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Sep 27, 2022 5 min read

Matt Shea is training ballot box watchers in Spokane

A white man's head peeking out over a labeled official ballot drop box with "UN" added before official and "watcher" tacke
(Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

“We’re going to be training and certifying folks to go do that here in our community. Please show up. Tell all of the people you can possibly find to do it.”

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Preacher and former Washington state legislator Matt Shea is recruiting his followers to surveil Spokane County ballot drop boxes during the upcoming general election season. He will hold a training at his church, On Fire Ministries, on Sept. 30.

Shea is following a national trend fueled by the widely debunked Dinesh D’Souza voter-fraud documentary 2000 Mules, and adding to the ranks of polling place and ballot drop watchdog groups that have been popping up across the country this election cycle.

While the public messaging about these efforts is to identify voter fraud, the actual effect, according to Devin Burghart, Executive Director of the Institution for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), is to scare people into staying home and not voting at all.

“Election stunts are almost entirely designed to have a chilling effect on participation,” Burghart wrote to RANGE. “Voter suppression efforts like the ballot drop box stunts are designed to deter people from voting and undermine the entire electoral process.”

Although controversies like this often break down along partisan lines in national politics (with Democrats hurling accusations at Republicans or vice versa), in Washington state, even certain Republicans have condemned the practice. The Seattle Times reported in July that King County GOP chairman Mathew Patrick Thomas “entirely repudiated” similar poll watching efforts, dissolving the party’s election integrity committee and telling rogue activists “you guys have got to stop doing this.” Neither the State Republican nor the Spokane County Republican Party responded to requests for comment. We will update this story if they do.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton — the local official responsible for elections and their integrity — was careful to define exactly what kind of behavior her office would consider intimidation, writing in an email, “it is intimidation if the individuals make themselves known or if they interfere.” That includes posting signs near drop boxes or telling voters the boxes are “Under Surveillance,” as happened in King County.

Shea, who was expelled from the State Republican Caucus after a 2019 investigation found he committed acts of domestic terrorism, touted D’Souza’s documentary at his church’s Sunday service the last two weeks. “How many of you watched 2000 Mules? Raise your hand,” Shea asked the crowd on Sept. 18. “Look at that. Well, I think it would be good if we had some folks that were certified, trained drop box observers in Spokane County, how about you all?”

It’s unclear what a “certification” in ballot box drop observation looks like in Shea’s mind, but Auditor Dalton made it clear that any training or certification won’t be coming from the county. “The individuals who attend Mr. Shea’s training will not be official, certified observers by the County Auditor’s Office,” Dalton wrote.

On Sept. 25, Shea explained his rationale for asking this of his congregation at On Fire Ministries. “We also believe that we need to be going into every area of our culture,” he said during Sunday service. “One of those areas is elections. And one of those areas is watching drop boxes to make sure that, I don’t know, they don’t get stuffed with anything that’s not of God, okay? Hallelujah.”

Scattered groups of ballot box watchers were active around Washington in the primaries, especially in King County, but they have not been out in force in Spokane County to date. “There was no organized watching by political groups [in Spokane County] like what occurred in King County,” Dalton wrote in an email. “I believe we got a call about someone watching one drop box, but the person was gone by the time our regular pick up team arrived at that box.”  

Depending on Shea’s success with this recruiting effort, that could change.

Spokane County did see different voter-intimidation tactics deployed during the primaries. In June, Daniel Walters reported in the Inlander that conservative political activists canvassed local neighborhoods, questioning people’s voter registration. According to Dalton, the callers who reported the canvassing said canvassers tried to falsely represent themselves as county or state officials. NBC News recently piggybacked on that reporting as part of a national spotlight on voter intimidation.

While election fraud has become a national talking point on the right, and a topic for national media — fueled by former President Donald Trump and his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats and now-President Joe Biden — the roots of this specific movement stretch back at least a decade, deep into the soil of the Tea Party movement. True the Vote, the organization that funded the D’Souza film, has been actively engaged in voter suppression tactics since at least the 2012 elections in North Carolina, according to a report by IREHR.

Devin Burghart is one of the co-authors of that report, and says those early, regional suppression efforts laid the conceptual and tactical groundwork for the national push that has now reached Spokane.

Beginning with voter suppression efforts in North Carolina, and running through today’s ballot watching and voter intimidation doorbelling is the targeting of minority communities. “Racism is at the core of the election denier lies that are driving this new wave of ballot drop box vigilantism,” he wrote in an email. In the 2012 study, IREHR found that what Burghart calls “ballot drop box vigilantism” primarily sent volunteers to counties with higher Black and Latinx populations.

That’s still true today. “The primary conspiracies cited by 2020 election deniers, as represented in 2,000 Mules, all center their conspiracy around communities of color,” Burghart wrote. “Four of the five communities singled out in Mules are communities with large Black populations, like Detroit (77.1% African American), Atlanta (49.8%), Philadelphia (44.1%), and Milwaukee (38.8%).” The fifth — Yuma, Arizona — is 59.2% Latino according to Census data.

It remains to be seen how Shea’s group or any other election vigilante groups will deploy their volunteers once general election ballots arrive in the mail the week of October 21. There are 25 drop box locations scattered across Spokane County, and there’s a multi-week window to drop off ballots, so unless these groups number in the hundreds of people, they will need to prioritize certain drop box locations over others.

If they follow the strategies outlined in North Carolina and in 2000 Mules, we’re more likely to hear reports of ballot box surveillance in progressive-voting strongholds within the City of Spokane like the South Hill than in outlying towns like Deer Park. Within Spokane, we’d be more likely to see them in diverse areas like East Central than, say, out in Indian Trail.

“By targeting a few locations, voter suppression groups hope to simultaneously perpetuate the scurrilous myth of drop-box ‘voter fraud’,” Burghart concluded, “and deter people across the state from using drop boxes for fear of conflict with (potentially armed) far-right vigilantes. The blanket of fear is meant to smother widespread electoral participation.”

If you should run into ballot-box surveillance in your neighborhood, Auditor Dalton’s advice is two-fold. “If people feel intimidated or uncomfortable, they should call the elections office to report the incident,” Dalton says, “If they feel threatened, they should call 911 or CrimeCheck to file a police report.”

RANGE Media will continue tracking Shea’s voter surveillance initiative. We ask anyone who witnesses them to reach out to our team after contacting the proper authorities.

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