TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The sheriff of Kansas’s most populous county says he took local elections for granted, until former President Donald Trump lost there in 2020.
It has now assigned detectives to investigate what it claims is voter fraud, even though there has been no evidence of any widespread fraud or tampering with voting machines in 2020. Calvin Hayden in Johnson County, which covers suburban Kansas City is not the only sheriff. in the US to try to carve out a bigger role for his office in election research.
promoters of baseless conspiracy theories that the last presidential election was stolen from Trump are pushing a dubious theory that county sheriffs can access voting machines and intervene in how elections are conducted, and also have virtually unchecked power in their counties .
Voting rights 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 lies about the 2020 elections.
“What we have seen over and over again is that those who support the ‘Big Lie’ find conduits to groups of people they believe can help perpetuate this conspiracy theory and erode confidence in and potentially cast doubt on the election. in the future,” said David. Levine, a former election official who is now a member of the Alliance to Secure Democracy, a nonpartisan institute with staff in Washington and Brussels whose mission is to combat efforts to undermine democratic institutions.
Law enforcement can certainly play an important role in elections by sharing intelligence, protecting election workers and equipment, and investigating potential election crimes. But that’s usually done after election administrators ask for help.
Hayden appeared at “FreedomFest” in Las Vegas earlier this month, organized by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, though his office said he is not a member of the group.
On stage with him were Sheriffs Dar Leaf from Barry County in southwest Michigan and Chris Schmaling from Racine County in Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee. Both say they are investigating allegations of voter fraud and accuse state officials of violating election laws.
“We’ve been educating ourselves about the election,” Hayden told the gathering. “I have sent my detectives, I have a cyber boy. I sent him to start evaluating what was going on with the machines.
Hayden, a Republican, did not elaborate and declined to be interviewed this week, citing what he said was his ongoing investigation. State and local election officials in Kansas said his office has not had access to voting machines, and other Johnson County officials said there is no indication of any problem with the 2020 election there.
The constitutional sheriffs group states on its website that a sheriff’s power in a county is greater than that of any other official and “even supersedes 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 bailiffs” movement has gained visibility in recent years as some bailiffs, including Hayden, resisted enforcing mask or vaccination requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Suddenly, it’s like the lights go on. It’s the sheriffs,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the election conspiracy group True the Vote, speaking as part of a panel at the recent sheriffs’ constitutional meeting in Las Vegas. “That’s who can do these investigations. That’s what we can trust.”
It’s unclear 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 this week to phone and email interview requests.
“It’s like a lot of these theories: There’s no basis for it legally,” said Stephen McAllister, the top federal prosecutor for Kansas 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 kinglets supreme within their counties, whether you believe it or not.”
Hayden said in a public statement that since the fall of 2021 he has received more than 200 complaints of fraud in local elections. He said his department has a legal obligation to investigate “any criminal complaint.”
But a memo from Peg Trent, Johnson County’s top legal counsel, suggested Hayden went further in a July 5 meeting with her and county election officials.
Trent said Hayden questioned the use of drop boxes at libraries, asking to limit the hours they would be available and offering to have his staff pick up ballots. She said her staff also asked to have a deputy in the room while the ballots are counted.
“As we discussed, my concern is that these requests give the appearance that the sheriff’s office is attempting to interfere with an election,” he wrote in the July 7 memo, sent to Hayden, the county commissioners and the county manager.
Hayden issued a statement that he “would not wholeheartedly agree” with his version 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 urns. Dozens of legal claims made by Trump and his allies after the election were rejected by the judgesincluding Trump appointees.
“With the exception of a small handful of individual voter fraud cases across the country, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that a crime was committed in 2020 with respect to the election,” said David Becker, a former US Justice Department prosecutor. and an electoral law expert who now directs the Center for Election Research and Innovation.
But the false claims have sown doubts. among many Republican votersmotivated death threats to election officials and led a crowd of new voting restrictions in states controlled by the Republican Party. Trump’s allies have sought access to voting equipment and converted the normally routine process of certify election results contentious.
“The danger of someone embracing a conspiracy theory is the loss of confidence in the election results,” said Chris Harvey, a former state director of elections in Georgia. “It’s an additional danger if it’s law enforcement. Their job is to enforce the laws and maintain order. If they are seen as not having confidence in what is going on, it will seep further into society.”
Harvey is part of a new group that brings together election officials and law enforcement. The Committee for Safe and Secure Elections is comprised of 32 current and former election and law enforcement officials, with the goal of building stronger relationships and providing training.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state’s top elections official, said Hayden has not contacted his office as part of his investigation. Schwab has repeatedly said that he is confident the state election went well in 2020.
“I think overwhelmingly people trust the electoral system,” he said.
Hayden said during the Las Vegas meeting that his concerns about voter fraud increased after Democrat Joe Biden won Johnson County in the 2020 presidential election because the county had consistently “voted Republican” for more than a century. . But that argument, made by campaigners, ignores that Democrats have won Johnson County multiple times in gubernatorial races during that time, including in Laura Kelly’s winning campaign in 2018.
Republicans maintain their traditional lead in voter registration there, 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, leader of the Kansas voting rights group Loud Light. “That happened in suburban counties across the country.”
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press reporter Ali Swenson in New York also contributed.
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