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Conspiracy-promoting sheriffs claim massive electoral authority

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The sheriff in Kansas’ most populous county says he took it for granted that local elections were running smoothly — until former President Donald Trump lost there in 2020.

Now he has appointed detectives to investigate what he believes to be election fraud, although there is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in 2020. Calvin Hayden in Johnson County, which occupies the suburbs of Kansas City, is not the only sheriff in the state. US to try to play a bigger role for their agency in investigating elections.

Proponents of baseless conspiracy theories The fact that Trump’s last presidential election was stolen pushes forward a dubious theory that county sheriffs have access to voting machines and can intervene in the way elections are held — as well as have virtually unchecked power in their counties.

Voting advocates and election experts said any attempts by law enforcement to interfere in elections would be alarming and an extension of the threat posed by the continued spread of Trump’s lies. about the 2020 elections.

“What we’ve seen time and time again is that those who support the ‘Big Lie’ are finding channels to groups of people who they believe can help perpetuate this conspiracy theory and erode confidence in elections and potentially help them in the future.” doubt,” said David. Levine, a former election official who is now a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an impartial institution staffed in Washington and Brussels whose mission is to fight attempts to undermine democratic institutions.

Certainly, law enforcement can play an important role in elections by sharing information, protecting election personnel and equipment, and investigating possible electoral crimes. But that’s usually done after election administrators ask for help.

Hayden made an appearance at the “FreedomFest” in Las Vegas held by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association earlier this month, although his office said he is not a member of the group.

On the podium were Sheriffs Dar Leaf of Barry County in southwest Michigan and Chris Schmaling of Racine County in Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee. Both say they are investigating allegations of voter fraud and both accuse state officials of violating election laws.

“We educated ourselves about elections,” Hayden told the meeting. ‘I forwarded my detectives – I have a cyberman. I forwarded him to evaluate what is going on with the machines.”

Hayden, a Republican, went no further and declined to be interviewed this week, citing his ongoing investigation. State and local election officials in Kansas said his office has been denied access to voting machines, and other Johnson County officials said there is no indication of problems with the 2020 election there.

The Constitutional Sheriff’s Group states on its website that a sheriff’s power in a county exceeds that of any other official and “exceeds even the powers of the president.” Leaf filed a lawsuit in June against Michigan’s Attorney General and Secretary of State, accusing them of suppressing his investigation. He said a sheriff “has no superiors in his county.”

The ‘constitutional sheriffs’ movement has become more visible in recent years as some sheriffs – including Hayden – resisted enforcement of mask or vaccination requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Suddenly it’s like the lights went on. It’s the sheriffs,” Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the election conspiracy group True the Vote, said as part of a panel at the recent meeting of constitutional sheriffs in Las Vegas. “That’s who can do these investigations. That’s who we can trust.”

It’s not clear how many sheriffs are part of the movement, though the national group’s founder, Richard Mack, said last year that about 300 of the country’s 3,000 sheriffs were members, according to The Washington Post. Mack did not respond to phone and email requests for an interview this week.

“It’s like a lot of these theories — it doesn’t have any legal basis whatsoever,” said Stephen McAllister, the top federal prosecutor for Kansas during most of the Trump administration. “They are subject to state law. They are certainly subject to federal law. They are not some sort of supreme petty kings in their counties, whether they think so or not.”

Hayden said in a public statement that he has received more than 200 tips about alleged fraud in local elections since the fall of 2021. He said his department is required by law to investigate “any criminal claim”.

But a memo from Peg Trent, Johnson County’s chief legal counsel, suggested Hayden went further in a July 5 meeting with her and county election officials.

Trent said Hayden questioned the use of ballot boxes in libraries, called for limits on the hours they would be available, and offered to let his staff collect the ballots. She said his staff also asked to have a deputy in the room while the votes are being counted.

“As we’ve discussed, my concern is that these requests create the appearance that the sheriff’s office is trying to disrupt an election,” she wrote in the July 7 memo sent to Hayden, the district commissioners and the district manager.

Hayden issued a statement that he would “strongly disagree” with her account of the meeting.

There is no evidence to support Trump’s claims of a stolen election in 2020 or to suggest widespread fraud or tamper with voting machines or ballot boxes. Dozens of legal claims from Trump and his allies after the election were rejected by judgesincluding those appointed by Trump.

“With the exception of a small handful of individual voter fraud cases across the country, there is absolutely no reason to suspect a crime related to the election in 2020,” said David Becker, a former US State Department attorney. of Justice. and suffrage expert who now directs the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

But false claims have cast doubt on many Republican votersled to death threats to election officials and led to numerous new voting restrictions in GOP-controlled states. Trump’s allies have sought access to voting equipment and changed the normally routine process of certifying election results controversial.

“The danger of anyone embracing a conspiracy theory is losing faith in the election results,” said Chris Harvey, the former director of Georgia’s state elections. “It’s an added danger when it comes to law enforcement. Their job is to enforce laws and maintain order. If they are seen as someone who has no faith in what is happening, it only trickles down into society.”

Harvey is part of a new group that brings together election officials and law enforcement. The Secure Elections Committee is made up of 32 current and former election and law enforcement officials, with the aim of building stronger relationships and providing training.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state’s top election official, said Hayden has not contacted his office as part of his investigation. Schwab has repeatedly said he is confident the 2020 state election went well.

“I think overwhelming people trust the election system,” he said.

Hayden said at the Las Vegas rally that his concerns about voter fraud were raised after Democrat Joe Biden carried Johnson County in the 2020 presidential election, as the county had consistently voted “Republican” for more than a century. But that argument — made by election conspiracy promoters — ignores the fact that Johnson County Democrats carried Johnson County multiple times in governor’s races during that time, including in Laura Kelly’s 2018 winning campaign.

Republicans there maintain their traditional voter registration lead, but Johnson County is more Democratic than it was 30 years ago.

“Johnson County goes for Biden — well, that’s not an anomaly,” said Davis Hammet, leader of the Kansas voting rights group Loud Light. “That happened in suburban counties across the country.”

____

Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York also contributed.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna


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