LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A shortage of poll workers has concerned local election officials in some parts of the country as the midterm elections approach. Not so in Michigan.
Conservative groups and local Republican Party operatives who have pushed false claims about the 2020 presidential election have recruited poll workers here by the thousands. Similar recruitment efforts on the right have bolstered the ranks of poll workers in some other states with nationally watched races.
Seeding the ranks of front-line election workers with people recruited by groups promoting election conspiracies has raised alarms among some that the people at the foundation of the election system could try to undermine it.
“It concerns me when the motivation to serve as a poll worker is fueled through misinformation and people who have been fed lies, in some cases, for years now,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. “Since the spring, clerks have come at us with concerning questions they’re getting and in some cases, hundreds of poll worker applications that seem to be motivated by nefarious intent.”
In Oakland County, the state’s second-most populous, Republicans “discouraged about the outcome of the 2020 election” have been urged to sign up as poll workers through a new Republican National Committee recruitment program.
“If you’re angry, fed up and fearful of a repeat of the horror show of November 2020, then this is one way you can help,” the Oakland County GOP website reads.
In Florida, three men who are part of the Miami-Dade GOP executive committee and also are reported to have ties to the far-right Proud Boys extremist group applied for and qualified to serve as poll workers in Miami. Election officials said they decided not to assign a precinct to one of them after learning he had been charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Former President Donald Trump’s refusal to admit his loss in the 2020 presidential race and his repeated lies about widespread fraud have permeated the Republican Party and persuaded almost six in 10 GOP voters that the election was somehow stolen from him. There is no evidence of widespread fraud, and Trump’s claims have been rejected by dozens of judges and debunked by top officials in his own administration.
The falsehoods have led some GOP officials to push efforts aimed at ensuring what they insist is “election integrity.” Among those efforts are the steps taken across the country to recruit and train people to work at polling places and serve as poll watchers who monitor for problems.
The RNC said it has made a multimillion-dollar investment for this year’s election cycle that includes 17 state “election integrity directors” and 37 in-state “election integrity counsels.” The group says it has recruited over 11,000 poll workers in Michigan. In neighboring Wisconsin, the recruitment effort has brought in an additional 5,000.
In Milwaukee, that effort has led to five times as many partisans becoming election workers as in previous years. The head of the Milwaukee Election Commission, Claire Woodall-Vogg, said she is confident the system of checks-and-balances will catch anyone who might try to interfere with voting, noting that a second election inspector must sign off on each task.
“Anyone who might have bad intentions, we would immediately, I think, be able to identify,” she said.
The fraud claims about 2020 are especially deep-seated in Michigan, where the GOP candidates for governor, secretary of state and attorney general have repeated them.
Election inspector manuals created by Michigan for America First, an affiliate of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn’s group The America Project, encourage supporters to work at polls because “election cheating and fraud is not possible without collusion from poll workers.”
Poll workers, known as election inspectors in Michigan, are hired, trained and paid by local governments to assist in running elections. They are required to disclose party affiliation and are expected to be impartial in their duties as government employees, but do not have to live in the county where they will work the polls.
In Flint, the Michigan GOP and RNC are suing election officials to force them to hire more Republican election inspectors. Michigan law compels clerks to strive for equal party representation, but local officials say worker shortages often make that goal impossible to reach.
Several issues with poll workers in Michigan already have surfaced this year.
Before the state’s August primary, a Republican candidate for governor instructed poll workers to unplug voting equipment as a way to root out potential fraud.
In Macomb County, just north of Detroit, Clerk Anthony Forlini has faced backlash for his decision to hire activist Genevieve Peters to help recruit poll workers. Peters was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and is seen on video encouraging the crowd to “storm the gates.”
Forlini said getting election deniers involved in the process helps them “believe in the systems we’ve put in place.”
A township clerk south of Grand Rapids had a similar intention when he invited James Holkeboer to participate in the primary. The clerk, Michael Brew, was quoted in police records as saying that Holkeboer “is a person that doesn’t have a lot of confidence in the election process.”
Holkeboer is now charged with falsifying election records and using a computer to commit a crime. He faces up to five years in prison after inserting a USB drive into an electronic poll book the night of the primary. He told investigators he wanted his own copy to make sure the voter roll matched one that had been obtained through records requests.
“It was extremely alarming and incredibly egregious,” said Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican.
The Michigan Democratic Party is not recruiting election inspectors but is instead ensuring it has “eyes and ears on the ground” through poll watchers to ensure there is no voter intimidation or interference from within, said Erica Peresman, the party’s voter protection director.
She said that while the party has recruited for these positions in the past, the effort was boosted due to “what we have been reading about with regard to the Republican Party’s efforts and its allies’ efforts this year.”
Peresman said Democrats are prioritizing polling locations such as Detroit where the party is especially concerned about partisan behavior.
GOP leaders targeted Detroit following the 2020 presidential election, claiming fraud was possible there because just 170 of the 5,486 election officials were Republicans.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said Republicans sent her a list of 800 names to be poll workers earlier this year, a significant increase over previous election years. She said she welcomed the extra help and invited them to complete the necessary training — though only 200 did.
“I think they just found for themselves that it wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought it was going to be to disrupt the process,” Winfrey said.
Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger and Claire Savage in Milwaukee, and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.