By Ned Parker and Andy Sullivan
(Reuters) - The canvassers in California's Shasta County in September wore reflective orange vests and official-looking badges that read “Voter Taskforce.” Four residents said they mistook them for government officials.
But the door knockers didn't explain where to vote or promote a candidate, the usual work of canvassers ahead of a big election.
Instead, they grilled residents on their voting history and who lived in their homes, probing questions that might have violated state laws on intimidation and harassment, according to the county's chief election official.
At one house, they interrogated a couple about the whereabouts of their adult daughter. At another, they listed names of registered voters and demanded to know if they still lived at the address.
The incidents highlight how a once-routine staple of American elections -- door-to-door canvassing -- has been adopted by former U.S. President Donald Trump's supporters since the 2020 election to prove his baseless claims of voter fraud, or potentially disenfranchise voters by stoking doubts about voter registration books.
In at least 19 states, pro-Trump canvassers are using their findings to press election officials to clean up what they claim are inaccurate voter-registration lists, saying they could open the door to fraudulent voting.
In at least one state, Michigan, they plan to use their list of alleged irregularities to challenge voters in the Nov. 8 election.
Canvassers believe such efforts are uncovering evidence that voting machines were rigged in 2020 to steal the election from Trump, according to a review by Reuters of the groups' literature and reports.
But the activists often seem more interested in undermining confidence in U.S. democracy than trying to improve it, said Arizona's Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican. "They're hoping that we fail. They're hoping that mistakes occur and they're even trying to do things to disrupt the system," he said.
In Shasta County, a rugged, mountainous region of more than 180,000 people where pro-Trump Republicans dominate the local government, clerk Cathy Darling Allen said she noticed problems in the middle of September when three residents complained about canvassers on Facebook.
When Allen contacted the voters, they all asked whether the county had sent the canvassers. Allen replied that the visitors had nothing to do with her office.
A week later, a fourth resident called police when canvassers showed up at his door and demanded voting information that made him suspicious, according to a report by the Redding Police Department.
In a public statement issued Sept. 26, Allen warned that canvassers' actions amounted to intimidation and violations of election laws. “I was very concerned that it would have a chilling effect on people's willingness to be registered to vote, and that's not OK,” she said in an interview.
Reuters identified at least 23 state-wide or local efforts where canvassers may have crossed the line into intimidation, according to election officials and voting rights lawyers. Some carried weapons, wore badges, asked people who they'd voted for or demanded personal information, election officials said.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights groups, said it has received more such reports than in previous elections. "These tactics are very concerning," said YT Bell, an election adviser for the coalition.
WORKING FOR THE GOVERNMENT?
The visits can prompt confusion, officials say, as canvassers sometimes give the false impression that they are working for the government – which is illegal.
The questions they ask can cross the line into illegal voter intimidation, said Rupa Bhattacharyya of Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
Canvassers claim to have discovered thousands of inaccurate voter registrations across the country since the 2020 election, inundating officials in some states with requests to strike those voters from the rolls.
In Delaware County, Pennsylvania, elections director James Allen said his office had already identified many of the 12,763 ineligible voters, who an election denying group said no longer lived in the state, and had removed them from the rolls. The request came too late, he said, as federal law prohibits removing groups of registered voters within 90 days of an election.
Door-knocking campaigns have been encouraged by some of Trump's staunchest allies. Pillow company owner Mike Lindell, a wealthy champion of election fraud theories, has hosted televised conferences where activists tout their canvassing findings. Steve Bannon, a former top advisor to Trump, called for a “50 state canvas” on his podcast a year ago.
Douglas Frank, a Lindell ally and Ohio math and science teacher who travels the country promoting debunked theories that voting machines were hacked in 2020, has cheered on local canvassing teams.
Bannon declined to comment. Lindell said a group he backs, Cause of America, does not organize canvassing but provides an online library of “voter crime.” Frank did not respond to requests for comment.
'A GOOD BONFIRE'
Wearing a red-white-and-blue bow tie, Frank traveled to Shasta County in September to address a Sept. 13 meeting of county supervisors.
Frank said he would compile a list of addresses to help local canvassers uncover "real actionable election fraud," according to a recording of the meeting on the county website. Two people at the meeting said they had started visiting properties to root out illegally registered voters. One of them, when contacted by Reuters, declined to comment.
At a local church hours later, Frank told a group that advertised itself as the “Election Taskforce” that Shasta's conservatives had “a good bonfire going” and urged them “to throw a little gasoline on it,” according to a video of the speech viewed by Reuters.
Alarmed by the call for aggressive canvassing at the supervisors' meeting and in Frank’s church speech, Shasta's clerk Allen wrote federal, state and local law enforcement on Sept. 15, saying the canvassing "likely constitutes one or more crimes" under California law regarding voter intimidation.
The county prosecutor's office told Reuters that it was aware "of the recent concerns" and that "all potential violations submitted to the office will be thoroughly reviewed."
'MET WITH OPEN ARMS'
In Oregon's Douglas County, 85-year old retiree Nan Isaacson said she became involved in a door-knocking effort in her home city of Sutherlin after watching videos on a Lindell-backed election-conspiracy website that claimed without proof that ballots in 2020 were altered in China to help Democrat Joe Biden win the election.
That prompted her to volunteer for a local “voter integrity” committee, which armed her with official-looking forms asking residents to swear “under penalty of perjury” to verify their voting activity in the 2020 election. Reuters reviewed copies of the forms.
During a canvas of eight houses in her neighborhood, four voters signed forms claiming they didn't receive the correct ballot in the 2020 election, or didn't get ballots at all.
Isaacson described the residents as happy to cooperate. “We were met with open arms,” she said in an interview.
Douglas County Clerk Dan Loomis said he received complaints from voters who said they felt intimidated by the canvassers, including one who called to ask if his office was behind the effort. “I don't think the canvassers have the intention of spreading intimidation, but their actions can be construed as intimidating by some of the folks out there,” he said.
In Colorado, a group called the U.S. Election Integrity Project (USEIP) also sent canvassers that voters mistook for county employees, according to four county clerks interviewed by Reuters.
Voters reported that USEIP canvassers wore badges and carried guns on occasion in 2021, according to clerks in Pueblo and El Paso counties. This August, people affiliated with USEIP were also canvassing in La Plata County, according to the county clerk. USEIP co-founder Holly Kasun told Reuters that local activists operate independently from the group.
Three civic organizations sued USEIP in March, alleging that the Colorado group's door-knocking activity was intimidating voters. But a federal judge refused to halt the activity, saying he saw no evidence the canvassing was continuing or had intimidated voters. The case is headed for trial.
The canvassing by loosely connected networks of pro-Trump Republican activists is separate from Republican Party efforts such as promoting candidates or seeking tighter voting laws.
The Republican National Committee does not engage in election-integrity canvassing and does not coordinate with outside groups, a spokesperson told Reuters.
But in at least one case, local Republican Party officials appear to be involved.
At an Oct. 11 public meeting in Lane County, Oregon, the head of the county Republican organization, John Large, accused local officials of ignoring the results of their canvas, which they said uncovered hundreds of suspect registrations. Lane County Clerk Dena Dawson said she did not have the authority to unilaterally remove names from voting rolls.
In Michigan, activists plan to go further. A group called the Election Integrity Force says it plans to field election challengers in each of the state's 83 counties to raise objections to people they suspect are not legally registered to vote.
Those election challengers will be equipped with lists of ineligible voters, culled from their canvas and voter roll findings, said Sandy Kiesel, the group's director, who ran unsuccessfully in August to be a Republican Party candidate for the state legislature.
Under state law, an election challenger can raise an objection to a voter if he or she has good reason to believe the voter doesn't live there or is otherwise unqualified. The election official on site then settles the complaint.
Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told Reuters that clerks "are prepared to reject challenges that lack substance and eject challengers who repeatedly issue them."
(Reporting by Ned Parker and Andy Sullivan; additional reporting by Linda So; editing by Jason Szep and Chris Sanders)