The Big Lie Messengers Who Carry a Badge and Gun
Arizona’s Mark Lamb and a network of far-right sheriffs around the country are partnering with leading purveyors of election fraud conspiracies, part of an escalating campaign to police the vote.
Jessica Pishko, | August 24, 2022
Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb walked out to standing applause at Donald Trump’s July 22 rally in Prescott, Arizona, wearing his usual cowboy hat-and-blue jeans getup and flashing a blindingly white smile. He waved and pumped a fist as he stepped to the podium, asking that everyone doff their hats and remain standing for a brief moment of silence in honor of a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed the previous month around Prescott, before quickly pivoting to the former president.
“I can see that you guys love the rule of law and law enforcement, and we appreciate that,” Lamb told the crowd. “Do you know who else loves the rule of law? Donald Trump,” he said without irony, urging them to support a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates for state office who echo the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The sheriff also touted his new effort to monitor elections with True the Vote, a far-right group peddling unfounded voter fraud conspiracies that have overtaken the Arizona GOP.
“We’re gonna make sure that we have election integrity this year,” Lamb declared. “Sheriffs are going to enforce the law. This is about the rule of law. It is against the law to violate elections laws—and that’s a novel idea, we’re going to hold you accountable for that. We will not let happen what happened in 2020.”
Big Lie messengers have looked to far-right sheriffs for a veneer of credibility as both Democratic and Republican election officials, prosecutors, judges and state attorneys general across the country reject every baseless lawsuit blaming Trump’s loss on voter fraud. True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht—who, as Reveal has reported, helped turn election conspiracies into a lucrative enterprise for conservative activists and lawyers—has said she turned to sheriffs for help after federal and state law enforcement dismissed her group’s claims.
True the Vote’s partnership with Lamb and a coalition of right-wing sheriffs he leads and helped found called Protect America Now—which includes sheriffs from states as politically diverse as California, New Mexico, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Florida—is part of a nationwide attempt to police elections by emboldening sheriffs to surveil ballot drop boxes and chase down tips from anonymous hotlines that will report alleged fraud.
Last month, Engelbrecht also announced that her group would partner with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a group of so-called constitutional sheriffs who believe that their office is uniquely endowed with the power to enforce only those laws they deem constitutional and who have promoted the Big Lie in rallies and training sessions. Sheriffs affiliated with the CSPOA have promised to monitor future elections and hunt down lingering claims of fraud from the 2020 presidential election.
These partnerships highlight the uniquely aggressive role of sheriffs in efforts to police the vote leading up to the 2022 and 2024 elections. Politicians with badges and guns, sheriffs have extensive powers to launch criminal investigations, seize evidence and even threaten violence or jail to force compliance, making them uniquely potent as compared to judges or prosecutors or legislators.
As they perpetuate conspiracies about fraud that have inspired increased threats against election administrators and volunteers, the True the Vote sheriffs are also in a unique position to widen their reach, using the environment they helped create as justification for more policing. The prospect of increased involvement of armed officers recalls the days of voter intimidation in the Jim Crow South (and beyond), and could also help encourage extremist vigilante violence by perpetuating baseless rumors of fraud, often against Black and Latinx communities.
Devin Burghart, who analyzes far-right social movements with the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, called True the Vote’s partnership with right-wing sheriffs “old-school voter intimidation.”
“The specter of law enforcement at the polls is already enough to discourage people from going to the polls,” Burghart told Bolts. “Moreover, the threat of surveillance of polling places and drop boxes proposed by groups like True the Vote is meant to intimidate voters, particularly people of color, and deter them from casting ballots.”
Since announcing his partnership with election deniers, Lamb has pushed for police surveillance of ballot drop boxes in Pinal County and vowed to investigate ballot “mules”—a reference to the Dinesh D’Souza movie “2000 Mules,” which uncritically documents True the Vote’s bungling and widely debunked efforts to prove massive fraud by arguing that unnamed nonprofit groups are abusing ballot drop boxes and in violation of state laws. As Lamb said at a recent True the Vote-sponsored meeting in Arizona, “We are gonna make sure people did not come in and put more ballots in the boxes than they should. I think that’s a simple thing the sheriff can oversee.”
As he continues to blur the line between right-wing celebrity and local lawman, Lamb’s hometown critics say he is antagonizing people who oppose his political affiliations. Those tensions started to boil over in the fallout from a series of errors with ballots in Pinal County during Arizona’s Aug. 2 primary elections—mistakes that appear to stem from high turnover and a staffing crunch in the local elections department, as Votebeat has reported.
Dozens of people from both political parties flocked to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors’ meeting held the day after this month’s primary to express their waning trust in local elections. Some also accused Lamb, who did not grant an interview or respond to questions for this story, of exacerbating the issue with baseless fear mongering over fraud, including Roberto Reveles, a long-time civil rights activist in the state.
Reveles said that Lamb is increasingly antagonistic against people who criticize his political affiliations on the far right or his baseless rhetoric about voter fraud. “I recently was subjected to the intimidation referred to by a previous speaker,” he told the county board during the same meeting. “Sheriff Mark Lamb walked up to me and pointed at me … and said, ‘You and your fellow Democrats are destroying our country.’”
The current wave of sheriffs announcing their involvement in policing elections started when Engelbrecht trumpeted True the Vote’s partnership with the CSPOA during a press conference and training event at a Las Vegas hotel on July 12, held to coincide with “FreedomFest,” a libertarian-style conference. CSPOA was founded in 2011 by Richard Mack, the ex-sheriff of a small Arizona county and a former board member of the Oath Keepers, a militia group with members charged with playing a central role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Mack has for years been steadfast in promoting the conspiracy theory of massive voter fraud.
Mack joined Engelbrecht during the press conference, and later participated in a “FreedomFest” panel with other sheriffs, which they titled “2000 Mules: ‘Law Enforcement Has to Step in at This Point!’—Will Sheriff’s [sic] Investigate?” Engelbrecht has called True the Vote’s budding relationship with right-wing sheriffs a divinely-inspired stroke of luck after federal and state law enforcement dismissed her group’s claims of widespread fraud.
“Once we had been burned by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state-level law enforcement, we realized we’ve got to take this more local,” Engelbrecht said during the CSPOA’s Las Vegas press conference. “As God would have it, at about the same time, both Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona and Sheriff Mack reached out … All of a sudden, it’s like the lights went on—it’s the sheriffs, that’s who can do these investigations, that’s who we can trust.”
Engelbrecht was flanked by at least two other sheriffs who have launched investigations into local election officials back home in attempts to bolster right-wing voter fraud conspiracies. One of the first sheriffs to target election workers following Trump’s 2020 loss, Dar Leaf of Barry County, Michigan, sent a private investigator to interrogate long-time election workers and urged other sheriffs in the state to seize voting machines; no charges were filed, and the local prosecutor later said “we do not have any police reports or requests for charges” of any crimes.
Also in attendance during the panel was Christopher Schmaling, sheriff of Racine County, Wisconsin, who investigated nursing home residents who voted in 2020 and accused state election commissioners of breaking the law; officials there also declined to bring any charges.
What sheriffs like Leaf and Schmaling plan to do with the assistance of True the Vote isn’t entirely clear. Engelbrecht and Lamb set up a website promoting a “National Election Integrity Voter Hotline” that promises to connect concerned citizens to sheriffs “for quick evaluation of incoming information”; as of this week, the hotline connects callers to a voice message saying that operators are overwhelmed and encouraging people to file complaints with True the Vote’s website. In a promotional video posted to the website, Lamb wears a tactical vest while sitting next to Englebrecht and says their partnership is aimed at “bringing citizens and sheriffs together around the country to help preserve our vote.”
Naturally, Engelbrecht also encourages people to hit the website’s big red “donate” button.
Many of the claims made by True the Vote sheriffs appear to be embellished and are causing friction with other local officials and their constituents.
A week before he appeared in Las Vegas, Sheriff Calvin Hayden of Johnson County, Kansas, met with local election officials to push for the elimination of ballot drop boxes. According to a memo from Johnson County’s chief legal counsel Peg Trent, which was obtained by public radio station KCUR, the sheriff also asked that deputies be permitted to monitor vote counting and to transport ballots in unmarked vehicles—despite state law delegating the running and counting of elections to citizens who are elected and appointed to a range of local offices and boards to oversee those processes, not law enforcement.
Trent wrote back to the sheriff, “my concern is that these requests give the appearance that the Sheriff’s office is attempting to interfere with an election and to direct a duly authorized election official as to how an election will be conducted.”
“During this meeting, you inquired of County staff about prior elections, challenged the integrity of elections in Johnson County, and requested that local law enforcement participate in the current election procedures,” Trent wrote. The ACLU of Kansas later responded to Hayden’s demands with a statement saying the sheriff “continues to engage in conduct that borders on intimidation of election officials, and his comments undermine confidence in Kansas elections.”
Hayden, who did not respond to a request for comment, has doubled down and said in a statement to local news that he “shares their (the ACLU and Trent’s) concerns about fair and transparent elections.” At the July CSPOA event, Hayden claimed the bipartisan pushback he’s faced at home is itself a sign of suspicion. “Both the president of the Republican Party and the Democrat Party have asked me to resign for looking at this, so I know I’m getting close,” he said. “They always say when you get close to the target, you start catching flack.”
Administrative problems that marred the Aug. 2 primary elections in Pinal County gave Lamb a golden opportunity to expand his rhetoric on voter fraud back home.
The elections department printed and sent ballots without all relevant contests to thousands of voters, some of whom cast those ballots without realizing the oversight. Those errors were compounded on election day, when more than a dozen polling places ran out of ballots because elections officials failed to print enough ballots. Later that week, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors fired their elections administrator—who had only been hired in March, and was the third person to hold the job in the past two years.
In a video Lamb posted to the sheriff’s office official Facebook page after the election, he assured citizens that he was on top of the problem, even though there was no hint of fraud. “As far as the sheriff’s office goes, we are committed to making sure that we look into this matter completely to make sure that it was nothing more than a terrible accident or mistake,” he said. “We want to make sure that that is where it stops.”
While problems in the Aug. 2 primaries stemmed from the failure to print correct and a sufficient number of ballots, Lamb’s focus drifted elsewhere.
“We will also be offering our services to help look at the voter rolls,” Lamb continued, repeating various True the Vote sound bites. “We’re committed to making sure that we will secure those ballot boxes. We will be watching videos to make sure that nobody’s breaking the laws. We’re going to do everything we can from the sheriff’s office to help regain your trust.” Lamb’s language was more forceful in a later appearance in front of a crowd of election deniers, claiming, “I got with our county recorder and I said, ‘We want access to the videos of all the boxes, we want to ensure that there is video in all the boxes, and we will monitor those videos.’”
Much of that appears to be bluster, at least for now. A representative for Virginia Ross, whom the board of supervisors recently appointed to be Pinal County’s new elections director, told Bolts in an email that the office has had no discussions with Lamb about monitoring voter rolls or ballot drop boxes. Officials have also asked the former elections director of another Arizona county to conduct an independent review of the ballot mishaps.
In public, at least, officials have given somewhat mixed messages about how much they want Lamb’s help policing elections. At one board of supervisors meeting this month, County Attorney Kent Volkmer cautioned against using the sheriff’s office to look into the problems during the recent primary, saying, “We really don’t want law enforcement doing [the administrative review]. It’s not that they are not skilled. It’s not that they are not talented. But when a uniformed cop sits down and asks you questions, people tend to get very, very nervous, and they tend to not want to answer any questions.” At another meeting later that month, Volkmer struck a different tone after mentioning his office had been flooded with unspecified complaints of election crimes, saying, “I also have a sheriff, who I believe is here, who sits ready, willing, and able to investigate any of these illegal actions.”
Lamb’s critics in Pinal County worry that the ballot mishaps in the recent primary have emboldened the sheriff and his rhetoric about voter fraud. Ralph Atchue, president of the Democrats of Casa Grande and a one-time candidate for Arizona Senate, told Bolts that some residents fear that they could soon see Lamb and his deputies patrolling polling places. “I hear from everybody that the line is being crossed,” Atchue said. “Completely blurred.”
It doesn’t seem to be an empty concern given Lamb’s comments since announcing his partnership with True the Vote. Lamb has insisted he’s only involved in “criminal matters” related to elections, of which there were none during the Aug. 2 primary—save for a single person arrested on election day for harassing election workers over the lack of ballots. Lamb has cited the arrest to argue for more policing of the midterm election.
“We will probably have more deputies roaming around,” Lamb said at the last board of supervisors meeting. “We want to have a minimal presence… but at the same time we will have a little stronger presence roaming around.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Lamb sounded more combative talking about the issue in an interview with Newsmax earlier that week. “Last week in the board meeting I had probably 8 to 10 Democrats show up and absolutely blast me because I believe in the ‘Big Lie,’” Lamb sneered, flanked by two American flags and, this time, wearing a flak vest.
“It clearly shows that these folks don’t care about election integrity,” Lamb said before diving into a divisive rant on presidential politics. “They’re happy that their guy is in power, and right now they should care more than ever because this guy in office, Joe Biden and his administration, is absolutely destroying America and freedom and they’re turning this into a country that we just don’t recognize.”
“And so I would think that they would want election integrity,” the sheriff said, circling back to the issue. “It shouldn’t matter about your party, but unfortunately it does matter to them and they have taken exception with me on it, but you know that’s not going to stop me from continuing to push for election integrity.”