Skip to main content

If American democracy fades away, it won’t be due to a single event like the January 6 Capitol riot, or a single individual like Donald Trump. The history of democratic declines, whether in Weimar Germany or modern-day Hungary, Philippines, Turkey, Poland and Russia, shows that the onset of authoritarian post-democracy will not necessarily come from one thing, like a military coup. It can occur in stages of decay, with different actors advancing each stage.

In the US, it would likely include some secretaries of state and attorneys general willing to bend the election rules, and legislators sending alternative slates of presidential electors to the Electoral College, and the complicity of the increasingly right-wing US Supreme Court, all of them flouting the unwritten yet crucial democratic norms and traditions that undergird the institutions of representative governance. It would also likely involve a rabidly motivated plurality of the US population who are the most dissatisfied, polarized and the best organized, and willing to advance their goals through militant actions.

So that’s why in recent months I have been tracking a kind of kooky yet hair-raising plot by a shadowy national sheriffs organization, whose sheriff-supporters have illegally confiscated voting machines and other election equipment in different parts of the country. Moreover, these law enforcement officials have asserted a chilling legal authority -- that they are empowered to ignore any law they deem unconstitutional, and that within their county jurisdiction their authority to do what is necessary to “protect” the people is greater than that of even the president of the United States.

Along with the increasingly visible “independent state legislature” theory and previous patriot movement nullification and interposition fanaticisms, these should all be recognized as branches of the sovereign citizen movement which manifested in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the rancher Bundy standoff in 2014, and other episodes of armed revolt. Taken along their logical trajectory and scaled to the grandiose proportions to which they aspire, this would mean the end of the rule of common law and the democratic institutions that make “E Pluribus Unum” governance possible.

Media outlets like Reuters, Washington Post, Detroit News and a few others have intrepidly uncovered these sheriffs’ efforts to overturn the 2020 election and prepare the shock troops of law enforcement officers for the next election. This scheme is both dangerous to our democracy and also takes the far right nuttiness that has infected our times into yet another Twilight Zone. There is evidence of its tentacles spreading across the country, even as we get closer to the next national elections in November.

Michigan’s new battleground

In Michigan, following the 2020 election in which Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by nearly three percentage points and 155,000 votes statewide, a clerk at a small town in rural western Michigan received an odd visit from a deputy sheriff and an “investigator.” What did they want to investigate? They asked for the township’s three central tabulator’s that had been used to tabulate all of that town’s votes. They suggested that the tabulators had been programmed in advance with a microchip to shift votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the 2020 election. They asked her to hand over one of her central tabulators for inspection.

She refused. Clerks and election administrators are trained never to give up their voting machines, to always retain that essential chain of custody. Not only is it considered “best practices” for secure elections, but allowing access to them is illegal. Federal and state laws limit who can access election hardware and software. Undeterred, these “election inspectors” visited other townships in Michigan. Three clerks in two other Michigan counties turned over their voting machines, flash drives and other equipment, public records show. According to a legal filing, the confiscated tabulators were taken to hotel rooms and Airbnb rentals, where a group of four men “broke into” the tabulators and performed “tests” on them.

Also present in one hotel room during some of the testing was presumptive Republican nominee for attorney general in Michigan, Matthew DePerno. DePerno allegedly was hunting for evidence to support Trump’s false election fraud claims. That’s awfully alarming, that a major candidate for attorney general either didn’t know or did not care that gaining unauthorized access to voting machines is a felony in Michigan.

One clerk from Barry County expressed bafflement and dismay over the theories presented to her by the Sheriffs. Trump won Barry County by 65 percent of the vote, “so I don’t know where they’re thinking that any kind of chips were in any of our machines or thinking that something had happened to them. The whole thing is nutty. It is nutty, totally nutty.”

Law enforcement is supposed to protect and serve. That is, serve the general public, not a failed presidential loser who continues to preposterously claim that the election was stolen. Officials eventually got the tabulators back many weeks and in some cases months later, when they were returned in the same odd manner, during shadowy meetings at a shopping center and carpool parking lot.

A national movement of right wing sheriffs mobilizes

Unfortunately Michigan is not an isolated incident. In a number of states across the country, including battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia and Colorado, attempts by sheriffs and their associates to break into and breach voting machines have raised alarms. Unofficial and unauthorized “investigators” have appeared, claiming they were seeking evidence of fraud, and gained access to voting equipment.

As reported in the Washington Post, in Colorado, the Mesa County clerk, Tina Peters, was indicted last March on charges for allowing unauthorized people to copy the hard drives of voting machines in her county. In Coffee County, Georgia, a cybersecurity executive said in court filings that he gained access to the county’s voting system information. In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state decertified voting machines in Fulton County after she claimed they had been improperly accessed by individuals seeking to “investigate” the 2020 election.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

No one knows for sure how widespread these efforts have been. But this new flavor of Trumpy lawlessness goes much deeper.

Many of these crusading sheriffs belong to a “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which asserts that sheriffs, typically elected in counties, possess supreme law enforcement power within their jurisdictions. They claim superpowers within their counties that exceed those of state police, federal agencies and even the president of the United States. The movement’s most prominent group, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, takes the extreme position that sheriffs can and should ignore any law they deem unconstitutional.

The sheriffs association, which has attracted supporters in recent years because of its opposition to COVID-related mandates and regulations, claims sheriffs derive extraordinary powers from the oath they take to defend the constitution and its principle of separation of powers between local, state and federal agencies. Indeed, the CSPOA website says “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 vertical separation of powers in the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President…it is this responsibility that grants a Sheriff the Constitutional authority to check and balance all levels of government within the jurisdiction of the County.”

Retired sheriff Richard Mack, the founder of CSPOA, has called federal and state bureaucracies “the Gestapo of America.” Mack has been inducted into the NRA Hall of Fame and is a former board member of the Oath Keepers, an extremist, far-right paramilitary group that played a key role in the January 6 Capitol riot, with nearly a dozen of its members facing seditious conspiracy charges. The Oath Keepers recruit many of its members from among law enforcement.

At a recent CSPOA conference in Las Vegas, attended by county sheriffs from Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, there was a panel about how to investigate election fraud. The session was called “2000 Mules: ‘Law Enforcement Has to Step in at This Point.’ Will Sheriffs Investigate?” The group has been actively encouraging sheriffs to mount their own investigations into Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims. The association says more than 300 of the nation’s 3,000 elected sheriffs have gone through its training programs. Its participants included Michigan sheriff Dar Leaf, who has petitioned courts to seize election equipment, assigned investigators to grill local clerks about balloting processes, and made sweeping requests for their records. Sheriff Leaf has appeared at a right-wing militia group’s rally, and suggested that a plot by some militia members to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer may have been a lawful attempt to make a citizen’s arrest.

These sheriffs are testing a legal theory with revolutionary implications for American democracy. They envision a sheriff-ocracy, in which a sheriff rules his jurisdictional fiefdom like an authoritarian ruler. It’s harkening back to the old days of the Wild Wild West, when the sheriff was often the only government in town. Indeed, Sheriff Leaf has stated that a sheriff “has no superiors in his county.”

“Now we have the far right building up an insurrectionary force inside law enforcement,” says Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. “They want to make sure that next time, if they want to stop counting, or if they don’t like the way things are going, they can just get their county sheriff to roll up and grab the voting machines or grab the lock boxes, or anything else. That’s the insidious nature of this thing. It’s terrifying.”

Sheriffs are part of a broader pro-Trump movement

Richard Mack and his fellow constitutional sheriffs are part of a much broader effort within the pro-Trump camp to gain control over the U.S. election system. Reuters conducted dozens of interviews, reviewed video from public meetings and examined scores of public records and found evidence in Michigan of coordination between the people spearheading Trump’s rigged-election claims and the sheriffs’ efforts. There is also evidence of national coordination, not only through the CSPOA but also through attorneys who have been part of a legal team led by looney Trump lawyer and Rudy Giuliani legal associate, Sidney Powell, who spearheaded the hiring of a team of experts from a forensic data firm to access election systems and data in at least three states, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada. Powell also filed a federal suit seeking to overturn Michigan’s presidential election results for “massive voter fraud,” but the judge found the suit’s claims so baseless that she sanctioned Powell and other lawyers on the case for misconduct.

In at least 15 states, candidates who embrace the false stolen election narrative are campaigning for governor and/or secretary of state in November’s elections. In Florida, Republican governor Ron DeSantis has set up an election police squad supposedly to ensure voting “integrity” but critics fear this new power could easily be misused against opponents. Trump activists have spread so much distrust and paranoia that election officials are receiving harassment and even death threats from Trump supporters who maniacally believe they are running corrupt elections.

In Michigan, Colorado, Arizona and other states, officials have pushed back against the so-called “constitutional sheriffs,” accusing them of undermining public faith in the integrity of elections and the election officials who administer them. I have long criticized election management in the United States, because it amounts to a decentralized hodgepodge of over three thousand counties and nine thousand townships with few national standards to guide them. Most established democracies in the world have a national elections commission that provides professional oversight and establishes minimum standards and best practices. The federal Election Assistance Commission, which was launched in the wake of the Florida presidential debacle in 2000, is supposed to play an oversight role but it is too weak and underfunded to do much. The real dirty secret here is that the United States provides more effective oversight for slot machines and the gaming industry than it does for our nation’s election administration or voting equipment.

Into this breach, Trump’s authoritarian sheriffs are stepping in, along with militant secretaries of state, legislators and right-wing activists, to try and establish their own rules. The steady drumbeats of partisan war are building in anticipation of the November election, which will decide congressional majorities. Two years after that comes the presidential election. Depending on which candidates are nominated, democracy itself may be up for reelection.

Crossposted from DemocracySOS