Cleta Mitchell Couldn’t Overturn the 2020 Election, So Now She’s Suppressing Voters

Cleta Mitchell on a red background surrounded by a drop box, excerpts from news reports about states leaving ERIC, the logo of PILF and an email she sent about restricting mail-in voting.

On June 1, North Carolina Republicans — bolstered by a new legislative supermajority — introduced a new elections bill that would enact sweeping changes to election policy in the Old North State. Reporting from WRAL News revealed that the North Carolina GOP didn’t come up with these policy ideas all on its own. They were aided by Cleta Mitchell, a Republican election lawyer who’s become increasingly prominent in right-wing circles.

State legislators getting outside help isn’t unusual, but Mitchell isn’t just any Republican election lawyer. A long-time advocate of false election claims, Mitchell aided former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and has become a key player among election-denying activists.

Mitchell’s history of boosting fraud claims culminated in her work on behalf of the Trump campaign.

Mitchell spent most of her career as a Republican lawyer, serving as counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and multiple Republican lawmakers and candidates. She’s also been promoting baseless claims about fraud in American elections for almost as long. 

Her interest in supposed election fraud dates back to the 2000 election, which she claims showed her the need to focus more intently on election rules. Since then, she’s been involved in a network of Republican activists pushing voter fraud allegations into the mainstream. Through the right-wing Public Interest Legal Fund (PILF) — of which she serves as chair — she has helped bring numerous lawsuits to try to force states to purge voters from the rolls.

In the lead up to the 2020 election, she raised unfounded concerns about mail-in voting, writing for Fox News that “absentee-ballot voting is vulnerable to intimidation, fraud and chaos.” Even before the pandemic led to widespread voting changes, she was working with state legislators on strategies to “question the validity of an election” in case Trump didn’t win the popular vote.

But Mitchell took on an even more prominent role in Trump’s efforts to directly challenge the 2020 election results, putting together a case that claimed the election was marred by fraud. She enlisted John Eastman to join the legal effort, who later went on to write legally suspect memos claiming that then-Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to unilaterally discard electoral votes from disputed states. Most infamously, she participated in Trump’s call asking Georgia officials to “find” only “11,000 votes.” Trump even called her out by name on the call: “All we have to do, Cleta, is find 11,000-plus votes.”

Following the call, her law firm released a statement expressing concerns about her involvement, suggesting she broke company policy by advising Trump. In response, Mitchell resigned. Unfortunately, that just meant she had more time to devote to voter suppression and election subversion.

Since 2020, Mitchell has doubled down efforts to restrict voting.

Since leaving her law firm, Mitchell has committed to helping Republican legislators pass restrictive laws and spreading false election claims. She raised funds for Arizona’s sham audit of the 2020 presidential election and played an instrumental role in Republican efforts to tighten voting laws and oppose federal voting protections in 2021. 

Earlier this year, she delivered a presentation to the Republican National Committee (RNC) about how to suppress college student votes, criticizing pre-registration policies, same-day registration and the placement of polling locations on college campuses. She argued that changes to the rules were essential for a Republican to win the presidency in 2024, revealing the partisan goals motivating her work.

Through the Election Integrity Network, a coalition of right-wing activists and grassroots pressure groups she founded in 2021, she’s also been working to recruit election-denying activists to monitor elections and scour voter rolls for inaccurate registrations. In conjunction with the RNC (which is now free to conduct poll watching activities after the expiration of a 30-year long ban), she spent much of 2022 preparing for the midterms and training volunteers for poll watching and related activities. Election officials expressed concern that her methods bordered on surveillance designed to feed distrust and pressure local officials.

Mitchell has also led efforts to pressure Republican-led states into leaving the Election Registration Information Center (ERIC), a tool used by states to ensure accurate voter rolls. She met with Republican secretaries of state and used her pressure groups to convince them to abandon the program. 

Even though ERIC is designed to tackle voter fraud — the very problem that Republicans like Mitchell claim to care about the most — GOP states have been abandoning the voter roll system en masse, with eight states leaving since Jan 2022. Instead, Mitchell is setting up vigilante grassroots groups that, as Georgetown professor Don Moynihan observes, will “do what ERIC has done…but in a way that is more onerous and will predictably lead to voter and election officials harassment and error.”

Meanwhile, her preexisting legal group PILF has expanded its purview to filing lawsuits tackling other matters. With Mitchell as chair, PILF has filed a lawsuit against New York City’s law that allows noncitizens to vote in local elections, challenged Delaware’s attempt to expand mail-in voting to all voters and filed “friend of the court” amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court in both of this year’s major voting rights cases. No longer focusing solely on voter purges, PILF is dipping its toes into proactive lawsuits designed to change voting laws, too.

Mitchell betrays the North Carolina GOP’s real motives.

Upon unveiling their new election bill, North Carolina Republicans made predictable statements that the bill was about “restor[ing] some confidence…in the voting process.” But Mitchell’s involvement underscores the real motive behind the push for restrictive voting laws. It’s all about making it harder to vote to ensure that, in Mitchell’s own words, a Republican wins in 2024. 

Since 2020, Mitchell has become one of the lodestars on the election-denying right. As both a lawyer with ties to the Republican establishment and the leader of grassroots activists, she’s uniquely positioned to push for restrictive voting changes and keep election conspiracy theories in the forefront of Republican policymaking — in North Carolina and beyond.