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The GOP drive to install thousands of poll workers sets off alarms

By Fredreka Schouten and Kelly Mena, CNN

A version of this story appeared in the CITIZEN BY CNN newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

State and local election officials in Michigan and other political battlegrounds are gearing up to deal with a new element in this year’s elections: a large influx of Republicans seeking to become poll workers, recruited by the Republican National Committee and other conservative organizations to play an active role in administering the midterm elections.

The development — and a recent story in Politico detailing GOP recruitment sessions and how some of these would-be poll workers cling to debunked claims about fraud in the 2020 election — have raised alarms that Republican election deniers could infiltrate official election operations and undermine the process.

The surge in interest also comes against the backdrop of efforts by former President Donald Trump’s allies, such as Steve Bannon, to carry out what he calls a “precinct committee strategy,” with the goal of installing Trump loyalists in local Republican Party positions and election posts.

“It is jarring to know that there is a political party, or a cohort of a political party, that is feeding folks misinformation and will use that as motivation to potentially interfere with our elections and with citizens’ right to vote,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, told Fredreka in a recent interview.

Benson, who said she has been following the uptick in GOP poll worker applications for weeks as part of her regular discussions with local election officials, met Monday with the state attorney general’s office, the Michigan State Police and local officials to discuss, among other topics, how to protect against election interference, her aides said.

‘Seat at the same table’

RNC officials say their recruitment drive has a straightforward goal: correcting a longstanding party imbalance in who serves in these roles. At Detroit’s TCF Center in 2020, where election workers in the heavily Democratic city counted absentee ballots, Republicans made up 170 of the more than 5,400 poll workers, the RNC said.

“We are only trying to get a seat at the same table,” RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a tweet.

For decades, the RNC also was shut out from so-called “ballot security” work under a federal consent decree after the national party targeted Black and Latino voters in New Jersey. The party’s operation — carried out during a 1981 gubernatorial election — included posting armed, off-duty law enforcement officers at polling places in heavily minority communities. The consent decree ended in 2018.

GOP officials say they are now free to lead a multimillion-dollar electioneering effort that includes adding 16 state “election integrity” directors and 26 in-state lawyers, along with recruiting more than 14,000 poll workers and adding upwards of 10,000 poll watchers across the country.

RNC communications director Danielle Alvarez said the party is scrupulously complying with state laws.

“We were in a consent decree for 40 years,” she said. “We’re doing everything well above the law because we never want to be in that position again.”

(A note about the distinction between workers and watchers: Poll workers are temporary employees of local election offices who receive their training and pay from those officials. Poll watchers, by contrast, are generally partisan volunteers deployed by political parties, candidates and third-party groups to “watch” or observe what’s happening at polling places. Their primary function is to help ensure their party or candidate has a fair shot of winning the election.)

‘They will find there is no fraud’

Local election clerks interviewed by CNN say they stand ready to vet the new wave of GOP poll workers and deal with any challenges. But some said they weren’t overly concerned about the surge in applications and did not want voters to become unnecessarily alarmed.

In the Democratic stronghold of Detroit, more than 800 Republicans have applied for poll worker positions, said Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey. “We’ve never had as many Republican applicants,” she said. “Good for them. I hope it’s for the right and good reasons.”

In Southfield, another Democratic stronghold, the state’s GOP “election integrity” director last month forwarded the names of 76 potential poll workers to local election officials, the city clerk Sherikia Hawkins told Fredreka this week.

So far, three have formally applied to work the polls for Michigan’s August 2 primaries, Hawkins said.

And in Canton, west of Detroit, Township Clerk Michael Siegrist said he has received applications for 11 new Republican poll workers through the GOP.

“I don’t see anything here that makes me nervous,” Seigrist, a Democrat, said about the new applications.

Poll workers are hired and trained by the township and take an oath “to faithfully discharge their duties,” Seigrist said. Anyone fails to do so or interferes with voting would be asked to leave a polling place, he added.

“What they will find is that there is no fraud,” he said. “And they will see the boring, mundane bureaucracy of what it means to run an election.”

Democratic-led states move to expand and protect voter access

In the last week, two states — New York and Colorado — have moved to create new voter and election official protections — a departure efforts in mostly GOP-led states to limit access to the ballot box in the name of preventing fraud.

Last week, in New York, the state Senate passed its own Voting Rights Act, which among other protections, would require local governments with a history of discrimination against minority voters to first get approval before making voting changes that might harm voters of color.

The bill, named after the late civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, next heads to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk for approval. The Democrat is expected to sign the legislation into law.

The state Senate also passed other measures that create new criminal penalties for voter suppression, interference and deception. Separately, senators approved other election protection measures that would create new criminal penalties for voter suppression, interference and deception. Those bills still need to pass the state Assembly.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed into law two pieces of legislation aimed at protecting the state’s election processes from outside and insider threats. The Election Official Protection Act adds new criminal penalties for threatening or intimidating election officials.

The other legislation, known as The Colorado Election Security Act, would make it a felony for an authorized person to knowingly publish or cause to publish confidential information relating to a voting system. The legislation also requires election officials and workers to complete training and makes it a felony to tamper with voting equipment “before, during, or after any election.”

The new law follows the grand jury indictment earlier this year of Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters that stemmed from an election security breach investigation by local authorities.

Primary voters in seven states head to the polls

On Tuesday, seven states hold elections: California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.

California hosts some of the most interesting contests, including the special election runoff for former Rep. Devin Nunes’ seat to represent California’s 22nd Congressional District. Nunes resigned in January to head the Trump Media & Technology Group.

Staunch Republican Connie Conway and progressive Democrat Lourin Hubbard are facing off in the election to replace Nunes.

Whoever wins on Tuesday probably will only serve a few months as the current district was sliced up amid the redistricting process and will cease to exist in its current form when the new Congress is sworn in next year.

Read more about this race from CNN’s Maeve Reston here.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, voters will elect a new mayor to replace term-limited Eric Garcetti. The contest features Democrat Rep. Karen Bass and real-estate developer Rick Caruso, a former Republican turned Democrat. The LA mayor’s race is a non-partisan election in which a candidate can win outright on Tuesday by winning a majority of the vote. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, then the top two vote-getters will advance to November’s general election.

In San Francisco, voters will decide whether to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who has faced criticism amid rising crime and homelessness in the city. If a majority of voters support the recall, San Francisco Mayor London Breed would appoint an interim district attorney.

Montana also will hold a primary for its newly designated 1st Congressional District. The district is located in the western part of the state and marks the first time in 30 years Montana has had two congressional seats.

Ryan Zinke, former Interior secretary under Trump and Montana’s one-time at-large member in the US House, is among the candidates for the GOP nomination in this heavily Republican state.

The first polls close in New Jersey, Mississippi and parts of South Dakota at 8 p.m. ET and the last in California at 11 p.m. ET.

You need to read

  • This New York Times story about how the US Supreme Court could weigh in on a legal theory that has the potential to upend how our elections are conducted. (We’ve touched on this so-called “independent state legislature doctrine” in this newsletter before.)
  • This piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how a super PAC that supports Republican Herschel Walker’s US Senate bid handed out $25 vouchers for gas to voters.
  • A look by CNN’s Maeve Reston at how growing unease with crime and homelessness is boosting billionaire developer Rick Caruso in LA’s mayoral race.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is Kelly’s last newsletter and last day with CNN. She’s off to new television adventures in New York City and will be missed by us all.

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