WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Oct. 5, a right-wing organization called Look Ahead America announced plans for a pre-election audit of voting lists in nine states that feature some of the most competitive elections this year. Founded by Matt Braynard, a high-level staffer from former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, the conservative group plans to identify voters who it deems ineligible to vote and forward that information to each state’s election officials for removal. Additionally, and most concerning, the group plans to share the information with “local activist groups” to challenge voters themselves. That means encouraging a vigilante group of citizens to contest the voter eligibility of their neighbors.
Established in 2017, the organization initially focused on engaging with rural and blue-collar Americans; however, after the 2020 election, Braynard created the Voter Integrity Project “to investigate illegal ballots cast in 2020.” The group’s most recent priorities include advocating on behalf of individuals charged with crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol — who Look Ahead America calls “political prisoners.” Since the 2020 election, the organization has ramped up its focus on voting and elections, outlining state policy objectives, such as thumbprint authentication of absentee ballots, dedicated voter fraud investigative divisions within the states’ attorney general’s offices and open-source election software for public review.
The group’s latest announcement raises the most alarm, as advocates have long stressed the danger of partisan and discriminatory voter challenge efforts. Look Ahead America plans to conduct its pre-election voter list audit in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. “If we apply this rigorous hygiene before the election, we will help prevent illegal ballots from being cast,” the announcement says.
Look Ahead America didn’t outline how it plans to identify ineligible voters, but lists several data sources in its policy objective document when suggesting how states should purge their voter files. Most of these databases are not available to the public. The document also lists the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address (NCOA) database where individuals file requests to forward their mail to a different address. Using the NCOA alone, it’s impossible to know whether someone has moved out-of-state permanently or has asked their mail to be forwarded for a myriad of other reasons. The NCOA can improperly capture students at an out-of-state university, members of the military, civilians deployed abroad or those who have simply moved elsewhere, but not necessarily out of the county or state. Using the NCOA for data challenges, like its precursor voter caging, is just an inaccurate, gross misuse of information.
The group also released a step-by-step guide for private citizens to challenge the votes of others and is actively recruiting volunteers to conduct these challenges. Many Americans are unaware of challenge statutes, but almost every state has a law on the books outlining the opportunities to challenge a voter’s right to vote. That authority is sometimes limited to elections officials or poll watchers but in almost 30 states, any private citizen can challenge the eligibility of other prospective voters up to, and on, Election Day.
Enacted before the Civil War, the first challenger laws aimed to prevent in-person voter fraud (today, a nearly nonexistent phenomenon despite insistence from groups like Look Ahead America) before modern election administration reforms. These laws served a purpose within smaller social networks and at a time when voter eligibility was based on physical characteristics (Black men before the 15th Amendment or women before the 19th Amendment).
The state-by-state guide compiled by Look Ahead America includes the statutory requirements in all nine states, and lists out a summary of who, where, when, why and how these challenges can be conducted. All nine states, except Ohio, fall into the category of states that permit any registered voter to challenge the eligibility of any other voter before ballots are cast. Notably, Ohio changed its law to only permit election officials to raise challenges after a national controversy nearly 20 years ago. Ahead of the 2004 election, the Republican Party announced its plan to place 3,500 individuals within polling places in Ohio to challenge the eligibility of voters in Democratic strongholds. The parallels to Look Ahead America’s 2022 strategy are clear: The 3,500-person force was one element in a nationwide plan to challenge tens of thousands of voters — disproportionately voters of color from urban counties — in Ohio and other swing states. The Ohio effort was contested in court and ultimately abandoned after nationwide backlash.
Braynard shared some preliminary numbers on Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” saying that his group has identified over 55,000 ineligible voters they plan to challenge in Arizona, along with 125,000 in Georgia and 142,000 in Pennsylvania. “Many of [the secretaries of state] probably aren’t going to [remove them]. But we are counting on our activists,” Braynard explained.
Look Ahead America’s announcement is part of a growing trend of Republicans initiating mass challenges. In the few weeks between the 2020 general election and the January 2021 Georgia runoffs for U.S. Senate, a Texas-based organization challenged the eligibility of over 364,000 Georgians, spurring a still-ongoing voter intimidation lawsuit. At the end of August 2022, a group backed by Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn challenged the registrations of 37,500 voters in Gwinnett County, Georgia, an area that has trended Democratic in recent years. In Forsyth County, Georgia, a single individual challenged the over 13,000 registrations, around 8% of that county’s total registered voters. Challenges have also surged this year in Florida, Iowa, Michigan and Texas.
Even when counties reject frivolous challenges, the effort threatens to overwhelm elections offices during an already busy time. Look Ahead America’s plan represents a well-funded, coordinated effort to encourage vigilantism among citizens who have bought into the GOP’s lies about voter fraud and stolen elections. If not stopped, these disruptive, and often discriminatory, challenges will likely endanger the rights of eligible voters in the affected states.