This fall, weeks after members of the Arizona far-right group known as the Yavapai County Preparedness Team announced they were forming a watch group to guard ballot drop boxes in shifts, they welcomed a guest to their regular biweekly meeting. 

Wearing a brilliant purple collared shirt and a black cowboy hat, Richard Mack stood before rows of chairs in the church gymnasium, a black-and-white picture of Jesus with the crown of thorns over the basketball hoop. Mack leads a network of sheriffs across the country – the so-called constitutional sheriffs movement – who believe their powers supersede those of the president and the Supreme Court. Under his leadership, they’ve embraced the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump and are pledging to use their positions to do something about it. 

“There are millions of people in our country who call our Constitution evil,” he said, on the verge of tears. He said it was “part of their scheme to destroy America and replace our Constitution with their socialistic agenda.” 

Mack emphasized his view that Democrats are intentionally lying about the security of the election. “It just goes on. And they keep getting away with,” he spread his palms in frustration, “murder.”

“This whole thing is the greatest crime ever committed against the American people,” he concluded. “And all we want and all we are asking for is that every county sheriff look at what happened in his county and make sure that we don’t fall prey.” 

This article was produced with help from the Pulitzer Center.

At the early October meeting, most attendees and leaders, male and female, wore an exposed sidearm. They donned the black-and-yellow T-shirts and caps of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia whose leader and several members have been charged with sedition over the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Yavapai County Preparedness Team – which claims to be the largest existing Oath Keepers branch but says it’s split from the national group – is run by Jim Arroyo, a loud man of retirement age with a trim white goatee who was an Army Ranger and has a passion for disaster preparedness.

“Everybody is worried about civil war,” Arroyo said at the October meeting. “All we do is threat assessment.” During a session on home medicine, attendees discussed the use of mushrooms as a healing elixir. Arroyo spoke in a bullish way about the need to protect oneself from a nuclear attack. He provided examples like sealing off doors and windows with plastic. A woman in front of me took notes on the iPhone Notes app under the headline: NUCLEAR.

Over the last couple of years, the group – just like Mack’s sheriffs – has gravitated toward a new mission, animated by conspiracy theories spread by Trump and glorified in the film “2000 Mules.” The theories, which have never been proven, assert that left-wing groups stole the 2020 election by stuffing absentee ballot drop boxes with a flood of fraudulent votes. 

Now, they’re preparing to do something about it: Far-right groups have made an intense, concerted push to monitor absentee ballot drop boxes. And they’ve found a growing group of staunch allies: sheriffs who’ve appointed themselves election police. 

To be clear, sheriffs do not have authority over elections, which are run by county recorders or other local officials. Once there is a criminal complaint, sheriffs, as law enforcement officials, can sometimes investigate these violations, which are sometimes felonies carrying prison time. 

Two weeks before Mack’s visit, the Preparedness Team had welcomed Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes, who championed the fact that he’d worked with local election officials to put cameras near ballot drop boxes. 

“You have put your trust in me to provide public safety,” he told the group. “I am going to be available and accessible to you all the time.” 

The specter of coordination between legitimate law enforcement – which has the backing of law, courts and taxpayer-funded weapons – and militia-inspired vigilantes raises increasing concerns about voter intimidation heading into next week’s midterm elections and beyond. It also hints at a schism beyond repair. As Arroyo said: “This nation is divided. … That is leading to civil unrest and will eventually lead to a civil war.”   

Such groups are facing some pushback as Election Day nears. After voting rights groups filed a lawsuit against groups in Yavapai County over drop box monitoring, the Preparedness Team told ballot watchers to “stand down” and officially ended the program.

But armed vigilantes were also spotted patrolling a drop box in Mesa, Arizona. 

And Mack’s outreach is going far beyond groups that are armed to the teeth. Recently, he did a virtual event with the California Federation of Republican Women to advise members on how to talk to their sheriffs. “Take a plate of cookies,” he said. “Don’t do donuts because that’s too stereotypical. But cookies, that definitely have nuts in them.” Preferably walnut or pecan, he added.

How Sheriffs Embraced the Big Lie

Mack’s national influence stretches back to the 1990s, when he became a leading figure against gun control. In 2011, during Barack Obama’s presidency, Mack found himself inspired. As a former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, he wanted to start a movement: to recruit and train sheriffs to a special kind of ideology, one that says the local sheriff has the power to overrule federal and state authority to defend constitutional rights.

So Mack created the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. And until at least 2014, he was also a board member of the Oath Keepers. While Mack continued to be associated with Oath Keepers members, he left the board and said it was because he opposed the group’s use of violence.

The so-called constitutional sheriffs movement is rooted in a far-right ideology promulgated by the virulently racist Posse Comitatus movement, started by a White supremacist named William Potter Gale in the 1970s. A core tenant of Posse Comitatus was a reverence for county-level law enforcement, specifically elected sheriffs. According to the ideology, a sheriff could interpose – or block – federal and state laws, so long as those laws were deemed “unconstitutional.” Posse Comitatus ideals spread throughout the West, inspiring sovereign citizen and militia movements.

Mack’s group fizzled out in the years after Obama left office. He had a heart attack and asked for financial help on GoFundMe.

But then came the pandemic. The mask and later vaccine mandates that came with it reinvigorated Mack and his association, increasing the number of trainings and members. Then came Biden’s election. Mack began touring the country, bringing new recruits to his cause. “They were converted,” Mack proclaimed at one event, talking about a group of sheriffs he trained. 

Richard Mack speaks at the Rod of Iron Freedom Festival in Greeley, Penn., in October 2021. His national influence stretches back to the 1990s, when he became a leading figure against gun control. Credit: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Associated Press

The ARISE USA tour (also sometimes called the “Resurrection Tour”) brought together anti-vaxxers, tax resisters, FBI haters and election deniers under one metaphorical roof. The tour’s tagline: “to unify the ninety-nine percent of the American population against the one percent in government who no longer represent the people.” 

As part of this tour, Mack inflamed fears about election integrity, supporting the false idea that the 2020 election was rigged. A baseball hat distributed at a sheriffs association event in 2021 read “#Unrig” across the front. Crowds at the rallies wore Make America Great Again hats and waved Trump 2024 flags. At one rally during the summer of 2021 in Battle Mountain, Nevada, I was startled by a sign that said, “America was raped. 11-3-20,” in white blocky paint.

The tour ran out of money and Robert David Steele, a well-known anti-vaxxer and one of the tour’s main organizers, died of COVID-19 in August 2021. But Mack – a devout Mormon who started as a beat cop in Provo, Utah – has found new relevance in promoting a narrative that the 2020 election was stolen and that sheriffs were the ones to prove it.

He has also inspired other sheriffs to join far-right election groups, as well as state Republican committees, grassroots far-right groups and local militias. 

In Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and his own far-right sheriffs group Protect America Now partnered with True the Vote, a group with a history of spreading false voter fraud claims while also enriching its insiders. Together, they produced a video in which Lamb fans the flames of the Big Lie and tells viewers to submit complaints to their county sheriff. The website directs people to “nominate your Sheriff to be a part of ProtectAmerica.vote.” If they do, they get a form letter, signed by Lamb, to send to their sheriff. The letter, which I obtained through public records requests, encourages sheriffs to “be ready to enforce the law and protect our constituents from any form of illegal activity” and offers “much needed grant resources to help you secure the voting procedures in your county with equipment, personnel, and increased citizen communication.”

An attached page includes “election integrity recommendations” like “increased patrol” around ballot drop boxes and increased video surveillance of drop boxes accessible to sheriffs on a daily basis. Sheriffs are encouraged to send community members to a national hotline run by True the Vote to report suspicious activity that will be “routed and tracked for follow up.” Finally, the document points out that sheriffs have “control in their county” – “When other areas of government breakdown our local Sheriffs step in to make sure the law is enforced.”

Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Ariz., speaks during the Rally to Protect Our Elections conference in July 2021 in Phoenix. Credit: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In Johnson County, Kansas, Sheriff Calvin Hayden requested that deputies be permitted to handle the transportation of ballots; this was rejected by county leaders. He has also continued to investigate claims of election fraud and told a small assembly in the fall: “I’m so sick and tired of hearing, ‘You’re hurting our democracy. You’re hurting our democracy.’ We don’t have a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic.”

In Wisconsin, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling conducted a criminal investigation into allegations that some people in nursing homes improperly voted; he argued that members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission should be charged with crimes. Inspired by Schmaling, the Republican-led Legislature passed a bill earlier this year making it a felony for nursing home employees to interfere in the voting process. No charges were ever filed and there was no evidence of fraud. The Democratic governor vetoed the bill

Then there’s Dar Leaf, sheriff of Barry County, Michigan. 

How One Sheriff Threw Himself into Election Chaos

Sheriff Dar Leaf (right) of Barry County, Mich., is joined on stage by members of the Michigan Liberty Militia as he speaks during a rally in Grand Rapids in May 2020. The crowd was protesting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via Associated Press

In the weeks following the 2020 election, Michigan descended into political chaos. Trump invited Republican legislative leaders to the White House to see whether they’d stop the certification of Biden’s victory in the state. Republican election bureaucrats in the state’s most populous and most Democratic county held up the results there, threatening to take away the votes that swung the state to Biden. And a group of Republican fake electors talked about camping overnight in the state Capitol to swing the state’s electoral votes to Trump.

Into that chaos stepped a man with a badge and a gun: Dar Leaf of Barry County, a rural square of land outside Grand Rapids with just over 60,000 residents. Leaf – who is ruddy, squat and speaks with a strong Midwestern accent – was particularly drawn to the conspiracy theories that had bolted through conservative politics. 
He was a key figure in early COVID-19 denial rallies and appeared at one with members of the Wolverine Watchmen, some of whom were later convicted in a failed plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

In December 2020, Leaf filed a lawsuit questioning the use of “disposable pens” (Sharpies, to be exact), giving official credence to a debunked internet conspiracy that election officials were attempting to invalidate votes for Trump by giving presumed Republican voters Sharpies to use. This was quickly thrown out by a federal judge. Last year, he chased another popular conspiracy theory by sending a private investigator and a deputy from his office to question local election officials about the possibility that Dominion voting machines had been tampered with to alter votes. 

One of Leaf’s targets, Rutland Township Clerk Robin Hawthorne, told me the investigator asked her “a whole bunch of questions” about how the voting machines were programmed. The investigator told her the Sheriff’s Office planned to interrogate all the election clerks in the county in search of vote manipulation. Hawthorne was baffled by the line of questioning; Trump had easily won the county by 2 to 1. Other election clerks asserted that there was no way to manipulate votes using those machines. At least one clerk later said the investigator took one of the voting machines.

I requested Leaf’s emails for 2021 and most of 2022 under public records law and found he’d had frequent contact with Mack, of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The sheriff’s conversations with Mack show the deep influence of conspiracies about elections and their own political and policing powers. 

Leaf and Mack, for example, shared a number of emails about a theory that the Electronic Registration Information Center – an interstate database used to confirm voters’ addresses – is part of a Democratic plot to control elections. (This has been thoroughly debunked.) In response to one email forward about the center, Mack responded, “Dar, I am not sure about this. We should discuss this and common law juries.” 

A common law jury, in a nutshell, is an idea popular with sovereign citizens – people who believe they are exempt from federal law – holding that the people, led by county sheriffs, can summon posses and enforce the law as vigilantes. It’s essentially a shadow system used by sovereign citizens to justify militia rule and has no relation to the American legal system. 

(When I asked Mack via email about this exchange over common law juries, Mack said, “I do not approve of them.”)

In another note to Mack, Leaf included a presentation called “The American Sheriff: At the Common Law,” co-written by Brent Allan Winters, a self-styled “American geologist, Bible translator, common lawyer, author, and teacher of comparative law.” Winters supports the theory of common law juries.  The PowerPoint even compares Leaf, as sheriff of Barry County, favorably to King Alfred the Great because of his unique ability to summon a posse of volunteer recruits.

Leaf sent Mack regular updates about the potential for voter fraud, mostly relying on conspiracy-laden information. One email forward was entirely composed of various articles about alleged (and debunked) U.S. vote manipulation by Italian groups, compiled by a power grid consultant. 

Mack and Leaf also corresponded regularly about the ARISE USA tour, for which Leaf was a speaker. In one email, Leaf – whose email signature ends with the quote, “A great leader knows when to lead and when to get out of the way” – asked Mack about the views of tour organizer Steele, who touted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In response, Mack wrote: “Robert said several dumb things and yes, he tries to explain the difference between Zionists and Jews. He said Jews are good people and that Zionists are not and that they have a subversive agenda.” Mack then offered to “back” Leaf in any sort of public backlash.

Leaf wouldn’t comment for this story, but in the course of fulfilling my public records request, he called to tell me that he was handling the request personally because of the sensitive nature of the investigation. In addition to the emails, he gave me a PDF titled, “Power of ‘No!,’ ” a quasi-historical justification for what’s known as nullification, the (illegal) process by which some far-right sheriffs believe they can disobey federal law. While the presentation casts nullification as rooted in august figures like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the theory was primarily used by Southern states and counties to explain why they believed they could continue Jim Crow laws and segregated schools despite federal laws and Supreme Court decisions stating otherwise. The goal of the presentation is to explain how nullification is less violent than the alternative: out-and-out revolution. 

In two presentations Leaf gave me – both by a Michigan lawyer named Carson Tucker – the history of the sheriff is presented as dignified, rooted in Anglo-Saxon law (including the Bible), and inherently concerned with “keeping the peace” through whatever means necessary, including the recruitment of a posse. (Tucker has also represented Leaf in some of his failed vote fraud investigations. He did not return a request for comment.) 

According to The Detroit News, Leaf and others are now subjects of “an ongoing investigation into the unlawful movement of tabulators outside of the jurisdictions of election clerks in multiple counties” by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. According to Nessel’s office, the plot included removing Dominion voting machines to a secret location, where they were disassembled and used to perform “tests.” While no one has been indicted yet, Nessel is requesting a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges against Leaf and other Republican politicians, including the GOP’s candidate running against Nessel, Matt DePerno, who rose from obscurity after questioning the 2020 election results in Michigan and later getting Trump’s endorsement. 

Last week, the all-Republican Barry County Board of Commissioners decided to revoke funding from the Sheriff’s Office because Leaf continues to pursue election-related claims instead of hiring another detective to investigate violent crimes, as other leaders have suggested. Leaf has assigned one of his two detectives to “election fraud” full time; only one detective is working on all other crimes. Barry County Prosecuting Attorney Julie Pratt described the situation in the Sheriff’s Office this way: “If you’re not driving or no one is driving the bus, I don’t know how the passengers can feel safe and secure.” When I asked Mack about concerns that Leaf was ignoring other investigations for his quixotic question, he chuckled and hung up.

Leaf says the state investigation is simply confirmation that he is on the right track: “We’re ready for the battle,” he said on the website of Mack’s group. 

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Jessica Pishko can be reached at jesspish@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JessPish.

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Jessica Pishko

Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist, lawyer, and New America Fellow currently writing a book on the history and growing political power of sheriffs. Her reporting has appeared in Politico, Slate, The Atlantic, The Appeal, and in her biweekly newsletter on sheriffs, Posse Comitatus.