A few months ago, two women showed up at Steve Snell’s home in southern Pennsylvania with questions for his 89-year-old mother-in-law.
“They said they were with something called the ‘Committee to Verify the Election’ or something like that – something I had never heard of,” said Snell, a retiree and former Democratic candidate for the state legislature.
More than a year after the election, reports of door-to-door canvassing have surfaced across the country – from battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, to solidly red Utah. An Ohio scientist popular in circles associated with former President Donald Trump recently told a Wisconsin legislative committee that he’s already trained canvassing teams in 30 states.
These so-called “citizen canvasses” are the latest twist in the effort by Trump’s supporters to advance claims – pushed by the former President himself – that he lost the 2020 election through voter fraud. Federal, state and location election officials all have said there’s no evidence of widespread election fraud that would have affected the outcome of the presidential election.
Snell said that the women, in their quest to uncover voter fraud, wanted to know whether his mother-in-law had indeed cast a ballot in the 2020 general election, he said. She had, but she did so from his address, having moved from her assisted living facility to his family’s home during the pandemic, Snell said.
“They were looking for something that didn’t exist,” Snell said this week. “It’s an example, from my perspective, of the crazy, illogical things that people believe because the man at the top, Donald Trump, said it was so.”
The door-to-door activity has raised alarms for some state and local election supervisors and for voting rights advocates who fear it could confuse voters, or even worse, veer into voter intimidation.
As attempts to “audit” the 2020 election results have stalled or failed to produce the “optics” election deniers have sought, they “have changed their tactics” said Matthew Masterson, a former senior cybersecurity adviser with the Department of Homeland Security who worked on election security issues. He now studies election misinformation as a policy fellow with the Stanford Internet Observatory.
The canvassing approach, he said, “moves the harassment to the streets of neighborhoods.”
Voting rights activist Hannah Fried, who serves as national campaign director of All Voting is Local, said home visits from people who don’t believe the 2020 election results could be “really spooky” for voters.
“What other message can a person take from that, other than: ‘Your vote is not welcome,’ ” she said.
The activity also has triggered warnings from election officials. In Michigan, for instance, an official in Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office, issued a statement earlier this fall, telling voters they don’t have to answer canvassers’ questions.
“Any effort to violate citizens’ privacy or intimidate them by showing up at their doorstep demanding to know how they voted is a desperate attempt to further sow seeds of doubt about election results that were a secure and accurate reflection of the will of the voters,” Benson spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said.
In Florida, the reports of door-knocking prompted Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a Republican, to release a public statement, clarifying that county employees were not involved with the effort.
There’s no indication that Trump is working to organize the canvassing, but he has cheered on the efforts.
In a statement to CNN, Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington said: “President Trump supports cleaning up voter registration rolls, and rooting out voter fraud. If we do not have secure elections, we no longer have a Constitutional Republic.”
She said the “patriots” looking to root out fraud “should be applauded for doing the work politicians won’t do to ensure our elections are free and fair.”
Trump recently cited a Republican candidate’s door-knocking efforts in the Detroit area as part of his endorsement of her bid for a state legislative seat.
“Jacky Eubanks has taken it upon herself to go out and document voter fraud,” Trump said in a statement. “This courageous young woman went door-to-door in Macomb County and Detroit asking voters if they really voted, and she is finding further proof of the rampant Election Fraud in 2020.”
Eubanks, who did not respond to CNN interview requests, has said her group surveyed more than 1,200 people and uncovered multiple examples of fraudulent votes.
In Macomb County, County Clerk Anthony Forlini said an initial batch of four or five questionable votes that Eubanks had flagged for county election officials earlier this year were investigated by state police and no fraud was discovered.
In one case involving an absentee ballot, the voter told Eubanks he had voted in person, Forlini told CNN. But Forlini said the issue turned out to be a misunderstanding: The voter had used an absentee ballot but delivered it in person.
Forlini, a Republican, said those early cases don’t necessarily mean that Eubanks hasn’t uncovered problems with other ballots. He’s also ordered up an “audit” of the county’s election server. Trump won Macomb last November, but lost the state to President Joe Biden.
Spreading around the country
A key figure in the door-to-door to canvassing push, Ohio scientist Douglas Frank, said the effort is rapidly spreading.
Frank, who has gained prominence in Trump world with his theories about a stolen election, says he has trained teams in 30 states so far on how to examine their voting rolls to uncover potential fraud and more have asked for help. It’s part of his claim that state voter registration rolls have been inflated with fraudulent or “phantom” voters.
Frank, who is on sabbatical from his job teaching math and science at a K-12 private school in the Cincinnati area, has gained notoriety for his election fraud theories. He appeared on stage earlier this year at a Trump rally in Lorain County, Ohio. But a review of Michigan’s 2020 election led by Republican state lawmakers described Frank’s conclusions as “not sound.”
During a recent legislative hearing in Wisconsin, Frank described the door-knocking as the best way to uncover the fraud he claims has infiltrated the US election system.
“How would you know whether or not somebody had submitted a ballot in someone else’s name? There’s really only one way to know,” Frank told members of the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections. “You have to go knock on the door and ask them: ‘Did you submit this ballot or not?’ “
In an interview with CNN, Frank said no central, national group launched the door-to-door push, which he described as springing up organically from activists.
“What I typically find is that there will be a grassroots group that will get together, and then they’ll say, ‘Look at all this fraud. What can we do about it?’ and they’ll start reaching out to people like me.”
The goal of the canvassing is to deliver evidence of fraudulent voting to state and local election officials to prompt further investigation, he said. “This is growing. This is not going away. This is increasing.”
“The endgame,” Frank said, “is for people to understand their elections aren’t real anymore. They are being manipulated.”
Voter registration rolls are generally public information. And door-to-door canvassing is legal and a common practice during political campaigns – as candidates and political groups work to register and turn out voters.
But the Justice Department earlier this year warned that canvassing can cross the line and violate federal laws aimed at preventing voter intimidation. The warning was directed at Senate Republicans in Arizona, who had considered authorizing a voter canvass as part of their controversial re-examination of Trump’s loss in Maricopa County.
“Such investigative efforts can have a significant intimidating effect on qualified voters that can deter them from seeking to vote in the future,” Pamela Karlan, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, wrote at the time.
The FBI and Justice Department declined to comment on whether the agencies were looking into any of the current canvassing efforts.
Jonathan Diaz, a senior legal counsel for voting rights at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said there’s a balancing act between “protecting civic engagement activity and preventing harassment.”
Voters who are uncomfortable with canvassing can refuse to participate, and they also should call their local election office if they want to learn more about what happened to their ballot last year, he said.
“People may have a First Amendment right to canvass, but there’s no obligation to provide those people with any information or documents,” Diaz added.