In a key scene in this year’s biggest conspiracy theory film, “2000 Mules,” tense music plays as surveillance footage shows the exterior of the Gwinnett County elections office in Lawrenceville, Georgia. A man in sweatpants and a hoodie, face blurred, exits a white Ford SUV and, one by one, deposits five ballots into a drop box on the building’s exterior, before flashing a thumbs up to a line of waiting voters and leaving the scene.
“What you are seeing is a crime,” says Dinesh D’Souza, the film’s director and narrator. “These are fraudulent votes.”
Except, according to Georgia authorities, the votes were completely legal. The faceless villain, one of several shown in the surveillance footage featured in “2000 Mules,” was just a normal dad. After matching his license plate to an address, investigators interviewed the man and confirmed that he was dropping off his wife and kids’ ballots, which is legal in Georgia.
At a May meeting of the Georgia State Elections Board, Republican Ed Lindsey said the case was a “cautionary tale” and urged Americans to allow for investigation before jumping to conclusions.
The opposite happened.
By the time the elections board dismissed the case of the white SUV, video of the man and his family’s ballots had been featured on Fox News, as Tucker Carlson interviewed one of the movie’s stars and executive producers, Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the Texas-based group True the Vote, a conspiracy-theory-driven right-wing group that works to ferret out supposed voter fraud.
Engelbrecht and True the Vote board member Gregg Phillips, her co-star and co-executive producer, launched a nationwide press tour championing the claims in the film, which were based on imprecise cell phone location data True the Vote purchased, and which they claimed showed a vast network of ballot smugglers — mules — supposedly delivering illegal votes on behalf of unnamed left-wing organizations for $10 a pop.
By June 2, the right-wing polling outfit Rasmussen said 15% of survey respondents had seen the film. Multiple Republican candidates, including two secretary of state nominees in pivotal swing states, have praised the film publicly, a HuffPost review found. And the movie has inspired groups across the country to hold stakeouts at drop boxes and to mobilize again around Donald Trump’s lie that, as the then-president said in August 2020, “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
These pronouncements may have a profound impact on the midterm elections ― not only by activating the conservative base with risible lies, but by building a mandate for these election officials to undertake serious actions against voting rights and fair elections if they make it into office.
Already, the film may be encouraging plots against the administration of the midterm elections. Several sheriffs in key states, activated by seeing the film, are now claiming to be watching aggressively for supposed voter fraud.
And a briefing paper last month on threats to drop boxes from Logically.ai, a web-based anti-disinformation firm, highlighted everything from efforts to organize “all night patriot tailgate parties” to comments about sabotaging drop boxes with bleach, acid, glue, road flares, flamethrowers and explosives.
“It’s comical at first, until you catch the context in which it’s being said,” said Chad Houck, Idaho’s deputy secretary of state. “If you understand the context and have had to deal with the folks that generate that context for the last nine to 12 months, you realize it’s not a joke. It’s not sarcasm.”
A Pattern Of Deception
D’Souza came to the topic of election fraud with a history: In 2014, he pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign contribution limits by using straw donors to give $20,000 to the U.S. Senate campaign of a college friend. Four years later, Trump granted D’Souza a presidential pardon. “2000 Mules,” which was also executive produced by Salem Media Group, opens with D’Souza saying that the 2020 election “haunts the American mind” and calling the Jan. 6 Capitol attack a “primal scream” before reaching out to Engelbrecht, who tells him “we have been working on something big.”
Neither D’Souza nor True the Vote responded to HuffPost’s questions about the film.
“2000 Mules” is easily and endlessly debunkable: True the Vote claims that “ballot mules” visited multiple drop boxes each with armloads of ballots, but never shows video of more than one visit by any single voter, and hasn’t released the cell phone geolocation data that they say proves otherwise. They claim to know the identities of these ballot mules, but apparently none have been turned over to law enforcement.
It’s filled with amateurish errors, too numerous to recount. At one point, the film showed a supposed map of the Atlanta area, stylized like a Matrix set piece. But critics quickly noted the map was actually a stock image of Moscow. The fundamental claims of the film are just as flimsy. Engelbrecht told Tucker Carlson that the average ballot mule made 38 drop box visits — “and it’s on tape!” she added on Twitter. But five months later, no evidence, videotaped or otherwise, supports anything close to that claim.
Asked during a Wisconsin state legislative hearing in March if he could list the names of nongovernmental organizations visited by the supposed ballot mules, Phillips refused. “Not at this time,” he said. “We’ve got several things ongoing, some legal strategies and some other matters.” True the Vote still hasn’t named names.
Pressed in a May Washington Post interview for any reason to actually trust the information presented in his film, D’Souza deflected, saying evidence had been “shared with multiple authorities in Wisconsin, in Arizona and in Georgia.”
But emails obtained by Axios show True the Vote stubbornly refusing to provide that information to the Arizona attorney general’s office despite repeated requests. “We have continually asked for information that has not been provided,” a spokesperson for the office told the outlet.
True the Vote did share data showing that various cell phones got within 100 feet of multiple drop boxes, D. Victor Reynolds, the then-director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, wrote in September last year. But, he added, “What has not been provided is any other kind of evidence that ties these cell phones to ballot harvesting.” True the Vote claimed to have an unnamed source that would be able to validate their claims, he added, but the person had not been made available to state or federal investigators, “despite repeated requests.”
A few months later, the state’s Elections Board even issued subpoenas to True the Vote for its purported evidence, to little effect.
“The status of the subpoenas hasn’t changed ― they were issued, and TTV hasn’t complied,” a spokesperson for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office told HuffPost.
“The status of the subpoenas hasn’t changed – they were issued, and [True the Vote] hasn’t complied.”
True the Vote officials have quickly shifted gears, as their prior claims fell apart. After spending months promising to provide evidence for their claims, True the Vote held an event in Arizona in August called “The Pit,” where they promised to share what they had. They didn’t, instead claiming they’d been the victim of Chinese hackers. Engelbrecht and Phillips signaled they would now train their fire on Konnech, an election vendor that various counties around the country use to keep tabs on seasonal election workers.
Konnech’s CEO, Eugene Yu, is an American citizen, but Engelbrecht and Phillips sold their new venture as a fight against China: One flier shared by Engelbrecht on Truth Social advertised “The Tiger Project: How the [Chinese Communist Party] is breaching US elections.” A network of QAnon influencers helped spread the word, Media Matters found. Konnech sued True the Vote for defamation.
Then, a twist: Yu was arrested “as part of an investigation into the possible theft of personal identifying information of those workers,” the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office said Tuesday. Konnech said they believed Yu was being wrongfully detained.
True the Vote put out a triumphant statement, saying the group had played a “small role” in the investigation. But a spokesperson for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office denied that, telling HuffPost, “The District Attorney’s Office conducted an independent investigation without any cooperation with True the Vote.” A spokesperson for True the Vote said that statement was “inaccurate.”
‘Vigilantes’ Watching Voters
“2000 Mules” may not be credible, but it’s been an undeniable hit with the “Big Lie” crowd hoping to keep Trump’s myths about the 2020 election alive, even as more creative sources of imaginary fraud like bamboo ballots and Italian satellites have fallen out of fashion.
Trump held a MAGA-celebrity-packed screening of the film at Mar-a-Lago in May. And numerous Republicans running to be the chief election officers in their states have praised the nonsense conspiracy theory movie.
Zignal labs recorded a dramatic spike in searches for “ballot mules” after the documentary’s release, The New York Times reported, a surge of interest that coincided with high-profile calls to stage stakeouts near drop boxes.
“I have been so pleased to hear about all you vigilantes out there that want to camp out at these drop boxes,” Arizona State Sen. Kelly Townsend (R) said in a legislative hearing on May 31, after a presentation by Engelbrecht.
Then, she warned would-be mules: “We’re going to be out there, we’re going to have hidden trail cameras, we’re going to have people parked out there watching you, and they’re going to follow you to your car and get your license plate.”
The following week, officials in Shasta County, California ― a northern, mostly Republican part of the state known recently for a militia-fueled recall effort ― discovered a trail camera pointed at the back door of their elections office.
Crucially, buzz around the film spiked over the summer, as Republican candidates across the country made their pitches to primary voters.
Arizona Republicans’ nominee for governor, Kari Lake, trumpeted her pre-primary endorsement from D’Souza on her Twitter page, calling him “one of the great Patriots of our time,” and polled her Twitter followers on whether they’d be willing to “take a shift” watching a drop box. Lake won her August primary by a five-point margin.
“With a lot of this, the impetus behind it is to create fear around using drop boxes, period,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, an anti-extremism group. Burghart pointed out that the film focused on four cities with substantial Black populations ― Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Milwaukee ― as well as Yuma County, Arizona, which is more than half Latino.
“The idea that you can hopefully discourage people from using drop boxes for elections because of worries about confrontations is all part of the game,” Burghart added.
Lake was hardly alone: Mark Finchem, who secured the Republican nomination for Arizona secretary of state, said the film had presented “visual evidence” of wrongdoing. Kristina Karamo, nominated to be Michigan’s secretary of state, said it showed “massive election fraud.” Chuck Gray, now running unopposed to lead Wyoming’s elections as secretary of state, said it showed “how the woke, big tech left has stolen elections with ballot drop boxes.” All three candidates have attended screenings of the film on the campaign trail.
In Michigan, 17 Republicans wrote to the attorney general’s office in June, saying they “anticipate warranted prosecution given this platform of controversial behavior.” The following month, 10 House Republicans, all of whom had voted against certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 win, urged investigation of the film’s claims, saying they were “far more serious” than other topics of congressional investigation like environmental justice. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said it raised “significant questions about what might have happened in that election.”
Emails from top officials in the Texas attorney general’s office showed they organized outings to two screenings within a few weeks of each other, Texas Monthly reported. In fact, most major power brokers in Texas lined up behind the film: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was a listed sponsor for a Houston church’s screening in June, and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was listed as a guest speaker at a separate screening in Dallas, alongside Sidney Powell, Trump’s former legal adviser, the Texas Tribune reported. The Texas Republican Party screened the film three times during its convention this year, the same report noted.
“You get an enormous amount of information,” Texas Secretary of State John Scott said of the film. But a spokesperson for Scott’s office, Sam Taylor, denied to HuffPost that Scott had endorsed the film’s claims. Instead, Taylor said, “that conversation was to address concerns of Texas voters in the audience who asked about the film, not to spread or endorse any misinformation.”
‘Our Wake Up Call’
The “2000 Mules” film, and the traveling circus around it, has acted as a mobilizing agent for groups across the country who believed Trump’s lies about 2020 and are eager to “stop the steal” in 2022, and, with Trump all but certain to run again, the 2024 presidential race.
Ominously, that includes several law enforcement officials. At a major event held in Las Vegas in July, True the Vote announced a partnership with the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which holds that sheriffs are the supreme law enforcement authorities in their counties, and also that they can disregard things like gun restrictions and COVID public health measures that they deem unconstitutional.
At that Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association event, Sheriff Calvin Hayden of Johnson County, Kansas ― Kansas’ largest county and a crucial buffer recently against new abortion restrictions ― bemoaned that new Kansans were “bringing some of their politics from the crummy place they lived to my county, and it’s not fun.” Later that week, Hayden and others spoke on a panel called “2000 Mules: ‘Law Enforcement Has To Step In At This Point!’ – Will Sheriff’s Investigate?”
At the CSPOA event, Engelbrecht and Phillips announced a partnership they claimed would fundraise for surveillance cameras and “artificial intelligence” to help participating cops keep an eye on voters. One of True the Vote’s partner organizations is Protect America, a right-wing law enforcement group supporting “Sheriffs and law enforcement members that believe in God, Family and Freedom,” whose membership includes Sheriff Ric Bradshaw of Palm Beach County, Florida, home to 1.5 million people.
“This organization has MANY sheriffs around the U.S.,” a spokesperson for Bradshaw’s office told HuffPost.
“If we would know about you guys back in 2020, things would have been a little bit different,” Engelbrecht told the sheriffs. A website for the partnership, ProtectAmerica.vote, reads, “We will provide local Sheriffs with the training, resources and tools to have real-time eyes on voting in their county.”
Others don’t have badges at all: Ad hoc groups with names like “Clean Elections USA” and “Drop Box Watch” cite “2000 Mules” as inspiration in their efforts to organize citizen surveillance of drop box sites.
“We need volunteers urgently to guard drop boxes,” one flier on Clean Elections USA’s website reads. “2000 Mules was our wake up call.”
The film has driven a wave of such election denial organizations, Burghart said. He argued that voters’ potential fear about using drop boxes was part of the film’s “calculus” from the start.
“They’re hoping that they can generate enough attention around drop boxes to scare people away from using them, and to deter people from exercising their right to vote,” Burghart said. “I’m just hopeful that people don’t succumb to that kind of fear.”