With the “Big Lie,” Sheriffs Are Criminalizing Our Elections

Red background with text from the U.S. Constitution faded into the background, red-toned sheriff badges lined diagonally across the graphic and a blue-toned eagle with its wings spread wide

On July 12, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) held a special conference in Las Vegas — timed to coincide with the alt-right libertarian conference, FreedomFest — during which CSPOA founder and ex-sheriff Richard Mack announced a partnership with the far-right, fear mongering organization called True the Vote. Most notably, True the Vote is the group responsible for the completely false allegations of voter fraud in Dinesh D’Souza’s film, 2000 Mules.

Despite multiple debunkings of the film, Mack asserted, incorrectly, “2000 Mules has presented overwhelming evidence…it cannot be dismissed and yet it is daily.” He then explained that sheriffs “who do not need permission from anyone” were in the perfect position to investigate elections.

Mack’s group, the CSPOA, is part of the “constitutional sheriff” movement, which has its roots in the explicitly white supremacist Posse Comitatus movement first promoted by card-carrying white supremacist William Potter Gale in the early 1970s. Gale argued that county sheriffs were the only law enforcement authority that could prevent federal government overreach at a time when the federal government was forced to send in troops to desegregate schools and enforce fair elections. From Posse Comitatus came the sovereign citizen movement, the Aryan Nations and the militia movement, which inspired Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

One of the sheriffs present at the conference, Sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County, Michigan has been steadfast in promoting the “Big Lie,” even though none of his investigations have produced any evidence of election irregularity. Even in this pro-Trump county, officials are questioning Leaf’s judgement and use of resources; he is now the subject of an investigation by the state attorney’s office as part of a plot with other far-right figures to tamper with election machines.

At the conference, Leaf justified his actions by saying that sheriffs, as “the chief conservator[s] of the peace,” were entitled to prosecute election tampering. The same argument was used by a group of militia men after their alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). As sheriff, he feels he can be judge, jury and executioner despite no legal authority to do so. The bipartisan pushback has made him only more committed to the cause: “I’m a man on a mission now,” he declared.

It might be easy to dismiss a sheriff like Leaf, who has no sway in national politics. But that would be a mistake. Not only are there an increasing number of state and local officials running and winning political office who promote the “Big Lie” and other outright conspiracy theories, but county sheriffs — especially those affiliated with the so-called “constitutional sheriff” movement — are able to marshal military-style equipment, volunteers, militia members and armed officers to intimidate voters. 

We have an obligation to ensure that sheriffs, drunk on their firepower and ability to summon unchecked violence in the name of the law, do not bully residents away from the polls.

Even though sheriffs and law enforcement are prohibited from interfering in elections, there is a long and terrible history of sheriffs preventing Black citizens from voting. On the infamous Bloody Sunday in 1965, Jim Clark, the sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, ordered his deputies to beat, water hose and abuse civil rights protestors crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. One year earlier, a sheriff in Mississippi was investigated for murdering a civil rights activist. Since sheriffs are endowed with nearly unchecked authority to arrest and jail as well as a complete lack of accountability for how they use their powers, they can and do suppress votes by reasserting white supremacy. “Any black citizen entertaining thoughts of challenging the system had only to walk by the local jail to see the hierarchy of race,” as one historian wrote.

Today’s movement has its roots in the same legacy of racism.

In 2009, Stewart Rhodes — the founder of the Oath Keepers currently in jail pending his trial for his involvement on Jan. 6 — asked Mack to start a group that would recruit law enforcement officers with the Oath Keepers ideology. Thus, the CSPOA was born. According to its mission statement, “The law enforcement powers held by the sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county…the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President.”

The CSPOA experienced a rebirth during the COVID-19 pandemic and even helped sponsor a tour that touted QAnon, the “Big Lie,” anti-vax conspiracies and anti-government ideology. Sheriffs across the country were recruited and inspired to boost their political profile by touting similar lies, disobeying state and county health orders and, finally, threatening those who oppose them.

In Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb — who possesses over $3 million in military equipment provided by the federal government — has also been touting the “Big Lie,” asserting that he will use his office to monitor voting locations. He and his far-right sheriffs group, Protect America Now, have also partnered with True the Vote, going so far as to claim they will set up a hotline for snitching. In essence, they allow sheriffs to create a posse of vigilantes who are eager to spy and report on their neighbors.

Many residents are worried and angry, and understandably so. Even though all of these alleged investigations, promises of surveillance and military-style posturing are illegal and false, it’s hard not to see how it terrifies those who are already disenfranchised — namely, Black and Latino residents, recent immigrants and people who have criminal convictions. Just as the far-right has come after trans people, reproductive rights and immigrants, they are now fixated on making all communities — entire swaths of the nation — the subject of distrust and surveillance.

We have an obligation to ensure that sheriffs, drunk on their firepower and ability to summon unchecked violence in the name of the law, do not bully residents away from the polls. State and local governments should ensure that polling places remain free of intimidation. What’s more, they should actively push back when sheriffs say that they are entitled to muscle their way to block the most important right of all Americans. Sheriffs assert unlimited power, but this is false. These sheriffs are making the argument for their own abolition — and we cannot let the bullies win.

Jessica Pishko is a lawyer and writer who focuses on sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement.