Trump allies interviewed nearly 200 election officials in Pa., elsewhere to probe for weaknesses
Volunteers for ‘Operation Eagles Wings’ are using surveys in eight states to seek support for conspiracy theories
Patrick Byrne, left, and retired Gen. Michael Flynn, both prominent allies of former President Trump, leave a protest of the 2020 election outside the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court on Dec. 12, 2020 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images).
By Jen Fifield
Two of Donald Trump’s most prominent allies in his fight to overturn the 2020 election are leading a coordinated, multi-state effort to probe local election officials in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Arizona, and Texas ahead of the November election.
The America Project, an organization founded by Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general and former national security adviser, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, has so far interviewed or attempted to interview officials in nearly 200 counties across eight swing states, according to copies of notes, recordings of the interviews, and other documents Votebeat found on web pages associated with the organization. The survey questions reflect the same debunked conspiracies and misleading information about elections that Flynn and Byrne have been propagating for years.
The survey questions appear intended to detect potential weaknesses in local election systems and gather detailed information about how elections are run. Election experts say the information could easily be used to fuel misinformation campaigns, disrupt voting, or challenge results.
“It seems consistent with their efforts to really understand how to manipulate the machinery of election administration in this country,” said Ben Berwick, counsel at national nonprofit Protect Democracy, a research and advocacy group.
In 2020, Byrne and Flynn were among the Trump loyalists who devised a plan to seize voting machines across the country and dig up enough evidence of fraud to persuade state lawmakers, Congress, or the vice president to overturn the election results. Now, they are focusing their efforts on the midterm election, with new strategies. A group backed by The America Project, for example, is attempting to purge voter rolls in Georgia ahead of the election.
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The surveys are part of The America Project’s latest mission, dubbed “Operation Eagles Wings,” which is organized on foramericafirst.com, with web pages for each of the swing states the group is focused on. Key to the effort is building relationships with local election officials, according to two manuals for local volunteers on the organization’s websites. The officials are asked their opinions on debunked conspiracy theories, perhaps to determine whether they are like-minded individuals. Interviewers are also marking down which clerks are particularly helpful.
Berwick points out that it’s the mission of prominent Trump supporters to fill positions of power — from governors down to local clerks — with people who believe their allegations of election fraud and improprieties. Noting who does and does not support the cause, he said, may be the group’s way of determining “who will be sympathetic to their efforts in the future.”
Election officials have generally been friendly to their interviewers, but have also repeatedly assured them that their elections are fair, voting machines are secure, and voter rolls are accurate.
In Harris County, Georgia, an election official repeatedly assured the interviewer that no one voted on behalf of deceased voters in the county.
“In some counties they did,” the interviewer insisted. “They weren’t removed from the rolls. And there have been some reports. It’s down to the proof. Prove it.”
The America Project and its officers did not respond to phone and email requests for comment about the surveys.
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The survey questions vary slightly by state, though nearly all ask if counties remove deceased voters from the rolls. They also request contact information for vendors who service voting machines, and whether the county will consider designating a “neutral” third party group “training and support” for poll watchers. Some ask whether voting machines are connected to the internet, and if the local election officials are confident that local advocacy groups register voters “without bribery, intimidation or coercion.”
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Interviewers asked the officials whether they support counting votes using a “manual process like that used in France.” This is a common talking point of such activists, who routinely praise the country for efficiently hand-counting votes and use it as justification to end the use of vote-counting machines. “If France can do it, we can do it!” shouted Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on his War Room podcast earlier this year. Mike Lindell, his guest and a prominent conspiracy theorist who is also the owner of MyPillow, agrees. “Terminate the machines!” yells Lindell. There are several differences between French and U.S. elections that make hand counting more effective in that country.
Byrne and Flynn have both voiced strong support for these ideas, routinely claiming without evidence that voting machines were manipulated and that left-leaning activists routinely facilitate mass voter fraud. “Our country and its founding principles are under attack by globalists and their allies in government, Wall Street, the legacy media and by others which make-up the political left in this country,” the Georgia for America First website states. “The weapon of choice is our vulnerable election system.”
The America Project was the top funder of the Arizona Senate’s election review, and Byrne supported the now-discredited investigation of voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan. Both have said they’ll continue to work to remake American elections.
“This will be our last shot,” wrote Byrne in his book, “The Deep Rig,” which he self-published last year. The book declares: “If we do not restore election integrity by then, then next election will also be rigged [sic], and we will have tipped our way into a fascist, authoritarian dystopian version of America, run by Goons.”
“Operation Eagles Wings”
A key goal of Operation Eagles Wings is to create small volunteer teams across the country who observe the entirety of the election process, starting in part with the surveys, according to the manuals Votebeat found.
It’s the expansion of what they have dubbed “the Virginia model,” which refers to the work of Cleta Mitchell’s Election Integrity Group in Virginia to create a network for the state’s 2021 election, according to the manuals. The America Project provided funding to that effort.
The larger Operation Eagles Wings initiative is aimed at educating “election reform activists on everything from grassroots training to election canvassing and fundraising,” according to The America Project’s website. The site claims the group provides training “for Americans who want to make sure there are no repeats of the errors that happened in the 2020 election.”
“We need to do everything in our power to protect the voting process from election meddlers who care only about serving crooked special interest groups that neither respect nor value the rule of law,” the homepage says.
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Along with the surveys, the initiative encourages election skeptics to serve as poll workers and observers, perform in-person “voter registration audits,” and to visit “large farms, factories, businesses and especially care homes,” and ask residents whether anyone is forcing them to vote, according to the manuals.
Election Officials’ Top Concern? “Misinformation.”
Volunteers have conducted interviews in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, according to copies and audio recordings of the interviews that Votebeat found online. Most of the documents are stored on what appear to be unlisted pages of a site called libertyshepherd.com, which had no active homepage as of Friday, while the Florida documents are accessible from the state’s page on foramericafirst.com.
Election administrators surveyed by the group told Votebeat they weren’t bothered by the questions themselves, inviting them as opportunities to debunk misinformation.
Many election officials told the interviewers that their top concern about the upcoming election was misinformation. In Sterling Heights, Michigan, City Clerk Melanie Ryska told the interviewer that people insinuate “that we aren’t doing something right, that we are hiding something, that our [absentee] ballots are not legitimate, that we have early voting when we don’t, that we are trying to sway the vote somehow.”
Ryska told Votebeat in an interview that she is glad when people come to her for information, rather than get it elsewhere.
“I just think it is great that different organizations are actually talking to clerks now and trying to get their side of the story, if you will, because the misinformation dramatically hurts the election administrators, their team, the process,” she said. “Because it just creates so much mistrust in the process.”
Susan Nash, city clerk in Livonia, Michigan, said she was interviewed by two women with the group this summer. “Nothing wrong with questioning,” Nash told Votebeat. “It’s better to contact the clerks instead of getting misinformation elsewhere.”
Most interviews were conducted in person or by phone, with the interviewer filling out the survey themselves. Shown the completed surveys, two election supervisors told Votebeat the volunteers had not accurately recorded their answers.
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Cortney Hanson, city clerk in Novi, Michigan, said the interviewers recorded most of her responses correctly, except for one question. They used their own words to mischaracterize the funds the city accepted from the Center for Tech and Civic Life before the 2020 election, writing that she accepted “Zuck bucks” — a term championed by some conservatives referring to the grant, which had been underwritten by grants from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
“It’s not a term I would ever use,” Hanson said.
Wendy John, the county recorder in Graham County, Arizona, told Votebeat by email that the recorded answers “did not accurately reflect my response at all.” She did not elaborate.
The range of questions asked by the survey puzzled experts. Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said the survey was made up of an odd “scattering” of questions, few of which would elicit useful information about the systems used by the counties in question. They would, however, burden election officials who are already swamped with work and records requests given the upcoming midterms, he said.
Flynn and Byrne, he said, “don’t have a good record of being fact-based and practical.”
The manuals say that Flynn and Byrne intend to publicly post survey results, something Burden said risks circulating incorrect information.
For example, several of the questions ask about security practices — such as whether counties use a specific database to remove deceased voters from the rolls. The state may use the database, but not the county — a nuance that wouldn’t be captured by the survey.
In some surveys, election administrators were asked how many households in their jurisdiction have “more than 7 individual registered voters living at the same address.” While this appears to address bloated voter rolls, there are many instances where more than seven voters might lawfully live at the same address, such as college campuses and assisted living homes. Activists around the country have been filing voter challenges on those and other grounds, which are routinely thrown out by local election offices and courts.
At the end of the survey, the interviewer is asked to “characterize your interaction with the Supervisor of Elections as (circle all that apply): Helpful, polite, defensive, unhelpful, antagonistic.”
“They could be trying to find friends and enemies among election officials,” Burden said. “It’s really not clear. It’s just another strange part of the survey.”
The volunteer who interviewed Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards in Polk County, Florida, in June circled helpful and polite and wrote that she was “super nice, very friendly and accomodating [sic].” The volunteer who interviewed Brenda Hoots, supervisor of elections in Hendry County, Florida, characterized her as “defensive.” Below his circled response, he wrote, “One of the most defensive interviews to date.” He placed stars next to the comments.
Hoots said she always tries to be very open about their procedures and wants the public to understand elections, but the person conducting the survey got mad when she tried to clarify her answers.
“Am I defensive?” she told Votebeat when shown the survey results. “Yes. This is my job. This is what I do. When you question this, you are questioning my integrity as a person.”
Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona, where this story first appeared. Readers may email her at [email protected] Votebeat reporters Oralandar Brand-Williams and Natalia Contreras contributed to this article.
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