In late 2021, election experts and voting-rights advocates reacted with dismay to the news that attorney Cleta Mitchell — a conservative activist who played a leading role in former President Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election — had been appointed to a federal election agency’s advisory board.
Reporting by Votebeat and CNN, as well as documents obtained by American Oversight, revealed that Mitchell’s appointment came thanks to an effort led by prominent voter-fraud activist J. Christian Adams. The records obtained by American Oversight indicate that Adams had also floated the possibility of nominating Hans von Spakovsky, another election-fraud conspiracist, for the role.
In the summer before the 2020 presidential election, Trump continued to elevate the voices of purveyors of election-fraud myths by appointing Adams to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). Adams — who is currently president and general counsel for right-wing “election integrity” legal group the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) — had in 2017 served on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which Trump had established in an attempt to prove the existence of widespread voter fraud, but which disbanded within a year after failing to assemble any evidence.
Following his appointment, Adams led USCCR’s conservative caucus in demanding the ability to appoint a conservative to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Board of Advisors, whose 35 members include representatives of various professional organizations and government bodies. Two of those members are appointed by USCCR.
CNN reported in May that Adams had told his fellow caucus members that he’d initiated negotiations after making clear to USCCR Chair Norma Cantú that they would stop USCCR business if they were not “treated fairly.” Within the parameters of the nominating process negotiated by Adams’ caucus, each caucus nominates two candidates, with the other caucus selecting one of those two. USCCR then formally appoints the two selected nominees to the EAC Board of Advisors. What came of this new nominating process was the appointment of a steadfast election conspiracist and Trump loyalist to one of the nation’s most critical election administration support bodies.
Records uncovered by American Oversight include emails regarding this nominating process that were exchanged between September 2020 and November 2021. When asked by USCCR Commissioner Gail Heriot in March 2021 for his thoughts on potential nominees, Adams replied on March 25, 2021, “1. Cleta Mitchell, 2. Hans, 3. ME.”
The emails indicate that the following month, while USCCR considered a proposed rule change that would have required the commission’s nominees to be USCCR members, Adams speculated that the progressive caucus would not select him and that, in the absence of such a requirement, the conservative caucus could constrain the progressive caucus by nominating von Spakovsky or Mitchell along with himself.
Von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has been credited with the popularization of the voter fraud myth in mainstream conservative circles and also served alongside Adams on Trump’s ill-fated “election integrity” commission.
USCCR’s conservative caucus eventually nominated both Mitchell and Adams, with the progressives selecting Mitchell. According to a report by Votebeat, Cantú said that the progressive caucus had “ranked Ms. Mitchell slightly more suitable for a bipartisanship appointment” and felt she was “more of an unknown variable” than Adams.
Mitchell joined EAC’s advisory board with considerable experience in anti-voter activism. But she is perhaps now best known for her participation in the January 2021 call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during which Trump pressured Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to flip the state’s critical 16 electoral votes from Joe Biden to Trump. Mitchell was an early supporter of Trump’s baseless election fraud claims and continues to spread election conspiracies at “election integrity summits” across the country.
At the time of her nomination, USCCR commissioners raised concerns not just about Mitchell’s demonstrated commitment to election disinformation, but also about a possible conflict of interest that Adams had failed to disclose. During a Nov. 19, 2021, meeting, USCCR Commissioner Debo Adegbile sought a review of Mitchell’s involvement with Adams’ legal group, PILF, noting that Mitchell served as PILF’s board chair — a role she still occupies today — and, as such, was partially responsible for approving the compensation of PILF’s employees, including Adams. According to CNN, USCCR’s general counsel determined that the potential conflict did not warrant an outside investigation.
Adams’ initial proposal of von Spakovksy and USCCR’s eventual appointment of Mitchell represent a continuation of the ongoing bid to install election deniers and anti-democratic partisans at all levels of U.S. election administration infrastructure. Previous American Oversight investigations revealed that changes to the composition of several county election boards in Georgia following the 2020 election were carried out with little or no notice to the board members in the wake of the 2020 election.
American Oversight will continue to track and investigate efforts to install anti-voter actors in key election posts throughout the country.
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