The Constitutional Sheriffs Movement and Election Denial

Election-denial activists have encouraged “constitutional sheriffs” to bolster partisan election investigations and further undermine faith in U.S. democracy. American Oversight is investigating the movement and its adherents’ ties to election denial and voter-fraud alarmism.

The “constitutional sheriffs” movement — a fringe theory that holds that sheriffs have more law enforcement power in their home counties than any other government body or individual — has risen in influence over the past decade. Adherents believe that county sheriffs are the ultimate authority in determining the constitutionality of the laws they must enforce — including on matters of election administration.

In recent years, the movement has brought its work to the election denial space, with many constitutional sheriffs running for office and on promises not to enforce certain laws and others working as self-appointed election police in 2020 and 2022. Election deniers have encouraged constitutional sheriffs to monitor elections and launch investigations in efforts to further undermine faith in the security of voting.

The movement’s most prominent group is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), which was founded in 2011 by former Sheriff Richard Mack of Graham County, Ariz. The organization claims on its website that “the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President” — a theory that legal scholars say has no grounding in law.

Background
Before founding CSPOA, Mack was a longtime board member of the Oath Keepers, alongside founder Steward Rhodes, who in late 2022 was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. In 2022, Mack stepped down as CEO of CSPOA, and Sam Bushman, a far-right podcaster, assumed the role.

One member of CSPOA who was involved in efforts to undermine the 2020 election was Sheriff Christopher Schmaling of Racine County, Wis. In 2021, Schmaling recommended charging five members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission with misconduct and fraud for measures they took to facilitate coronavirus safety protocols for voters living in nursing homes. A year later, Schmaling did not investigate or recommend charges against a resident who illegally requested multiple absentee ballots to prove election fraud is possible, instead blaming the state’s top election officials.

In May 2022, CSPOA said it was encouraging its members to launch investigations into the 2020 election in their own states. Sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County, Mich., began investigating alleged voter fraud after the 2020 election, with other inquiries opened by sheriffs in Arizona, Kansas, and Wisconsin. At CSPOA’s annual meeting that summer, it announced that it had teamed up with voter-fraud alarmist group True the Vote — whose founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, was jailed later that fall for refusing to comply with a court order in a case challenging True the Vote’s claims about an election software company — to investigate claims of 2020 voter fraud and to police future elections.

American Oversight’s Investigations
American Oversight has submitted public records requests in more than a dozen states to the offices of sheriffs — including Schmaling and Leaf — seeking communications with specific election conspiracy theorists and activists such as Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the constitutional sheriffs group Protect America Now, and Engelbrecht. We also requested any communications Schmaling may have had in connection with the Wisconsin Assembly’s partisan review of the 2020 election.

In September 2022, Leaf responded to our request for communications, confirming that such records of communication with True the Vote existed, but withheld them under an exemption in the state’s public records law for records related to law enforcement proceedings. American Oversight sued for the release of the records, arguing that those communications did not constitute legitimate law enforcement work, given the lack of any credible evidence of widespread voter fraud and the misinformation propagated by True the Vote. Leaf’s attempts to shield his communications, American Oversight said, was “an abuse of his position” that “subverts the public’s right to know how the government is spending taxpayer resources.”

In January 2023 and in response to our litigation, Leaf’s office released a partial response to our records request. The released records include communications with Engelbrecht and additional constitutional sheriffs, as well as with Seth Keshel, a former Army intelligence officer who has claimed that the 2020 election was illegitimate at dozens of election denial events across the country. 

American Oversight has also requested records related to the participation of certain sheriffs at the Claremont Institute’s 2022 “Sheriffs Fellowship,” a week-long meeting of constitutional sheriffs in Huntington Beach, Calif., that focused on conservatism, the Constitution, and the “roots of radical leftist ideology.” We will update this page as more findings become available.

Related Documents

June 21, 2023

Records Request to Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office for Communications Related to CSPOA Trainings

Arizona - Pinal County
FOIA Request
May 24, 2023

Records Request to North Carolina Rep. Riddell for Communications About Legislation Requiring Sheriffs to Cooperate with ICE

North Carolina House of Representatives
FOIA Request
May 24, 2023

Records Request to North Carolina Rep. Saine for Communications About Legislation Requiring Sheriffs to Cooperate with ICE

North Carolina House of Representatives
FOIA Request
May 24, 2023

Records Request to North Carolina Rep. Smith for Communications About Legislation Requiring Sheriffs to Cooperate with ICE

North Carolina House of Representatives
FOIA Request
May 24, 2023

Records Request to North Carolina Rep. Stevens for Communications About Legislation Requiring Sheriffs to Cooperate with ICE

North Carolina House of Representatives
FOIA Request
May 24, 2023

Records Request to North Carolina Rep. Warren for Communications About Legislation Requiring Sheriffs to Cooperate with ICE

North Carolina House of Representatives
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Bernskoetter for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Brattin for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Brown for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Carter for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Cierpiot for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Hoskins for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Sen. Moon for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri Senate
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Missouri Rep. Cook for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri House of Representatives
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Osage County, Mo., Sheriff for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri - Osage County
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Hickory County, Mo., Sheriff for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri - Hickory County
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Buchanan County, Mo., Sheriff for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri - Buchanan County
FOIA Request
May 23, 2023

Records Request to Moniteau County, Mo., Sheriff for Records Related to Senate Joint Resolution 42

Missouri - Moniteau County
FOIA Request
February 14, 2023

Barry County, Mich., Records Related to Sheriff Leaf’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriff’s Fellowship

Michigan - Barry County
Agency Record
February 6, 2023

Buchanan County, Va., Sheriff’s Office Records Related to Sheriff McClanahan’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriff’s Fellowship

Virginia - Buchanan County
Agency Record
January 19, 2023

Records Request to the Jefferson County, Ore., Seeking Communications Related to Gun Measure 114

Oregon - Jefferson
FOIA Request
January 19, 2023

Records Request to the Sherman County, Ore., Seeking Communications Related to Gun Measure 114

Oregon - Sherman County
FOIA Request
January 19, 2023

Records Request to the Union County, Ore., Seeking Communications Related to Gun Measure 114

Oregon - Union County
FOIA Request
January 19, 2023

Records Request to the Linn County, Ore., Seeking Communications Related to Gun Measure 114

Oregon - Linn County
FOIA Request
January 13, 2023

Records Request to Houston County, Texas, Related to CSPOA Training

Texas - City of Houston
FOIA Request
January 13, 2023

Records Request to Burnet County, Texas, Related to CSPOA Training

Texas - Burnet County
FOIA Request
January 13, 2023

Records Request to Bosque County, Texas, Related to CSPOA Training

Texas - Bosque County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Public Records Request to Pasco County, Fla., Regarding Communications with Moms for Liberty

Florida - Pasco County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Public Records Request to Brevard County, Fla., Regarding Communications with Moms for Liberty

Florida - Brevard County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Public Records Request to Polk County, Fla., Regarding Communications with Moms for Liberty

Florida - Polk County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Public Records Request to Flagler County, Fla., Regarding Communications with Moms for Liberty

Florida - Flagler County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Public Records Request to Indian River County, Fla., Regarding Communications with Moms for Liberty

Florida - Indian River County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Yavapai County, Ariz., for Records Related to Sheriff Rhodes’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

Arizona - Yavapai County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Butts County, Ga., for Records Related to Sheriff Long’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

Georgia - Butts County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Barry County, Mich., for Records Related to Sheriff Leaf’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

Michigan - Barry County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Craven County, N.C., for Records Related to Sheriff Hughes’ Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

North Carolina - Craven County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Eddy County, N.M., for Records Related to Sheriff Cage’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

New Mexico - Eddy County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Garfield County, Okla., for Records Related to Sheriff Rink’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

Oklahoma - Garfield County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Fayette County, Texas, for Records Related to Sheriff Korenek’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

Texas - Fayette County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Buchanan County, Va., Sheriff’s Office for Records Related to Sheriff McLanahan’s Participation in 2022 Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship

Virginia - Buchanan County
FOIA Request
January 12, 2023

Records Request to Florida Department of Education Regarding Email Communications with Right-Wing Education Pressure Groups

Florida Department of Education
FOIA Request
November 16, 2022

Records Request to Yuma Co., Ariz., for Records Related to Officials’ Attendance at Lindell Symposium

Arizona - Yuma County
FOIA Request
October 11, 2022

Records Request to Texas Division of Emergency Management for Reports Related to Gov. Abbott’s Program Sending Migrants to D.C., New York, and Chicago

Texas Division of Emergency Management
FOIA Request
September 16, 2022

Indian River County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office Communications Between Sheriff Flowers and Claremont Institute

Florida - Indian River County
Agency Record
September 14, 2022

Tazewell County, Va., Sheriff’s Office Communications Between Sheriff Hieatt and Claremont Institute

Virginia - Tazewell County
Agency Record
September 13, 2022

Records Request to Sierra County, N.M., for Communications with Election Denial Groups

New Mexico - Sierra County
FOIA Request
September 13, 2022

Records Request to Roosevelt County, N.M., for Communications with Election Denial Affiliated Groups

New Mexico - Roosevelt County
FOIA Request
September 13, 2022

Records Request to Lea County, N.M., for Communications with Election Denial Groups

New Mexico - Lea County
FOIA Request
September 9, 2022

Records Request to Yuma County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office for Communications of County Officials with Ariz. Rep. Mark Finchem

Arizona - Yuma County
FOIA Request
September 9, 2022

Records Request to Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office for Communications of County Officials with Ariz. Rep. Finchem

Arizona - Pinal County
FOIA Request
September 9, 2022

Records Request to Gila County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office for Communications of County Officials with State Rep. Finchem

Arizona - Gila County
FOIA Request
September 9, 2022

Records Request to Cochise County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office for Communications of County Officials with Ariz. Rep. Finchem

Arizona - Cochise County
FOIA Request
August 31, 2022

Records Request to Yuma County, Ariz., for Communications Between Sheriff Wilmot and Select Voting-Restriction Activists

Arizona - Yuma County
FOIA Request
August 31, 2022

Records Request to Johnson County, Kan., for Communications Between Sheriff Hayden and Select Voting-Restriction Activists

Kansas - Johnson County
FOIA Request
August 31, 2022

Records Request to Barry County, Mich., for Communications Between Sheriff Leaf and Select Voting-Restriction Activists

Michigan - Barry County
FOIA Request
August 31, 2022

Records Request to Racine County, Wisc., for Communications Between Sheriff Schmaling and Select Voting-Restriction Activists

Wisconsin - Racine County
FOIA Request
August 24, 2022

Records Request to Tazewell County, Va., Sheriff’s Office for Communications of Sheriff Hieatt with Claremont Institute

Virginia - Tazewell County
FOIA Request
August 24, 2022

Records Request to Indian River County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office for Communications of Sheriff Flowers with Claremont Institute

Florida - Indian River County
FOIA Request
June 29, 2022

Records Request to Weld County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office for Communications with Big Lie Activists

Colorado - Weld County
FOIA Request
February 14, 2022

Records Request to Florida House of Representatives Seeking Rep. Randy Fine Communications

Florida House of Representatives
FOIA Request
August 23, 2021

Records Request to Merced County, Calif., for Communications Related to Oath Keepers and Jan. Attack on Capitol

California - Merced County
FOIA Request