Early voters dropping off ballots in Berks County, Pennsylvania, are confronted by a sight surprising for elections in the United States: A pair of uniformed sheriff’s deputies armed with guns and tasers guarding the ballot box.
Directed by local election officials to question voters before letting them deposit their ballots, the deputies guarding the drop boxes underscore the growing schism in this country over the debunked claims that the 2020 election was marred by rampant vote fraud.
To some in Berks County, the deputies are only trying to ensure a fair and clean election. Others say their presence and direct questioning risks intimidating voters and stoking baseless conspiracy theories.
Having deputies at drop boxes “can obviously be very intimidating in the moment to those voters,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the nonpartisan Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. But it also “sends this broader message that our elections aren’t secure, that there’s widespread fraud … and what’s really abhorrent about this is, it’s based on a lie, it’s based on disinformation.”
The scene playing out in Berks County may be one of the more visible examples of law-enforcement intervention in the 2022 voting process. But there are others, and many of those efforts are tied to a fringe group of elected sheriffs influenced by former President Donald Trump’s repeatedly disproven claims of vote fraud. Those sheriffs have been telling their constituents they plan to police the midterm elections – even though that is normally the duty of election officials.
Some of them are aligned with so-called “constitutional sheriffs” groups that claim their members have the right to ignore or block federal or state laws they deem unconstitutional and to intervene in elections. While they make up a tiny minority of sheriffs across the US, these law-enforcement officials could play a vital role in efforts to cast doubt on elections and make it easier for partisan officials to overrule voters’ choices this fall and in 2024.
Group encourages law enforcement to get involved in elections
Sheriff Mark Lamb, of Pinal County, Arizona, has perhaps been the most vocal of the bunch. He co-founded Protect America Now, a group that claims to be engaged in “a battle for the soul of America.” The group counts about 70 sheriffs as members – including Berks County Sheriff Eric Weaknecht.
Emails obtained by CNN through public records requests show Lamb has reached out to sheriffs across the country to tell them things such as “Here’s how YOU can enforce election integrity.” In the emails, his group recommends sheriffs increase “patrol activity around drop box locations” and engage in “video surveillance” with “access points directly on Sheriff Department computers.”