Poll watchers stand behind the yellow tape as poll officials count the ballots by hand, due to software issues with the voting machine tabulators, in Franklin, Tenn., on Oct. 27, 2021.
Stephanie Amador—The Tennessean/USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters
October 24, 2022 5:11 PM EDT

During early voting in Arizona’s Pima County in August, local election workers had a series of confrontations with poll watchers determined to prevent voter fraud. One of the poll watchers complained loudly about “fraudulent elections.” Another had to be reprimanded multiple times about trying to view private voter data. A third often showed up to take photographs of election administrators and voiced suspicions about out-of-state license plates.

“Staff reported feelings of intimidation, harassment, and general uncomfortableness by these individuals,” according to a report by the Pima County Recorder’s Office, which TIME reviewed. “Voters often felt intimidated and reported individuals for harassing behavior.”

Poll watchers have long been a feature of American elections, allowed to observe and report back to their party or a local supervisor if they see something that appears amiss. But this year, watching the poll watchers is becoming a full-time job for local election officials. Ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms, tens of thousands of Americans have been recruited to serve in these roles by right-wing groups pushing false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. These newly minted poll watchers motivated by election conspiracies plan to show up en masse on Election Day to observe, record on their phones, and in general let both voters and election workers know that they’re being monitored.

At best, this is likely to disrupt overburdened election offices. At worst, it could lead to further harassment of election workers and deepening distrust in the country’s democratic systems. “When you come in with a conspiratorial mindset, and not a lot of knowledge about how things work, it’s very easy to misconstrue what’s going on and to act in bad faith,” says Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A poll watcher observes through a pair of binoculars as votes are counted at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski—Reuters)
A poll watcher observes through a pair of binoculars as votes are counted at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, on Nov. 3, 2020.
Rachel Wisniewski—Reuters

Some of these conspiracy-minded poll watchers have already taken matters into their own hands as right-wing groups encourage vigilante behavior, such as patrolling early voting locations and ballot drop-boxes. In one complaint filed Oct. 17, a voter in Maricopa County, Ariz., said that he and his wife had been harassed by a group of people “filming and photographing my wife and I as we approached the dropbox and accusing us of being a mule.”

The surge comes amid an exodus of election workers. According to a poll published by the Brennan Center in March, one in six election officials has reported being threatened for carrying out their job. This has led roughly one in three election officials and poll workers to quit these positions over fears for their safety, according to Kim Wyman, the senior election security lead at CISA.

Read More: Election Workers in Battleground States Face Surge of Cyberattacks

Local election offices have also been swamped by public-records requests from pro-Trump activists demanding to see evidence of possible irregularities in the 2020 election. The requests are a cynical attempt to strain resources, says Jiore Craig, who oversees election research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that focuses on extremism and disinformation. “They are telling their followers what they have a right to do, and sort of making that an administrative burden…to keep their base engaged and wear down officials,” Craig says.

The right-wing push to closely observe the counting of votes this year is being organized by a wide range of groups, from well-funded and organized efforts by prominent Trump supporters, to local GOP offices, to loose instructions disseminated by election deniers with large followings on the messaging app Telegram.

“We have people trained in the law so they can then observe and document and report when things are not being conducted according to the law,” Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who was involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, said on Steve Bannon’s podcast earlier this month. Bannon encouraged listeners to join her national campaign, which has recruited more than 20,000 “Army of Patriots” to be trained as poll watchers, and described it as “a call to arms.” (Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment; Bannon was sentenced last week to four months in prison for contempt of Congress in connection with his failure to comply with a subpoena.)

More civic engagement would usually be a positive trend. Election officials should be doing their work in a transparent way, and there is a reason that U.S. law has a system in which citizens across the political spectrum can observe the process and be confident that the rules are being followed, legal experts say. But it’s clear that a formerly boring job, often delegated to retirees and volunteers, has taken on an action-hero role for people who see themselves as engaged in a fight to save the country from another stolen election.

It’s a different and more complex situation than two years ago, legal experts say, when Trump’s militaristic calls for an “Army” of poll watchers raised fears that armed far-right groups could resort to blunt intimidation or possible violence. Now, droves of Americans have signed up to be trained in legal poll watching procedures with names like “Audit the Vote,” “Election Integrity Force” and “Who’s Counting,” organized by groups that have pushed false voter fraud claims. While the tide of poll watchers is already resulting in intimidation, the groups organizing it say they intend to play by the rules and use the law to their advantage.

“People who are recruiting to do shifts for dropbox monitoring or poll watchers, we are seeing in quite a few cases that they are very aware of voter intimidation laws,” says Craig. “They are using language that implies that this is a battle and implies that election watchers are going to be the last line of defense, and using pictures of people in military gear when they when they post about hosting a training.”

Read More: How Republicans Are Selling the Myth of Rampant Voter Fraud.

Many of these poll watchers are organizing in former “Stop the Steal” groups on the messaging app Telegram, where prominent election deniers have built large followings, and where they now pore over statutes and pictures of sample ballots. They have offered Zoom and in-person trainings, and encouraged followers to post anything they see as suspicious, which led to the amplification of rumored “ballot harvesting schemes” and other conspiracies.

The large-scale recruitment push by right-wing groups is unlikely to increase election transparency if it’s rooted in disinformation, says Hasen of UCLA.

“It’s already stressful to try to run a fair election, you’re already working around the clock,” he says. “Some of the people who are coming in have been manipulated into believing things are not on the up and up, and they may—deliberately or inadvertently—further undermine people’s confidence in the process through misunderstanding of the system.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com.

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