(Reuters) – In January, lawyer Cleta Mitchell joined a phone call with then-President Donald Trump as he pressured Georgia’s top election official to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat in the state, playing an important role in Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 results.
Nearly a year later, the longtime conservative has been appointed to the advisory board of a federal agency with a mission to help states conduct secure elections.
Her surprise appointment to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Board of Advisors shows how once-fringe “election integrity” activists are trying to gain footholds in U.S. institutions in the run up to next year’s congressional elections. And it illustrates Trump’s continued dominance over his party as Mitchell and other backers of his stolen-election falsehoods win support from powerful Republicans in Congress.
Mitchell, part of a small network of Republican lawyers who have for decades pushed the idea that U.S. elections are vulnerable to rampant fraud, left her partnership at law firm Foley & Lardner days after the Georgia phone call. She has since been focused on championing “election integrity” as chairwoman of the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF). She began work at the EAC advisory board on Nov. 3.
Research by election lawyers shows voter fraud in the United States is rare, despite what Trump and his allies have claimed about voting in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
Mitchell’s appointment, which was made in August but only came to light this week after a tweet by a reporter with non-profit media organization Votebeat, alarmed Democrats and voting rights groups. Although the 35-member board is an advisory body and does not have any specific powers over voting procedures, critics said the appointment gives legitimacy to someone they accuse of undermining faith in the democratic process in the United States.
“I would expect Mitchell to continue to spread disinformation about the actual integrity of American elections,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of watchdog group True North Research and a former deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Putting Mitchell on the advisory board demonstrates how devoted the Trump party is to rewarding those who spread his claims.”
Mitchell pushed back against the criticism, saying “millions of Americans” are concerned about voting integrity.
“The real outliers are the tiny fraction of Americans who oppose voter ID, who promote an avalanche of unverified mail ballots and who work constantly to eliminate procedures that ensure proper election administration,” she said in a statement to Reuters.
The EAC’s four commissioners said in a statement it was not their role to “comment on or criticize” appointments to the Board of Advisors.
Mitchell was nominated to the board by conservative members on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), a bipartisan agency that studies allegations of discrimination, including in voting rights.
Her appointment is part of a much larger Republican push to try to exert more control over election administration. At least 18 Republican-led states have passed voting restrictions this year, while backers of false stolen-election claims are running campaigns for secretary of state – the top election official – in election battleground states.
Mitchell said her role was clinched with bipartisan support by the eight-person USCCR, evenly split between conservatives and liberals. But Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki told Reuters that his bloc was subject to a “hostage-like” situation by conservatives.
The commission’s conservative faction refused to ratify Norma Cantu, who was appointed by President Joe Biden to chair the agency in February, unless certain demands were met, Yaki and Cantu said.
“One of the changes the Conservative placed as a condition to ratifying me as the Chair was to create a process for bipartisan nominations to the board of advisors of Elections Assistance Commission,” Cantu said in a statement to Reuters.
At the time, the USCCR chair put forward nominees, who were then ratified by majority vote, but Republicans asked each of the two political factions to put forward a candidate, Yaki said.
The conservatives initially wanted J. Christian Adams, a Trump-appointed USCCR commissioner who has, without evidence, alleged “alien invasion” by non-citizens trying to vote illegally in the United States and spent years suing counties to force them to purge voter rolls. Adams, president of the PILF group, was also a member of Trump’s election integrity commission, which disbanded without finding evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election.
When Democrats refused to accept Adams, work on the commission stalled, Yaki said.
Eventually, the two sides reached a deal in which both factions put forward two appointments to boards such as the EAC’s and the opposite side selects one of them.
Adams told Reuters that the selections should have always been bipartisan. “They weren’t. We fixed that,” he said. “You don’t really think having a bipartisan process is ‘being held hostage do you?'”
On April 30, the USCCR commissioners ratified Cantu and, minutes later, agreed to change the appointment process. The commission’s four conservatives then put forward two names for the EAC board, according to an internal nomination email reviewed by Reuters: Adams and Mitchell.
“Well, do you drink cyanide or hemlock? It’s a Hobson’s choice of nightmarish proportions,” Yaki said.
Adams was well-known for his work at PILF whereas Mitchell was more of an “unknown variable,” Cantu said. “I am not pleased with the appointment and would have welcomed another choice.”
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Grant McCool)