On August 3, the political arm of the National Rifle Association sent $529,504 to Stampede America, a political canvassing firm. At the time, it was the gun group’s third-largest political expense during the 2020 election cycle, and, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, it was going toward canvassing for President Donald Trump.
Fourteen more payments have since flowed from the NRA to the group, totaling $2.47 million in all — and most of it intended to help re-elect Trump, FEC records show. Last October, the NRA also paid $223,551 to Stampede Consulting, a closely affiliated company. That money arrived in three equal payments that were coded as advertising expenses.
Although it has flown under the radar during the 2020 election, Stampede America has been orchestrating a broad get-out-the-vote campaign to help the Republican Party. Meanwhile, its predecessor Stampede Consulting has been tied to incidents of shady election practices by the GOP in Nevada in 2016 and in Montana this year.
The NRA’s funding of both arms of Stampede, which hasn’t been previously reported, is one of the ways that the gun group has been quietly trying to influence the 2020 election — even as its overall election spending has fallen. The NRA has spent more than $20 million during this cycle, according to public filings tracked by The Trace. At this point in the 2016 race, it had spent twice as much.
Stampede Consulting — which has on its advisory board high-profile Republicans like Carter Page, the former Trump adviser whose contacts with Russians led to him being investigated by the FBI — touts its expertise in Election Day Operations, or EDO. Traditionally, EDO organizations train people affiliated with both major parties to watch for purported voter fraud that workers at the polls might miss, like voting twice. However, the history of voter intimidation, especially against nonwhite voters, has cast suspicion on the practice. President Trump, in his comments on how the election is likely to be rigged, has encouraged his supporters to “go to the polls and watch very carefully.”
In recent years, Stampede Consulting has been caught up in two RNC scandals in battleground states.
In 2016, the Nevada Democratic Party filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Republicans and Trump adviser Roger Stone had engaged in a “coordinated campaign of vigilante voter intimidation” in Clark County, the state’s most populous county. Though Stampede was not named as a defendant, Democrats alleged in later filings that the Republican National Committee had used Stampede Consulting in order to organize poll watching on the party’s behalf. If true, this may mean that the RNC was illegally circumventing restrictions on that practice in place since the 1980s (the Republicans denied they had hired Stampede for poll watching). Ultimately, the state Democratic Party voluntarily dismissed its case.
More recently, Stampede Consulting was hired as a subcontractor in the Montana Republican Party’s efforts to gather signatures to get the Green Party on the 2020 ballot — against the Green Party’s wishes, according to findings by the Montana Elections Commission. The effort appears to have been a ploy to dilute Democratic votes, and the Montana GOP was later fined by the state for campaign finance disclosure failures.
Stampede Consulting was started in 2012 in Austin, Texas, by Holly and Chris Turner, a married couple with an extensive history working with the Republican Party. Holly Turner is a frequent commentator on Fox News, and briefly worked to loosen regulations for the Small Business Administration under Trump. From its early days, Stampede Consulting largely hired military veterans to staff and operate get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Turners, as well as spokespeople for their companies, didn’t respond to requests for comment. But federal election disclosures and interviews show that, in terms of ownership and management, the two Stampede operations are largely indistinguishable, sharing donors, consultants, addresses, and even executives. They also use nearly identical logos of a stylized elephant head. And Joseph “Tex” Dozier, a consultant for the Stampede’s EDO efforts, told us in an interview that he has advised both groups.
While state and county rules on who can be a poll watcher and what they are allowed to do vary, they are typically local residents appointed by political parties to observe voting and tallying — and aren’t supposed to interfere with voting.
For the Republican Party, the practice of informal poll watching had been effectively on ice since 1981, when the Republican National Committee hired a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” made up of local police officers to patrol polling places in predominantly Black and Hispanic areas. Democrats sued, and the RNC later agreed to a consent decree that effectively ended their poll watching operations. In 2018, a New Jersey federal court judge reversed the 30-year-old consent decree forbidding the involvement of the RNC.
“Obviously, what happened in 1981 was egregious,” said Dozier, a Republican consultant who’s worked with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Stampede Consulting on their poll watching operations. “That was pure, pure, disgraceful electioneering.” For this election, outfits like Stampede Consulting — which pay people to act as observers rather than rely on volunteers — are hoping to avoid accusations of voter intimidation by training people to follow local laws and to call in lawyers to challenge any irregularities. “At the end of the day, they should not be interfering in any way in the voting process,” Dozier said.
A voicemail seeking comment from the RNC on its relationship with Stampede and Election Day operations wasn’t returned. The NRA did not respond to our request for comment.
Stampede America counts the NRA as one of its largest backers, though the firm has been hired by a host of major conservative groups. According to public records, the Trump campaign and the Republican parties of Georgia and Florida, among others, have paid at least $10,000 this year, with almost all of it earmarked for get-out-the-vote operations. Other conservative groups, like Club For Growth, have paid Stampede Consulting for door-to-door fieldwork, text messaging, and phone banking.
This year, Stampede America has been mobilizing people to knock on doors of Republican voters in at least 16 states to encourage them to vote by mail, according to interviews with canvassers and internal Stampede documents reviewed by The Trace.
“We’re not just knocking on every door. They have targeted certain people,” said Joanne Seamanns, a Stampede canvasser in Maine who works about two hours a week. “We’re not telling people who to vote for. We’re just trying to make them aware that there’s an absentee ballot option in case there’s a COVID outbreak.” She added that most Trump supporters seemed adamant about voting in person.
Stampede hasn’t disclosed how much it’s spending on the door-knocking operation, but an internal spreadsheet that was briefly shown to a Trace reporter in early October showed that most canvassers around Orlando are paid about $20 an hour, and each logged a few hours of work a week.
The effort comes as Trump has seeded doubt about mail-in voting, particularly in states where ballots are sent to voters unsolicited, by claiming it is more susceptible to fraud than going to polling places in person. “Unsolicited Ballots are uncontrollable, totally open to ELECTION INTERFERENCE by foreign countries, and will lead to massive chaos and confusion,” Trump tweeted in September.
Voter fraud is an extremely rare occurrence. The Brennan Center for Justice has found that instances of voter fraud are vanishingly rare, and apparent instances of dead people casting ballots, or of people voting twice, are more likely to be traced back to clerical errors.
Dr. Nazita Lajevardi is a political science professor at Michigan State University who has studied voter intimidation. She told The Trace, “There are poll watchers intending to intimidate and there are poll watchers intending to document.”
On its website, Stampede Consulting claims it has “successfully interfaced with attorneys, properly collected data, and shipped affidavits in real-time. After years of doing this, we’ve become very difficult to surprise, when it comes to what’s possible at the polls, because we’ve probably seen it before.”
If poll watchers hired by Stampede Consulting see something that could be voter fraud, they are supposed to inform a lawyer, who can fill out affidavits on the alleged irregularities, which could then be evaluated by an election judge or local police.
Typically, Dozier said, people doing Elections Day Operations work with county election administrators who oversee the overall voting and vote-counting processes, and attend meetings with committees tasked with verifying the signatures of voters. “If you’re not incorporating signature verification committees, early ballot board meetings, or anything of the like, into your [Election Day Operations] plan, you don’t have an EDO plan,” Dozier said. “That’s going to be critical. And that’s going to obviously matter for having that documentation if there are any incidents or anything like that.”
On October 19, the 5th Circuit Appellate Court ruled that Texas can reject ballots based on mismatched signatures and isn’t required to give voters a chance to appeal. While the number of ballots rejected because of signatures has been small in places like Travis County, where Austin is located, counties across the country have been increasing the number of people on the committees that verify signatures.
As Republicans have ramped up Election Day operations, the distinction between maintaining the integrity of the vote and actively suppressing people’s rights is not always clear. For instance, Nevada GOP operative Jesse Law recruited a group of Republican volunteers in early October to go to housing complexes and take photos and videos of unattended ballots, according to a web training for potential poll watchers attended by a Trace reporter.
“As ballots arrive and you go to check your mail, please take a look around,” Law said during the October 6 session. “OK, so we’re going to find these, you’re not going to touch them at all. And we’re going to document it with photo and video.”
The Nevada Republican Party didn’t respond to a request for comment on Law’s statements.
But Lajevardi said these photos could be used later to challenge votes. Lajevardi also noted that seemingly minor vote “monitoring” issues like these can add up to more. “It’s important to think about the compounding effects,” she said. For instance, “There are always concerns about polling locations that are closed. Why is it that people of color have to wait in line seven times as [long] as white people to vote? All of these tactics have an additive effect.”