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Conspiracy-promoting sheriffs claim broad electoral authority

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

Now he has tasked detectives to investigate what he claims is voter fraud, even though there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in 2020. Calvin Hayden in Johnson County, which covers the suburbs of Kansas City, isn’t the only sheriff in the United States to try to give their office a bigger role in election investigations.

Proponents of baseless conspiracy theories that the last presidential election was stolen from Trump advance a dubious theory that county sheriffs can access voting machines and interfere in the conduct of elections – and also have virtually unchecked power in their counties.

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

“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 faith in elections. and potentially cast doubt on their future,” David said. Levine, a former election official who is now a member of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan institute with staff in Washington and Brussels whose mission is to counter efforts to undermine democratic institutions.

Certainly, law enforcement can play an important role in elections by sharing intelligence, protecting election personnel and equipment, and investigating potential election crimes. But this is usually done after election administrators request help.

Hayden appeared at “FreedomFest” in Las Vegas earlier this month, hosted by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, although his office said he was not a member of the group.

On stage with him were Sheriffs Dar Leaf of Barry County in southwestern 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 the election,” Hayden told the rally. “I sent my detectives, I have a cyber-man. I sent him to start evaluating what’s going on with the machines.

Hayden, a Republican, did not give details and declined to be interviewed this week, citing what he said was his ongoing investigation. Kansas state and local election officials said his office had no access to voting machines, and other Johnson County officials said there were no indications of problems with the election. of 2020 there.

The Constitutional Sheriffs Group states on their website that a sheriff’s power in a county is greater than that of any other official and “overrides even the powers of the president.” Leaf filed a lawsuit in June against Michigan’s attorney general and secretary of state, accusing them of trying to stifle his investigation. He said a sheriff “has no superiors in his county.”

The “constitutional sheriff” movement has gained prominence in recent years as some sheriffs – including Hayden – have resisted enforcing mask or vaccination requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of a sudden, it’s like the lights went on. It’s the sheriffs,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the election conspiracy group True the Vote, speaking on a panel at the recent Constitutional Sheriff’s Rally in Las Vegas. “It is who can do these investigations. It’s who we can trust.

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

“It’s like a lot of these theories – it has no legal basis,” said Stephen McAllister, Kansas’s top federal prosecutor for most of the Trump administration. “They are subject to state law. They are certainly subject to federal law. They are not some sort of petty supreme kings within their shires, whether they think so or not.

Hayden said in a public statement that since the fall of 2021, he has received more than 200 tips alleging local election fraud. He said his department had a legal duty to investigate “any criminal complaint”.

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

Trent said Hayden questioned the use of ballot boxes in libraries, called for limiting the hours they would be available and offered to have his staff collect ballots. She said her staff also requested to have an assistant in the room while the ballots were counted.

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

Hayden released a statement that he would “totally disagree” with her account of the reunion.

There is no evidence to support Trump’s claims of a stolen 2020 election or to suggest widespread fraud or tampering with voting machines or ballot boxes. Dozens of legal claims made by Trump and his allies after the election have been dismissed by judges, including those appointed by Trump.

“With the exception of a tiny handful of individual cases of voter fraud across the country, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that any crime has been committed in 2020 with respect to elections,” said David Becker, former attorney for the US Department of Justice. and electoral law expert who now directs the Center for Electoral Innovation and Research.

But false claims have sown doubt among many Republican voters, sparked death threats against election officials and led to a slew of new voting restrictions in GOP-controlled states. Trump allies sought access to voting materials and made the normally routine process of certifying election results controversial.

“The danger for anyone who adopts a conspiracy theory is the loss of faith in the election results,” said Chris Harvey, the former state election chief in Georgia. “It’s an additional danger if it comes to law enforcement. Their job is to enforce laws and maintain order. If they’re seen as not trusting what’s going on, it’s just going to impact society more.

Harvey is part of a new group of election officials and law enforcement. The Committee for Safe and Secure Elections 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 did not contact his office as part of his investigation. Schwab has repeatedly said he is confident the national elections would have gone well in 2020.

“I think the majority of people trust the electoral system,” he said.

Hayden said at the Las Vegas rally that his concerns about voter fraud were piqued after Democrat Joe Biden carried Johnson County in the 2020 presidential election because the county had always “voted Republican” for more of a century. But that argument — advanced by campaign conspiracy promoters — ignores that Democrats carried Johnson County repeatedly in gubernatorial races during this time, including in Laura Kelly’s winning campaign in 2018.

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

“Johnson County is going for Biden — well, that’s not an anomaly,” said Davis Hammet, head of Kansas suffrage group Loud Light. “It’s happened in suburban counties all over the country.”


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


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