This story was published in partnership with The Guardian, with financial support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Almost a year to the day after thousands of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, Jim Womack braved a winter storm to travel to Virginia, bound for a conference on “election integrity.”
The conference aimed to teach people how to legally challenge election legitimacy in real time—giving a veneer of legitimacy to a mission built on conspiratorial beliefs about the 2020 election.
“The central message was that we have problems with our elections around the country,” said Womack, the GOP chair for Lee County, a rural swath of central North Carolina. “And they’re not the same in every state, or even in every jurisdiction within the state.”
Womack and attendees from seven other swing states were brought together by Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer from Oklahoma and now-registered voter in Southern Pines, North Carolina, who was part of Donald Trump’s legal team as he tried to overturn the 2020 election.
The event was meant to kick off a new nationwide strategy to monitor election integrity at the state and local level, said Womack, who now runs the North Carolina Election Integrity Team (NCEIT).
So far, the group’s efforts have included organizing opposition, through public comments, to recommendations from elections officials; lobbying legislators and the lieutenant governor to block those recommendations; filing record requests about the 2020 election; training poll observers; and creating a system to internally report perceived election problems, which they will then use for election protests, voter challenges, and referrals to prosecutors.
“We’re not conspiracy theorists, and we’re not suggesting that the election was stolen or that there was any one particular lane of election integrity that is subjected to widespread voter fraud around the country,” Womack said.
But it’s clear that North Carolina is only one piece of the national movement. Several public-opinion polls from the first half of 2022 show that roughly 70% of registered Republicans believe there is widespread voter fraud, despite no evidence to support the claim. Swing states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin—each of which had representatives at the January event—now have statewide groups, Womack said. And organizations in several other states, including Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico, have joined the project.
So-called “election integrity” efforts date back to the post-Reconstruction era, when segregationists aimed to take back racially integrated Southern governments by casting doubt on the legitimacy of Black votes, said Francesca Tripodi, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who studies how information is manipulated for political gain.
While the tactics are old, former federal Election Assistance Commissioner and head of election security in the Department of Homeland Security Matt Masterson says the resources conservative groups are putting into the efforts are new.
“There’s quite a bit of energy and quite a bit of money behind organizing these types of efforts, in order to accomplish the goal of having these observers challenge or interrupt the process,” Masterson said.
Cleta Mitchell leads the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI)’s Election Integrity Network, where former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows is also a senior partner. As a legal adviser to Trump, Mitchell was on the infamous call when the president asked Georgia’s lead elections official to find enough votes to flip the state. She repeated debunked theories about illegal votes, which Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensburger and his office’s general counsel, Ryan Germany, rebuffed.
In connection with her efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Fulton County’s district attorney subpoenaed Mitchell to testify, and the U.S. House January 6 Committee has subpoenaed her phone and communication records. Even so, Mitchell is focused on orchestrating the election-integrity mission through operators like Womack.
“I point to North Carolina, and I say to everybody, ‘Be like North Carolina. Be like Jim Womack,’” Mitchell said in her podcast.
Womack presents NCEIT as a nonpartisan effort, but the group’s members are predominantly conservative, and several are in GOP county leadership.
Womack said he consults with Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer with the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, and J. Christian Adams, the founder and lead lawyer for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, on “cleaning up” voter rolls. Both men have a long history of right-wing activism, and both served on Trump’s Election Integrity commission.
Josh Findlay, the RNC’s national election-integrity director, attended NCEIT’s kick-off summit in partnership with the Conservative Partnership Institute on June 11 in Raleigh. A document on the NCEIT site lists RNC attorney Kevin Cline as “legal advisor” on the list-maintenance team. Dave Warren, who is the RNC’s North Carolina election-integrity director, has attended several NCEIT calls and gave updates about the RNC’s and state GOP’s latest actions.
“The RNC’s efforts are independent from any outside organization,” RNC spokesperson Emma Vaughn wrote in response to questions.
But Womack says RNC members attend summits and participate in weekly calls. “The RNC reps message me almost daily, and we will collaborate multiple times daily during the voting period,” he wrote in an email.
Womack said he was hesitant when Mitchell first asked him to lead the group’s North Carolina effort. He told Mitchell he’d commit to starting a statewide organization if he could generate excitement at a February meeting in Winston-Salem. Roughly 100 people showed up.
Womack, who sees this work as a “noble purpose and cause,” was a Republican commissioner for Lee County from 2010 to 2014, and has been the county GOP chairman since. He also leads the Conservative Coalition of North Carolina PAC, which supports Trump and other far-right Republican candidates.
When NCEIT held its first major event in June, a joint summit with the Conservative Partnership Institute in Raleigh, approximately 300 people showed up. They now have 25 “active county taskforces,” according to Womack, and about 750 members from 90 of the state’s 100 counties.
Womack said they have trained more than 1,200 poll observers through both in-person and online sessions and “vetted” over 150 people who now have access to NCEIT’s statewide incident-reporting system. The reports can be used to protest elections, push prosecutors to investigate allegations of illegal conduct, and advocate for legislative changes, Womack said.
The group has a lot of ground to cover. Across North Carolina, there are 2,500 polling places open on Election Day and roughly 500 early-voting sites. While their actions are legal, there is still concern among election officials.
“Something that is legal can become, you know, distracting or even harassing,” Masterson said.
Lee County Board of Elections director Jane Rae Fawcett encountered such an incident in the May primary when a poll worker complained that Womack, acting as an election observer, was standing too close to the registration table, according to an incident report. Fawcett suggested keeping more space between Womack and the worker, and asked the worker to speak lounder.
“I don’t think that he thought that that was something that maybe I should be suggesting, because it wasn’t in the law,” Fawcett said. “But there’s a lot that’s not in the law.”
NCEIT’s members include people who have existed on the conspiratorial fringe of election-integrity efforts in North Carolina for years.
Jay DeLancy, a Lee County resident who retired from the Air Force and has been an election-integrity advocate since 2011, is the group’s chief operating officer. In 2016, volunteers for DeLancy’s organization, Voter Integrity Project, sent hundreds of postcards to voters in Cumberland and Moore Counties. When many were returned as undeliverable, the group pointed to that as evidence that the voters were no longer at the addresses, and convinced county boards of elections to remove them from the rolls.
A federal judge found that the process violated federal law. In 2018, the judge blocked the part of North Carolina’s law that allows the state to remove voters based on challenges without also following the federal waiting period or conducting individualized inquiry into the voter’s status. That ruling, along with disclosure requirements if challengers are coordinating with an attorney, means NCEIT members will have a more difficult time removing voters from the rolls.
One of DeLancy’s other missions is ending same-day voter registration—hailed as a voting-rights victory when it was adopted in 2007—which allowed more than 114,000 North Carolinians to cast ballots in 2020. Voters have to verify their identity and current address to vote on the same day; DeLancy says the process opens the door for voter fraud, despite having no evidence to that point.
“Is there enough fraud to alter the outcome of the election? Yeah,” DeLancy said in an interview. “Can I prove it? Not unless you give me the resources. Not unless you give me some badges to go ask some hard questions to people and that kind of thing. So it’s hard to prove, without the government having the desire to prove it. And this is my problem.”
NCEIT is also raising baseless claims about the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a bipartisan nonprofit that helps states manage their voter rolls. North Carolina’s State Board of Elections is seeking to join the center, but Harnett County GOP chair Jesse Burger claimed on the group’s Aug. 2 call that ERIC is a tool for Democrats.
“The level of sophistication that they have, from what I’ve gathered, is that they go all the way to the point of identifying what you’re into, what’s your age range, and all of this other stuff, and within 24 hours, there is a person of that exact same demographic showing up at your doorstep convincing you to vote Democrat,” Burger told attendees. Womack and DeLancy supported this conspiracy theory on the same call.
But ERIC does not share its data with political parties for get-out-the-vote efforts. Rather, it provides an “Eligible but Unregistered Report” and requires states to contact at least 95% of such possible voters with information about how to register to vote. This is done by the state agency and not a political party and does not target voters of any socioeconomic, political, or racial background.
DeLancy described ERIC’s requirement to contact eligible but unregistered voters as “putting your finger on the scale with low-information voters who use state resources.” Womack said it targeted “low-income, government-dependent people for the most part that are predisposed to vote to the left.”
Womack also said via email that “questions and unvalidated comments are often expressed” on their weekly calls. “When they are expressed as ‘facts’ we will intercede,” he said.
Corinne Duncan juggles scores of logistical hurdles as Buncombe County’s elections director. Since the 2020 election, her to-do list has only expanded.
“Public-records requests have increased drastically. I mean, I get one at least every day,” she said. “And we get a lot [of requests] that are these coordinated efforts. They’re just cut-and-paste.”
Officials say they’ve seen a pattern emerge in recent months. Participants send letters to local boards of elections, including demands to retain records for the 2020 election beyond the 22 months federal law requires, and for records state law doesn’t allow boards to disclose, like old ballots or “cast vote records,” digital representations of ballot selections that a voting machine counts.
Womack and other NCEIT members sent some of those letters.
Karen Brinson Bell, director of North Carolina’s State Board of Elections, equated the mass records requests to a denial-of-service attack, when computer programs send an overwhelming amount of fake traffic to websites in order to shut them down for regular users.
Pat Gannon, spokesperson for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said that the more time elections staff spend trying to respond to these requests, the less able they are to prepare for the upcoming election.
Masterson, who has helped run state and federal elections since 2006, said he has never seen such an organized and well-backed intervention effort.
Flooding voting sites with observers can strain the system, a strategy pulled from the Virginia Fair Elections playbook, which Mitchell and the Conservative Partnership Institute developed in 2021 for the state’s gubernatorial elections.
Scott Konopasek, the former registrar of elections for Fairfax County, Virginia, said Virginia Fair Elections members pressured his office and his staff. He’s been trying to raise alarms about the “Virginia Model” ever since, including in a testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“They would push acceptable behavior right to the edge in terms of civility and asking questions, which started to make my staff really kind of nervous and uncomfortable and threatened,” said Konopasek.
Karen Hebb, elections director for Henderson County, said the county’s 35 precincts had a “huge uptick” in poll observers in 2022.
“They asked for access to our voting equipment,” she said. “They asked to be present when we did things in the office that we had never had them request before. We were told that they were looking for fraud. We kept insisting there is nothing here to find.”
Brunswick County’s Board of Elections Director Sara LaVere also reported an increase in interest in poll observation. LaVere and her staff had to spend more time training precinct officials about what observers can and cannot do.
The State Board of Elections unanimously passed temporary rules this August, updating guidance on acceptable behavior for poll workers and partisan election observers to “ensure that voting is conducted in an orderly fashion this fall, and that no voters experience intimidation,” Chairman Damon Circosta said in a statement.
But Womack submitted comments to the Board on behalf of NCEIT, expressing the organization’s opposition.
The rules then needed approval from the Rules Review Commission, a 10-member panel that Republican legislative leaders nominated and lawmakers approved. Mitchell joined NCEIT members to state opposition during public comments at the commission meeting reviewing the rules. The RNC and state GOP also opposed the rule changes. The commission rejected the rule changes, and the State Board declined to appeal the decision.
Womack said that he and his group are now gearing up for the next election by creating a “suspicious voters list” of anyone they believe to be double-registered or not actually a citizen, and asking members in every county to use it to challenge voters on sight.
Challenges could force a number of voters to cast provisional ballots, and put each of those voters’ eligibility to cast a ballot up to a decision by the county board of elections.
State law prohibits anyone, including poll observers, from knowingly making a false affidavit or falsely affirming information in a voter challenge. Reporting potential discrepancies or issues is a common practice of political parties, but purportedly nonpartisan groups doing so on the spot is new.
These efforts, however, create further distrust in the process and give legislators talking points to help pass more restrictive election laws. After Trump generated fears of fraud through by-mail voting in 2020, for example, North Carolina Republicans cutting short the ballot return date (which Cooper vetoed).
After right-wing groups protested counties’ use of funds from nonprofits like the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Center for Election Innovation and Research (but, oddly, not the Schwarzenegger Institute) to help run elections during the pandemic, the legislature passed a law preventing it. Cooper vetoed that one, too. And since 2013, North Carolina Republicans have claimed that photo voter ID is necessary to combat widespread voter fraud, only to have their attempts blocked in state and federal courts.
While courts have blocked some attempts to intervene in North Carolina elections, Womack’s group is openly doubling down on its efforts just weeks before the midterm elections.
On weekly calls, NCEIT has discussed using voter caging—a highly inaccurate method of using undeliverable-mail bounce-backs as evidence that voters don’t live at their listed addresses—and using door-to-door voter canvassing of “voters and addresses where apparent improper voting may have occurred” to challenge rolls, according to its website.
NCEIT’s discussion pages make false assertions that some counties have more registered voters than eligible voters, or that the state registration system doesn’t check for duplicates. Several allegations stem from the group identifying data-entry errors in the voter registration lists—for example, when a person’s birthdate is entered into the name field by accident.
The State Board of Elections fact-checked more than a dozen of NCEIT’s claims made on the members-only section of the website, deeming many of them partially or entirely untrue.
In response to one claim about how elections officials rig post-election audits, Gannon wrote that the claim is false and “is premised on a conspiracy theory that county election workers are dishonest people somehow trying to defraud the voters. This is offensive, and this claim is nonsense.”
Nearly half of North Carolina’s county elections directors have resigned or retired since January 2019, which DeLancy says creates a moment of opportunity.
“There’s openings at the bottom for people like you to get in there and get a job,” DeLancy told NCEIT members on an early August call. “We have to take this over. It’s not something you do overnight.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name of the committee Scott Konopasek testified before.
Jordan Wilkie reports on election administration and technology, most recently for Carolina Public Press. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Laura Lee is an editor and former attorney who has worked for NPR, WUNC, and Carolina Public Press. Laura received her master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and her bachelor’s degree in political science and J.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Freelancer Mark Darrough and Chatham News + Record reporter Maydha Devarajan contributed reporting to this article.