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Taking lessons from 2020, thousands of election deniers are now working the midterms

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today's interview focuses on the midterm elections and concerns they could be marred by violence, intimidation or other challenges that undermine confidence in the results. FRESH AIR guest contributor Arun Venugopal has our interview. Here's Arun.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: With just days to go before the midterm elections, millions of Americans have already cast their vote. And in some states, there are reports that turnout is greater than it's ever been. A lot is on the line including control of the House and Senate and the extent to which President Joe Biden can fulfill his agenda. But that's not all that's at stake. According to a joint intelligence bulletin obtained by ABC News, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center have issued a warning about a heightened threat of domestic violent extremism during the midterm elections due to perceptions of election fraud.

And these perceptions could, in turn, be shaped by another phenomenon. In states across the country, Republican activists who believe the last election was stolen have been getting involved in the electoral process and attempting to reshape the very machinery of American elections. Well, many of those people say they're merely committed to election integrity. Democrats and some Republicans are concerned about disruptions at the polls that could end up casting doubt on the election.

Our guest, Alexandra Berzon, is a reporter at The New York Times who's been following this process over the last year. Before joining the Times, Berzon worked at ProPublica and at The Wall Street Journal, where she was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of secret payments by Donald Trump to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Alexandra Berzon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ALEXANDRA BERZON: Thank you so much.

VENUGOPAL: Let's go back to an in-depth piece you co-wrote with other reporters last year when you were at ProPublica. At the time, you said that Steve Bannon, who served as chief strategist in the Trump White House, had galvanized thousands of listeners of his podcast called "War Room" back in May of 2021. This was in the wake of the failed insurrection. Bannon proposed a different idea, a call to action in which listeners would seize control of the GOP from the bottom up. What exactly did he mean?

BERZON: Yeah, what he was talking about - there was this idea that you would have activists really coming into the local Republican parties through the sort of ground up. And it had been around for a while, this sort of precinct strategy idea. But the notion was that we - that the Republican Party wanted to really get this kind of what they would call, like, the MAGA Republican, the really pro-Trump sort of Republicans, and especially also people who were going to continue this idea that the election was stolen. And one of the reasons why it was so important to have those people in there is because there are certain things that the party can do vis-a-vis elections that is somewhat different than just any outside activism.

It really varies state by state. In some cases, it's more structured that way than others. But there are ways that the party can sort of appoint people into election offices. They can - in some states, they kind of point - poll workers. Poll watchers often come through the party. So that was one of the reasons why it was impactful to have people actually coming in through the Republican Party. But you also, at the same time, had a lot of other outside activist groups. Oftentimes, they were really kind of rebranding or repurposing of Tea Party groups, actually, that were now forming around this idea that the 2020 election was stolen and keeping it going all over the country. These groups were going on sort of both - so, again, within the party and then also outside of the Republican Party.

VENUGOPAL: So we're talking about positions - like you said, precinct officers, but also election judges - right? - and inspectors.

BERZON: Yeah. So the precinct officers or party officers - and they're also then often becoming part of what the leadership of the party is going to look like, both the county level and, in some cases, at the state level. But they also, in some cases, have some kind of role in saying, like, who should be poll workers? It really varies state by state. Sometimes, they just sign up - poll workers just sign up separately with the election offices.

And in some states - like, in Colorado, for example, there was a situation where the Republican and Democratic Parties actually appoint the poll workers. And the Republican Party in El Paso County was actually pulling back some of the poll workers and saying, we don't want you, and we're not going to allow you to work. And the clerk there, who's a Republican himself - but he really felt strongly that these people were very - should be allowed to work. They had been longtime poll workers and were very able to do so. But because of their - they weren't people that were election deniers, they - the party didn't want them to work. But that was - a lot of other states don't necessarily operate that way, but that's just an example of the kind of - what can happen with a party.

VENUGOPAL: You wrote that Steve Bannon has encouraged a kind of election vigilantism. What is that? And how do you think that can play out in the election?

BERZON: Yes. So the election vigilantism, which I will say, you know, Bannon is certainly a mouthpiece for it, a very important one - but there's many others that are involved in kind of creating this idea and keeping it going and many of whom, I think it's important to note, were including Bannon, who we know, you know, had a strong role in the efforts in 2020 around trying to overturn the election at that point. So there's sort of - philosophy around it is Democrats cheat and steal elections, and the only way the Democrats really win is to cheat. And so we need to find this cheating, and we're going to kind of root it out of the system. And so they're coming at it from that perspective.

They would also themselves say, you know, look, what we're doing is we're just trying to make the system run better and be legal and run in a legal way. But from the perspective of election officials and others who have looked at this closely - I mean, you know, you have just constant public records requests. You have people at the - just asking questions over and over again. And, you know - and in some ways, you know, a lot of this is - like, on its face, there's nothing wrong with this. There's - you know, the idea of a transparent election system is one that everyone should support. But it does become almost to a point where it's made the jobs very difficult to do.

And the other thing it's done is created this whole idea of, like, let's look for problems. And then, what they did last time was they had all these people who looked for issues. And then, after they wanted to challenge the results, they then presented that as sort of supposed evidence that would justify overturning an election. And I think that's the concern this time around as well, is that you could use this kind of thing to continue to challenge results as well as to continue to just undermine the idea of fair elections in the country among a very large number of people.

VENUGOPAL: Let's talk about Steve Bannon's call to action. To what extent did people get involved in the election process, and where?

BERZON: So it's a little hard to judge right now. Bannon, for himself, is very boastful about it. He has said that it's - that - he's basically said, look, we're a hundred times or more organized than we were last time in 2020. We have a complete plan - that he talks about as far as challenging all the ballots that they can and at the polling places and especially at the counting places and that they're going to be a very constant presence. I don't think we know yet, you know, to what extent this is really borne out. There's one network that I've looked at closely through Cleta Mitchell, who's been on Bannon's show a lot and speaks a lot about this network of activists that she's organized. She was one of the lawyers that was involved in trying to overturn the results in 2020. And she's talked about recruiting 20,000 people through that network.

That network also works a lot with the RNC, which has also talked about recruiting thousands - somewhere around that number - or more. That's for both poll watchers and poll workers through this recruitment effort. And they've really said, look; this is going to be a much more organized kind of situation this time around. And a lot of the elections officials already this week are saying they're getting much more people signed up to be poll monitors, poll workers. There's groups in Michigan saying - there's officials in Michigan that are saying that they have a number of more activist groups signed up to be the poll monitors than they ever had before. So certainly, this is - does seem to be appearing.

VENUGOPAL: Our guest is New York Times reporter Alexandra Berzon. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

VENUGOPAL: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Arun Venugopal, back with Alexandra Berzon, a reporter for The New York Times.

One person who's leading the process of training these people entering the system is Cleta Mitchell. You mentioned her earlier. She runs the Election Integrity Network. She says she's trained more than 20,000 people, according to your reporting. What exactly is she training people to do that's different from the norm?

BERZON: So her training is around the idea of - as you had mentioned, this idea of vigilantism. She calls it the citizens detective agency. So the idea is there is wrongdoing, as I mentioned earlier, that, you know, Democrats cheat. The only way they're going to win is to cheat. And we're going to catch them. They have manuals. They have a lot of training seminars they've done all over the country. And then they form these statewide coalitions, as well as encouraging people to form local, county-level task forces.

And what they're telling people to do is basically go to election offices. Constantly spend time at election offices. Talk to election the election officials and then to be extremely vigilant in their kind of monitoring the elections, with looking for any sort of potential thing they could consider an anomaly. And more recently, there's been some reporting that has showed how they're then talking now about using that to then create challenges to the results, if that's what they choose to do.

VENUGOPAL: Cleta Mitchell's manual, "The Citizen's Guide To Building An Election Integrity Infrastructure," has worried certain election experts, in part because it involves ideas like surveillance. What kind of surveillance is she advocating?

BERZON: Well, one of the things they were saying even was to investigate your local elections officials, your local - the folks at the attorney general's office that deal with elections and to see, you know, are they friend or foe? So it's this idea of, like, our side and our people kind of with us and really trying to figure that out.

And that was concerning amid a lot of attacks on election officials and, just in general, them feeling really like they're almost being driven out by this kind of vigilantism. I've talked to a number of election officials who have either resigned recently or are planning to under this kind of stress that they have felt that they're experiencing. There was also to basically spend a lot of time at election offices. I mean, they do talk a lot about, like, being polite, following rules and - but just being of really constant presence in any way possible under the - that the law allows.

VENUGOPAL: In Cleta Mitchell's training, as you say, she's been telling people to spend time at election offices. What are they supposed to do there?

BERZON: Well, they're supposed to be talking to - you know, they're asking questions. They're just looking at all the procedures. They're seeing, is there anything at all that they - you know, you could see that's not something they say should happen? In some cases, that's then led to lawsuits. And so, you know, document - they say document everything. Document, document, document. It's also just, you know, constantly kind of just being - trying to kind of tell the election officials, no, you should be doing it this way.

One of the things that some of these groups have been doing recently is, there's been a number of lawsuits and other efforts to try to force some of the local elections offices to use their poll workers or Republican poll workers or theirs in particular, the ones they want to use, and to also put those positions into leadership positions. And the idea is just to be kind of a constant presence. And more recently - I think I mentioned earlier, but more recently there's been - you know, we've been seeing that there's more explicit parallel, where they're drawing between this idea of sort of document everything, find these issues and then telling people that we're going to then use that information to make challenges if the results end up in a way that we want to challenge the results, then we'll have all of this to use, which is exactly what happened in 2020.

Now, the courts rejected that. But we saw just what can happen when you bring these cases and you bring all these challenges is, you create more of a sense in the public that something is really wrong. And we saw where that led in 2020. So the - you know, even just recently, Politico had a story where they quoted John Eastman, who was involved in the efforts in 2020 to overturn the election, was saying that - he was telling people to document everything they're seeing. And then he's saying that becomes the basis for an affidavit in a court challenge.

VENUGOPAL: And how does this concern, I guess, election experts or, you know, polling site workers who might be used to a different kind of culture? In what sense does that sort of disrupt the norm?

BERZON: Yeah. I mean, I think that it's been very disruptive for election officials to feel that they're, you know, constantly explaining things to people. But then, there's this sort of refusal to accept that, and they just keep pushing further. And that has been frustrating to the officials I've - that I've talked to. And then, there's also just a us-against-them sort of attitude that doesn't - it really hadn't been brought into the elections process in this way until more recently, the idea that, you know, we're out to catch you and that you're doing something wrong, instead of starting from the idea that, you know, this is just a process that maybe if you make a mistake, like, OK, you'll fix that.

But this is really more, like, trying to kind of be very oppositional to the elections procedures, is the sense that the elections officials have. And, you know, again, I think these groups will say, OK, we're trying to just - we're trying to, like, make the process go better. But that has not been the experience from the officials that I've spoken to where they've experienced this.

VENUGOPAL: This week, a federal judge ruled in a situation involving a group that was trying to, I guess, execute this kind of surveillance you're referring to and that, too, with, you know, armed men and women. The party - the group is called Clean Elections USA. What kind of surveillance were they, I guess, hoping to commit to? And what did this judge rule?

BERZON: Well, the judge has now ruled - my understanding is that the - there's limitations on what the group can do in terms of their surveillance. This is a group that also has grown out of this kind of just larger conspiracy theory world that has developed since the 2020 election. And one of the conspiracy theories that really took off is this idea that there's these ballot mules, they call them, that are people that are dropping off ballots on behalf of other people and that that somehow is creating all this fraud. And there's really no basis for it. The movie that publicized this idea has been really debunked in numerous ways as well as the ideas that the group behind it were promoting.

But the - there was a woman who kind of took that idea and decided to create a national campaign around it. And she then has been promoting it very much on Steve Bannon's show as well as social media. And they've been recruiting people to kind of be these vigilantes of the drop boxes. So people go, and they kind of stake out the drop boxes. They watch people. They videotape people as they're dropping off ballots. And they're trying to supposedly catch these people that they think are doing something illegal though there's really no sign that this is some kind of widespread problem.

VENUGOPAL: The idea of election fraud is largely premised on noncitizens voting in U.S. elections - immigrants, right? Among the groups you've been covering, is it ever made explicitly clear that what some people are opposed to is not simply election fraud, which is actually extremely rare, but changing demographics and a multiracial democracy?

BERZON: In terms of - especially, I had mentioned earlier this movie "2000 Mules," which came out. And the idea behind that movie is that there's these groups that are basically taking ballots to - on behalf of other people. And it's this idea of - they call it ballot mules or ballot trafficking. A number of my colleagues have - who are out on the campaign trail more than I am, they've reported on kind of seeing that used in a way that is amplifying this kind of tropes, racist tropes about, you know, they're going to replace you. And the sort of idea behind that is that there's all these people that shouldn't be voting that are voting although it's not necessarily explicitly in that movie. But that's the way it's kind of being used or suggested and that it's kind of playing on a lot of those ideas. And that movie, "2000 Mules," has definitely been a presence.

VENUGOPAL: And of course, mule, a play on the idea of the drug mule, who is presumably coming across the border bringing in something toxic from elsewhere.

BERZON: Exactly. So it's the idea that there's people who are - right. Exactly. It's people that are coming across the border, and they're this thread. And it's really kind of evoking this fear in people that comes out of this idea.

DAVIES: New York Times reporter Alexandra Berzon speaking with our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal. They'll be back after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "BLUES R US")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Some of Donald Trump's supporters are still hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 election. But others have turned their attention to the upcoming midterm election. New York Times reporter Alexandra Berzon has been reporting on this movement to get activists who believe the 2020 election was stolen to run for local election offices. Berzon spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Arun Venugopal.

VENUGOPAL: At least in my experience, polling sites tend to be kind of sleepy, uneventful places. If you're lucky, you're in and out, and you have an I-voted sticker to show for it. What are the implications of what Bannon and all these other Republicans have done?

BERZON: Yeah, I mean, one of the things is just to make people think that this is some kind of widespread - you know, when we were reporting on it and we're talking about it, then people kind of think even more, like, there's this really widespread intimidation that I'm going to get at my polling place or I'm going to get if I drop off my ballot. And a lot of elections experts and officials I've been talking to, especially in the last week or two, are quite concerned about this.

There was some polling that came out that showed that people really think that, like - there are - a very high percentage of people think that they're going to face intimidation or problems voting. And a lot of voting advocates lately have said, look, like, most people - like, it's really not going to be common. You're going to be able to vote. It's going to be fine. I mean, there really is not widespread - we should say, like, there is not widespread problems with voting. There's not, you know, major issues we're hearing about so far. There's early voting going on, both with absentee as well as in person. And the kind of idea of incidences - you know, the groups that are monitoring this are not seeing major problems.

The issue is really more of what - you know, what could play out in just - in the time ahead from the - from having challenges and legal cases and having this just - if the results are close. I mean, that's really where you might see more issues. But the actual voting process really has not been - seems to be holding up just fine as far as anything we can see with that. So that's definitely very important to kind of - for, you know, folks to understand, I think.

VENUGOPAL: Some of the people who preached the precinct strategy also threatened violence. You quote one person, a far-right blogger by the name of Jim Condit Jr. of Cincinnati, who described the strategy as the last alternative to violence short of resorting to the Second Amendment, he said, adding, which none of us want to do. Another activist, Daniel Schultz, said at a conference call, make sure everybody's got a baseball bat. I'm serious about this. Make sure you've got people who are armed. Are you seeing these threats materialize? Is there reason to believe baseball bats and guns are going to be part of this precinct strategy?

BERZON: The fact is there are - there have been violent threats within the election denial movement. Specifically, there are people who talk about, you know, these people should be hung for treason. There are violent words said. There has not, at this point, translated into any kind of sense that there's violence at the polls or any risks or threats to people voting or to any specific idea around that. And I think that's important for people to understand. Because you can get - you know, you can - you could start to get nervous just to, like, go and vote. And that hasn't materialized, and - but clearly, there's - you know, the rhetoric has been heating up over the last year or so. We saw it obviously with the - Paul Pelosi.

VENUGOPAL: The husband of Nancy Pelosi, who was recently violently attacked.

BERZON: Yeah. So, I mean, there is definitely - and just the amount of - you know, you're continuing to convince people, and people are continuing to be convinced that there is this incredibly - that there is basically this conspiracy. I mean, and some part - some aspects of this idea is that there's this global conspiracy to hack voting machines and that - or Democrats are stealing election. There's - the ideas are very extreme that are being spread.

And so the - that is creating - I think the concern from people that really study this and from election officials is that it's creating an atmosphere of this just complete undermining of a faith in democracy if you really think that the election system in this country is broken. And that is when eventually you could end up getting to some sort of violence. And yes, there is rhetoric around it. We're not there yet. But clearly, there's warnings of risk that, you know - and there is concern. And I think it comes from just this undermining of the idea that the elections are secure. And the conspiracies around them are so - they sound so terrible to people. And they're being spread quite widely. And the belief has been held, and it hasn't gone away.

VENUGOPAL: It's not like longtime election officials are just taking all this lying down. You write that some have spent months preparing for potential disruptions and even participated in exercises organized by the FBI. What can you tell us about how they are preparing for possible problems on Election Day?

BERZON: Yeah, there's been a lot of preparation around this. You know, there's a lot more awareness, I think, about the idea of misinformation and disinformation and somewhat more kind of just trying to figure out ways to communicate and combat that. There's also been increases in security. Some of the places have changed the layout of where they kind of put certain things and have created different procedures. As you mentioned, we had reported about these FBI tabletop exercises. The FBI has set up these election task forces in - people that are in, I believe, all the states - that are point people for this. And there's definitely a lot of awareness and preparation around all of this this year.

VENUGOPAL: When it comes to elections for secretary of state, what could be the potential impact on the 2024 election? How many states could this make a big difference in?

BERZON: Yeah, there's actually a number of states where the Republican secretary of state candidates are really part of - in some cases, really very much part of kind of this election denier and really kind of conspiracy theory type of world about elections that have grown out of that. One is - and some of them are in quite significant states for the presidential election - Arizona, Nevada and Michigan being the main ones for that. And those candidates also - one of the things we reported on - had really gotten together and done this in quite a concerted way through an effort organized by some of the same folks who had been involved in trying to overturn the 2020 election. So this has been - there's a group called the "America First" slate of candidates, and there's a number of them that are now on the ballot. And so this is - there's some very significant secretary of state races.

VENUGOPAL: What are the ways in which a secretary of state can impact an election and its results?

BERZON: Well, there's many ways a secretary of state can impact - I mean, one of them is - they do a lot of the investigations and make sure that elections are functioning properly. They do a lot of the - they often are giving out rules and guidance to local officials, the local election officials. And so, you know, for example, you know, they can be very proactive in terms of just rooting out any potential issues or concerns. And they also issue guidance often on things like the role of poll monitoring and just any kind of - they basically are kind of guiding the local election officials on how to follow the law. And so there's a lot of influence that can come from that office just in terms of directing or telling local officials how to do things.

I think that one of the things is, like, we're really - you know, if some of these folks win, we're going to kind of see how far that goes. I mean, some of them want to move to things like hand-counting ballots, which, you know, experts and election officials say is really - could be a major problem because you would end up having - you know, there's more inaccuracies than machine counting. Ballots are so extensive and so long in this country typically that it could take an incredible amount of time. So people will realize, you know, election results will not be decided quickly if this were the case.

I think the other thing the secretary of state does is just also offers kind of the - you know, it's just important to get very good information about elections. And often that comes from the secretary of state's office. So if you had people in office that are, you know, already giving out bad information about elections, misinformation, then that could become a potential, you know, issue.

VENUGOPAL: Have you had any direct interactions with people who are planning poll-watching actions like the drop box vigilantes?

BERZON: I have not spoken myself to the drop box folks. I've certainly been in touch with many activists in general. I've gone to many of their conferences, and I've gone to a number of these types of meetings. I've spoken to many folks. And one of the things that really comes out of it - and these are the people that are really now devoting their lives to this issue. So it's not at all representative of your average voter or person in the Republican base or whatnot. But there really is very strong passion among many activists on that side about this issue because there is this belief that the system has been stolen away from them. And so it's really a certain sort of passion or zealotry, whatnot, within this particular activist base of people, I would say.

VENUGOPAL: Alexandra Berzon, thanks so much for joining us today.

BERZON: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: New York Times reporter Alexandra Berzon speaking with our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album from the jazz trio Thumbscrew. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY'S "SWINGIN' THE BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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