The Growing Threat of Republican Election Vigilantes

Red background with blue-toned image of an eagle perched on a street lamp, which is casting a light that reveals 0s and 1s, like in a data file.

I recently wrote that the Republican strategy for the 2024 election is to make it harder to vote and easier to cheat. At the intersection of Republican voter suppression and election subversion is the latest threat to free and fair elections — election vigilantism and voter challenges.

Tucked into Georgia’s massive anti-voting law was a provision to make it easier for partisan vigilantes to engage in mass voter challenges. As I wrote when the law passed in 2021, the portion allowing mass voter challenges was the worst provision of a very bad law. Last year, nearly 100,000 Georgia voters had their registrations, and thereby their right to vote, challenged by election vigilantes.

For many years, voting rights advocates worried about state-sponsored efforts to remove large numbers of citizens from the voter rolls. These purges often relied on outdated information or untrustworthy tactics that disenfranchised voters. However, states have been limited by federal law in how and when the state could remove voters and conduct a mass voter removal.

Now, some conservatives are trying to skirt those federal laws by outsourcing voter purges to third-party groups. By encouraging private individuals to challenge the voter registrations of people they have never met and do not know, GOP activists seek to evade the protections of federal law — creating an even greater risk of devastating consequences for voters.

When Georgia enacted its new voter suppression law, I feared that it would spawn a new industry of election vigilantes that would use these new tactics to undermine the right to vote. I wrote at the time:

By using faulty data and discredited tactics, the GOP can intimidate and inconvenience voters that it wants to exclude from the electorate. It is not hard to see that in the future, the party of Trump will create lists of Black, Brown and young voters and then find local operatives to submit them as mass challenges to voter eligibility. 

Recent events have reignited my concern. 

Conservative activists are using new emerging technologies to develop powerful tools for voter suppression and election subversion. Left unchecked, we risk a new level of election vigilantism taking hold. Election officials will be deluged by voter challenges as voters navigate a maze of disinformation about how to ensure they can vote and have their vote counted.

One new company, Eagle AI, claims to have developed a product that uses public data sets to flag voter registrations it deems potentially fraudulent. As expected, one of the Republican attorneys leading the anti-voting movement, Cleta Mitchell, has enthusiastically endorsed it, while wealthy conservatives have reportedly provided at least some of its funding.

In the hands of right-wing election vigilantes, products like Eagle AI could make the process of submitting mass voter challenges easier and defeating them more cumbersome and time consuming. One promotional document calls the product “excel on steroids.” The result for our democracy could be devastating as election officials become overburdened and voters are intimidated and disenfranchised.

States need to act urgently to enact clear laws that forbid private voter challenges.

Another project, the Voter Reference Foundation (VoteRef), has been hard at work since 2021 collecting, compiling and making public state voter files, which contain a list of a state’s registered voters, their vote history and identifying information. Since state voter files often include full names, addresses, dates of birth and other personal information, they can easily be misused to harass and intimidate voters as well as file mass challenges of voters.

VoteRef, which is also endorsed by conservative operatives, has been particularly aggressive in accessing and posting state voter databases. Last year, it took down information from Pennsylvania after the state complained that its publication on the VoteRef site violated the law. In New Mexico, VoteRef sued the state after officials refused to provide the full voter file to the group. The group, which is reportedly funded by conservative billionaires, has been aggressively litigating the case against New Mexico where trial was held earlier this week.

The rise of election vigilantism is not new. Last year, armed vigilantes with video cameras staked out drop boxes in Arizona. There were voter challenges in Georgia and elsewhere. Last month, the New York State Board of Elections issued a warning that individuals were impersonating county board of elections staff “in an effort to intimidate voters based on inaccurate and misleading information.”

What will be different next year is the presidential election and the resources it will bring. Conservative donors and activists are building the tools, organizations and plans to disrupt the right to vote with the same fervor that Trump and his allies tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6.

If those who believe in free and fair elections want to stop them, they must act now. 

States need to act urgently to enact clear laws that forbid private voter challenges. There is  no reason for any citizen to have their right to vote challenged or taken away based on a spreadsheet submitted by someone they don’t know and have never met. States should similarly prohibit in person challenges at the polls and ensure partisan observers do not disrupt the voting process.

States must also review the open record laws that govern who can obtain state voter file records and what uses can be made of the information. There are good and legitimate reasons for political parties to be granted access to these records in order to contact, educate and persuade voters. But there is no reason why private entities such as VoteRef or EagleAI should be granted the same access.

Finally, state and federal prosecutors need to investigate and prosecute schemes to disenfranchise voters. While private plaintiffs currently carry much of the burden for civil litigation protecting voting rights, only government prosecutors can use the criminal laws to ensure free and fair elections.

The 2024 election is a little more than a year away. Protecting voting rights is always important. Right now it is urgent.