Bannon appeared on his podcast with Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who also aided Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election and is now involved in assembling what she calls an “army of citizens” to monitor elections.

She has said that her organisation, the “Election Integrity Network”, has trained more than 20,000 people as poll watchers throughout the country, many of them in battleground states.

“The left has been counting and controlling the election process with no oversight from us for too long,” Mitchell wrote in a post earlier this year.

“Those days are over.”

Former US president Donald Trump throws ‘Save America’ hats during a rally ahead of the midterm elections, in Mesa, Arizona. Photo: Reuters

A “guide” published on her organisation’s website and distributed in nationwide training sessions called on citizens to be “ever present” in local polling offices, question election authorities and scrutinise voter eligibility.

It also urged them to identify whether officials in attorney general offices were “friend or foe”.

“In endorsing combative yet vague instructions and promoting the unjustified spectre of widespread fraud, the unprecedented effort to organise an ‘army’ of citizens could lead to voter interference and intimidation, mass voter challenges, election security breaches, and other forms of lawbreaking in November,” Mekela Panditharatne, from the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in an analysis.

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Last week, Arizona election authorities said they were “deeply concerned” over voter safety after two armed individuals in tactical gear were found watching over a drop box for mail-in ballots.

The news came after at least two voters in Arizona filed official complaints of intimidation, a local TV station reported.

“It is one thing to observe the polling in a neutral fashion, and another to do so in a way that intimidates voters who may have opposing party affiliations,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said.


Former US president Donald Trump hints at 2024 race for a second term

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“To the extent that pro-Trump extremists who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election ‘observe’ the elections in a way that intimidates some voters, for example, people of colour, or people in precincts with heavy Democratic registration, it could threaten the integrity of the elections.”

The mobilisation of pro-Republican poll watchers appears to be well-funded.

Mitchell’s organisation is part of the pro-Trump Conservative Partnership Institute, which, according to its annual report, raised US$19.7 million last year.

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According to the Federal Election Commission, a regulatory body, that includes a US$1 million grant from Save America PA - which was created by Trump after he lost the 2020 election and has since raised millions.

Among other wealthy Trump supporters trying to rally poll watchers is election conspiracy theorist Patrick Byrne, the multimillionaire founder of the online retailer Overstock.

Byrne has sought to recruit “citizen election observers” through his non-profit, the America Project.

With election denial rampant, the United States risks becoming what historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat called an “electoral autocracy”.

“They (Trump and his supporters) aim to delegitimise elections in the absolute,” Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University, said.

“The goal is to associate voting with corruption to the point where the idea of relying on elections as a way to choose leaders is compromised in the public mind.”