Inside the Trump-backed effort to take ‘control’ of elections ahead of 2022 and 2024

(WASHINGTON) — In late April, after a year and a half of former President Donald Trump and his associates pushing false claims of election fraud, a few hundred attendees gathered at a golf resort in Williamsburg, Virginia, for an “Election Integrity Summit” organized by Trump allies who were at the forefront of his effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Inside a ballroom at the Kingsmill Resort, Cleta Mitchell, a longtime conservative lawyer who played a key role in the former president’s efforts to hold onto power, took the microphone and urged summit attendees to recruit and create election “task forces” in their communities ahead of the upcoming midterms to avoid a repeat of the last presidential election.

“Imagine if we had had local task forces in these counties? What if we had citizens like you in 2020, overseeing this?” Mitchell said at the private summit, which ABC News attended by purchasing a ticket.

“We could have stopped it,” Mitchell told the crowd. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing here tonight.”

‘Task forces’ around the country

The Virginia event is one of the latest in a blitz of summits being held in swing states across the country, led by Mitchell and organized by the “Election Integrity Network,” a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing nonprofit organization that is spearheaded by Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who is a senior partner, and Mitchell, who serves as a senior fellow.

The series of summits comes after Trump, who continues to spread false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, made donations amounting to $1 million from his political action committee’s war chest to CPI — one of his largest donations in the current election cycle. Despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud, many Republican voters say they agree with Trump’s assertions that the election was “stolen” and “rigged” — with 71% of Republicans agreeing with the former president’s claims that he was the rightful winner, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll.

Meadows, amid the Jan. 6 House committee’s ongoing investigation into the Capitol insurrection, has emerged as a key figure who at times acted as a mediator for Trump as he worked to overturn Biden’s win leading up to the Jan. 6 attack. Mitchell made headlines when she was one of the pro-Trump lawyers on the phone call in which the former president demanded of Georgia election officials that they “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s win, which sparked an ongoing investigation.

Now, months out from the 2022 midterms and with an eye on the 2024 presidential election, the group led by Meadows and Mitchell is working to put in place so-called “election integrity task forces” around the country. Their multi-day summits feature recruiting and training sessions for poll watchers and election officers, as well as panels hosted by Mitchell and others speaking on topics ranging from “The Left’s Plans to Corrupt the 2022 Election” to “Voting Systems and Machines” and “Building the Election Integrity Infrastructure.”

So far this year the group has held half a dozen summits in swing states including Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to the group’s website. In June the group will host summits in North Carolina and Wisconsin. Tickets start at $30, and influential conservative groups including Heritage Action and Tea Party Patriots Action have already participated in previous summits.

Meadows himself was announced to appear as the keynote speaker for summits in Georgia and Arizona, and was listed to speak on “What Happened in 2020 and What We Must Do to Protect Future Elections in Arizona,” according to a schedule posted by the group online. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a Florida summit hosted by CPI earlier this year, according to social media posts.

Neither Meadows nor Mitchell responded to a request for comment from ABC News. Officials with Trump’s Save America PAC also did not respond to a request for comment.

Inside the summit

The Virginia summit attended by ABC News in late April began with a two-hour “Poll Watcher & Election Officer Training Workshop” led by Clara Belle Wheeler from the conservative group Virginia Fair Elections.

“It takes an army,” Wheeler told the group gathered for the first session of the summit, urging attendees to become poll watchers or election officers ahead of the midterms, and then walking attendees through the process of how to register to volunteer.

Wheeler pointed to the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, won by Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, as a proof of concept heading into 2022.

“We made such an impact in the 2021 election that every major news outlet across the country talked about the army of poll watchers in Virginia,” Wheeler said.

Following the training session, attendees were moved into a ballroom to watch the 42-minute film from Citizens United president and close Trump ally David Bossie called “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump,” which claims that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg swung the 2020 election through the $419 million he donated to support voter turnout and education efforts. Attendees gave the screening a standing ovation, after which Citizens United’s JT Mastranadi took questions from the crowd.

Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan public policy institute, warned that the efforts by CPI to recruit poll workers and election officers could be dangerous given the rhetoric used and the emphasis placed on false claims about the last election.

“It’s not healthy to recruit folks to either be poll workers or poll watchers with such an extreme hostile level of suspicion towards both election workers and their fellow citizens and their fellow voters,” Ramachandran told ABC News. “Especially because there is no reason to think that there was something that needed to be stopped in 2020. That’s a lie that the election was rigged. So telling people that becoming a poll worker or poll watcher is a way to stop something that that didn’t even happen in the past is just not a healthy way to bring people into the process.”

Ramachandran said that while it’s good that people are engaged in the process and have an interest in how elections are run, “it’s not good to, without context, without understanding, have a bunch of people who’ve been fed a diet of lies for the last year and a half about elections, have them go out and do this sort of [work] without context.”

Mitchell moderated multiple panels during the Virginia summit, including one titled, “The Left’s Plans to Corrupt the 2022 Election with Our Tax Dollars and How to Protect the Vulnerable Votes from Leftwing Vote Manipulators.”

According to a schedule obtained by ABC News, the Virginia summit also included panels featuring Tea Party Patriots cofounder Jenny Beth Martin and former Trump adviser Mike Roman, who pushed unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud after the 2020 election.

‘Control the local apparatus’

Beyond its own marketing, the summit series has received broad promotion from pro-Trump channels, including extensive promotion on Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon’s popular “War Room” podcast.

Bannon featured multiple guests from the summits, including Mitchell, in the lead-up to the Virginia summit, which he encouraged viewers to attend.

During a “War Room” appearance days before the Virginia event, Mitchell described the program as “arming people to fight back against the radical left,” saying her goal was to “keep them from stealing it ever again.”

“Are these active workshops where they actually understand how to take over and grab hold of and control the local apparatus in their local elections?” Bannon asked Mitchell.

“Absolutely,” Mitchell said. “That’s absolutely what we’re doing.”

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