A Sheriff’s Conspiratorial ‘Election Fraud’ Investigation Is Dividing Kansas’ Largest County

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden speaks at the press conference on Aug. 27, 2020.
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden speaks at the press conference on Aug. 27, 2020. Illustration: HuffPost/The Kansas City Star/Getty Images

In November, Calvin Hayden spoke to a fringe gathering of “America First” conservatives at a church in Kansas City. He told the crowd at Hope Family Fellowship Church that they were in the middle of a war between good and evil, that the Apple logo reminded him of Eve eating forbidden fruit, and that “a lot of the LGBT stuff and questioning the gender” might really be a Communist Chinese plot to “demasculinize our men and our warriors.” 

Others on the lineup that day included Father James Altman, who had calledfor Pope Francis’ death two months prior, and Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser and pardon recipient, who the following month would tell Alex Jones, “We’re moving towards the sound of the guns here, folks, and the sound of the guns is freedom.”

Hayden was a bit of a luminary himself: He is the sheriff of Johnson County, Kansas, the most populous county in the state, including Olathe and many of the Kansas City suburbs. An elected Republican, Hayden is in charge of a department of nearly 500 deputies, two jails and a crime lab. And for years, he’s pursued a secretive, taxpayer-funded investigation of the 2020 election results in his county, which flipped Johnson County from Trump to Biden. 

Hayden is tight-lipped with the media and defensive with other government officials about his probe, but he’s usually happy to tell right-wing audiences about his work, as he did in his November speech, revealing that his office was looking into a tech contractor that Hayden said he’d heard had worked to “flip” large counties’ votes across the country. 

“I don’t know that we can win an election anymore!” he said, adding later that he could not say whether “our elections are safe.” 

For years, the sheriff has operated like this, dribbling out loaded rhetoric about Johnson County’s elections without actually updating the public on his findings. Later that day, responding to a question from the audience, Flynn suggested that Hayden “ought to go arrest those people” at the Johnson County elections office if they impeded his investigation. 

But Hayden may have miscalculated. After running unopposed for reelection in 2020, the sheriff’s wandering election probe has earned him some prominent critics throughout Kansas, and two challengers for the sheriff’s office. 

Things really started to fall apart earlier this month.  Weeks after claiming he’d had a warrant “in hand” to seize the county’s ballots for his investigation, Hayden acknowledged publicly that the supposed warrant wasn’t actually valid — no judge had signed it, despite every implication otherwise. 

That admission drew condemnation from across Johnson County and the state. The Kansas City Star reported flatly that the county’s sheriff had “lied.” Mike Kuckelman, the former Kansas GOP chair, urged Johnson County’s undersheriff to report the sheriff to the district attorney and a statewide standards body. Byron Roberson, a Democratic local police chief who’s running for sheriff this November, told HuffPost that Hayden’s stunt was an “extremely dangerous practice.” And Doug Bedford, a Republican and Hayden’s former second in command — and his current Republican Party primary challenger — ramped up his criticisms of Hayden in an interview last week. 

“The sheriff is expected to execute the duties of the office with integrity [and] competence ... If this isn’t taking place, I think that that is a threat to public safety,” Bedford told HuffPost, adding that he was “very disappointed” in his former boss. 

“Everything indicates that he was untruthful,” Bedford said.

Down The Rabbit Hole

To hear Hayden tell it, his interest in elections is the result of a deep dive down the conspiratorial rabbit holes pushed by Donald Trump supporters after Trump’s 2020 loss.

Speaking to a fringe law enforcement group in July 2022, Hayden said he initially “didn’t know anything about elections,” and that he first heard rumblings about the integrity of his county’s vote during meetings with Johnson County residents concerned about potential COVID-19 vaccine requirements. (Hayden in 2021 made a point of announcing he would not require sheriff’s deputies to be vaccinated for COVID.)

“In these meetings, these people started talking about the election issues, and I thought, ‘Yeah, OK,’ because I always took for granted the elections were OK,” Hayden recalled to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which promotes the belief that sheriffs have the authority and obligation to ignore state and federal laws they deem unconstitutional.

“Then the presidential election came and there was this big overturn,” Hayden said. Separately during the event, Hayden and several other sheriffs sat onstage under a projection that read “Election Fraud HAS HAPPENED.” 

Local media picked up the sheriff’s speech, and the Star’s editorial board called for his resignation, calling him “a threat to the rule of law.” 

In a statement to KCTV a week after the speech, Hayden’s office called the Constitutional Sheriffs’ event “a non-partisan panel to answer concerns about election fraud,” even though nearly the entire event was dedicated to the lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump.

A week after the event, Hayden’s office claimed in a statement that since the fall of 2021, the office had received “more than 200 tips alleging fraud in our local elections.” This, too, turned out to be literally unbelievable: Midwest Newsroom filed a records request for reports of any election-related crimes since 2020, and received only one document, which had not been turned over to the district attorney. 

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, also called foul on the “200 tips” claim: “We got about 12,” he told KSHB. “That 200 seems like a big number, because we didn’t see those 200. I know Attorney General Schmidt hasn’t shared anything of that size of a number either.”

Indeed, there’s little evidence of any problems in Kansas elections. After Kansas voters overwhelmingly voted to keep abortion protections in the state constitution in August 2022, a hand recount that same month of nine counties — including Johnson — lowered the pro-choice side’s margin of victory by just 63 votes, out of 556,364 recounted ballots. In Johnson County, the margin changed by just two votes. (Hayden expressed suspicion of the recount results because Johnson County government employees participated in the recount, and he said they are “surviving on government.”)

A database of election crimes maintained by the right-wing Heritage Foundation lists just one case since 2019. Steve Watkins, a former Republican congressman from the state, faced three felony charges related to voting in the wrong district in a Topeka city council race, and subsequently lying to a detective about it. Watkins entered into a diversion agreement to avoid trial, and is now back in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist. More recently, a Florida man was arrested in February for allegedly forging signatures on petition sheets used to qualify the group No Labels as an official political party in Kansas. (No Labels still ultimately had enough signatures to qualify as a political party, even without the forged signatures.) 

Nevertheless, since the start of his probe, Hayden has developed a habit of speaking in alarmist language about the supposed rot at the core of Johnson County’s elections. 

On March 1, 2022, when the Star and the Shawnee Mission Post first reported on his investigation, Hayden told the Star, “It’s still a pending investigation, but I can tell you we have found some things and some numbers; part of them are a mathematical impossibility.” He declined to go into specifics.

“We think there’s been some shenanigans going on with the election,” he told the Northeast Johnson County Conservatives a few months later, in May, before an airing of “2000 Mules,” the conspiracy theory film that, completely devoid of any evidence, asserted a massive ballot-tracking operation stole the election from Donald Trump in 2020. Hayden said he’d assigned detectives to investigate. “We look at the polls, we look at the numbers, and they just don’t match up,” he said. “I don’t know how a guy in his basement won the largest amount of votes in the history of anywhere.” 

After the CSPOA event, Hayden told The New York Times he was looking into “ballot stuffing,” “machines” and “all of the issues you hear of nationally.” Two months later, he said he believed election machines were programmed by “foreign entities, and they’re manipulating the vote how they want to.” As evidence, he said he’d seen graphs of “rigged” elections, which showed “convoluted” lines. Pressed by someone in the room for details, the sheriff said, “they call it fractional voting,” a reference to the conspiracy theory that election machines across the country gave Trump and others a fraction of each whole vote they received.

On several occasions, he’s said an unnamed “they” want the next generation of Johnson County residents to live in apartment buildings rather than becoming homeowners. “They’re taking our kids’ dreams, and our kids want a piece of the world,” he told one gathering in September 2022. Later in the event, he described being on a plane with several immigrants that he said had just arrived at the Southern border, speculating that they would use public assistance cards and Kansas’ online voter registration system to vote illegally. 

“They want everybody that they can get in the door to vote,” Hayden said. “They don’t care if they can speak English, anything, they want the vote.” 

We look at the polls, we look at the numbers, and they just don’t match up. I don’t know how a guy in his basement won the largest amount of votes in the history of anywhere.Johnson County, Kansas Sheriff Calvin Hayden

It’s true that Hayden’s jurisdiction has gone through a transformation during his tenure. Johnson County, like other suburban counties outside growing metropolitan areas around the United States, has gotten more populated, more diverse, and more Democratic since Hayden first became sheriff in 2017, and certainly since he first joined the force in 1981.

Between 2010 and 2020, Johnson County added 65,684 residents, marking the most growth in the entire Kansas City region, according to a report from the Mid-America Regional Council. People of color made up 92% of the region’s population growth during that period, according to the same report. And since 2005, the GOP share of voter registrations has fallen nearly 10% in Johnson County, while there was a 41% rise in registered Democrats between 2016 and 2020 alone.

In 2018, Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) unseated the four-term Republican congressman Kevin Yoder to represent the county to become one of  the first two Native American congresswomen, along with Deb Halaand, who’s since become Interior Secretary. Davids is currently on track for a fourth term. The county has also formed the foundation of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s two terms in office.

Mark Johnson, an election lawyer and law professor who’s represented several candidates running in the county, told HuffPost that the northeast quadrant of the county, the area bordering Kansas City and the Kansas-Missouri border, “has gone in the past 25 years from staunchly Republican to staunchly Democrat.” The same area could ultimately be responsible for breaking Republicans’ decade-old supermajorities in the Kansas legislature this year, he said.

Trump hasn’t helped. In both 2016 and 2020, he underperformed Republican presidential nominees in the county at least as far back as George W. Bush, according to a preliminary Kansas City Star analysis; Joe Biden, meanwhile, earned nearly 7% more of the vote in the county than Hillary Clinton. Trump’s loss in 2020 was the first time in over 100 years that a Republican hasn’t carried the county, a fact Hayden pointed out in his speech in Las Vegas.

Still, even the sheriff recognized the political reality on the ground.

“A lot of people are coming to move here. We get about 10,000 a year moving to Johnson County, but they’re bringing some of their politics from the crummy places they live to my county,” he said. “And it’s not fun.”

County Colleagues Push Back 

Before long, other county officials grew alarmed at Hayden’s sudden interest in elections.

In July 2022, a couple days after Hayden and several deputies held a meeting with county election staff, the county’s chief counsel, Peg Trent, wrote an alarmed letter to the sheriff, memorializing the meeting and what she said were several concerning requests that might make it look as if “the Sheriff’s office is attempting to interfere with an election and to direct a duly authorized election official as to how an election will be conducted.”

During the meeting, according to Trent’s letter, Hayden questioned why ballot drop boxes were located at libraries, and whether the county’s election commissioner, Fred Sherman, would eliminate drop boxes. Hayden also reportedly offered to have sheriff’s office staff drive unmarked vehicles to pick up ballots from drop boxes, and suggested the ballots be counted at the drop box sites. According to Trent, a Hayden staffer also requested that sheriff’s deputies be present to observe the counting of ballots, and Hayden noted that the election office’s signature verification process “is not done in compliance with how the Sheriff’s Office conducts investigations for criminal matters.”

Hayden’s office denied Trent’s characterization of the meeting — a spokesperson said “we have no intention of asserting ourselves into any election” — but the letter made national news, and brought the simmering tensions between Hayden and other county officials into the spotlight.

A few days after the meeting, and right after Hayden’s speech in Las Vegas, Sherman, the election commissioner, responded to Hayden’s remarks on Twitter: “I stand by the integrity and accuracy of Johnson County, KS elections,” he wrote.

But rather than taking the pushback to heart, Hayden elevated the beef. In statements to newsoutlets, Hayden accused Trent “and her office” of knowingly violating the Kansas law governing how ballots can be returned on behalf of others. Hayden offered no explanation of how Trent might have broken the law, and there’s no indication he brought the alleged wrongdoing to the district attorney’s office. Rather, the sheriff simply said he would “continue to deal with Ms. Trent until we reach a successful conclusion and ensure all election laws are followed.”

That would not be the last time the county’s top cop would accuse other public officials of breaking the law. Testifying before the Kansas Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee in March 2023, Hayden alleged that his office had uncovered “willful violations” of the law by both Schwab, the secretary of state, and Sherman, the county election commissioner. Hayden claimed he’d alerted District Attorney Steve Howe of his findings, but complained that there weren’t criminal penalties for the unspecified violations he’d uncovered.

But a simple records request, yet again, belied his claim. When the Johnson County Post asked for relevant records, it received only one record of an elections-related case referred from Hayden to the district attorney — an allegation of voter intimidation, for which there was “no evidence supporting charges,” Howe later said. “Sheriff Hayden’s statements consistently lack merit. This multi-year investigation ― at taxpayer expense― has produced no evidence of foul play in Kansas’ elections,” a spokesperson for Schwab said at the time. Last week, a spokesperson for Johnson County declined HuffPost’s request for comment.

Legislators who heard Hayden’s testimony were similarly wary.

State Rep. Pat Proctor, a Republican who chairs the chamber’s elections committee, noted most election crimes were already felonies, the Star reported.

“I mean, what is he looking for, crucifixion?” Proctor said.

Battle Over Ballots 

The most contentious fight in Hayden’s investigation, by far, has been over access to the county’s ballots.

Under Kansas law, old ballots are supposed to be destroyed after six months for local elections, and 22 months for state and national elections. But throughout his investigation, Hayden repeatedly pushed the county to preserve ballots, dangling the possibility of a major breakthrough. Still, even after months of talk, Hayden acknowledged in September 2022 that he didn’t have the goods.

“I’ve got to have enough probable cause for a warrant … I’m getting close, I’m getting really close,” he said, before telling his audience he was “about two months away from having this thing solved.” But he wasn’t. For more than a year, the investigation continued without any public progress.

By late 2023, the secretary of state’s office had taken notice, encouraging Johnson County to follow the law “in time to focus on the March 19th Presidential Preference Primary,” a spokesperson for Schwab told HuffPost in an email. The county reached out to the sheriff’s office, asking about the status of the investigation. A detective responded, saying “potential evidence for this investigation should not be destroyed,” but no warrant ever materialized. The county appointed bipartisan observers for the ballot destruction.

Then, the conflict escalated: Kris Kobach, Kansas’ attorney general — and a voter fraud alarmist who backed Trump’s lie that millions of illegal votes were cast in 2016 — wrote to the county, urging them to preserve the ballots. A county commissioner and state senator sympathetic to Hayden wrote to Kobach, asking for formal opinions on whether the county even had the legal authority to destroy the ballots. Trent followed up with her own letter to Kobach, saying the formal opinion process was being “inappropriately utilized for potential criminal prosecution of the Johnson County Election Commissioner.” Kobach hasn’t yet issued an opinion, and his office didn’t respond to written questions. Still, the sheriff did not produce a warrant.

In February, Johnson County finally destroyed the ballots. Only then did Hayden make his first claim about a warrant, at an April candidate’s forum hosted by the Johnson County GOP.

“As we stand here today, we had a search warrant in hand and had talked with the district attorney, and we were working on getting the documents needed when they decided in a hurry to destroy the records,” he said, the Johnson County Post reported.

The district attorney’s office contradicted the sheriff within a few days, saying it was “unaware of any search warrant being submitted to a judge for review.” Then, this month, Kuckelman, the former state GOP chair, confronted Hayden about his claim. Video posted on Facebook showed a clip of the exchange, which took place at a candidate’s forum in Olathe. Hayden waved a piece of paper in the air and spoke angrily at Kuckelman.

“You can read that, can’t you?” Hayden said to Kuckelman, complaining about being accused of wrongdoing. “[District Attorney] Steve Howe was with me, and five of my officers were,” Hayden said, without specifying what he meant.

“Which judge signed it?” Kuckelman asked of the document.

“There’s no judge,” the sheriff replied.

“No judge? A judge has to sign a search warrant to be valid,” Kuckelman shot back.

“I didn’t say it was valid!” Hayden said, as organizers scrambled to intervene.

At the Johnson County Election Office, Al Sneller, an employee in the warehouse, moves dozens of boxes into storage that contain ballots, documents and other paperwork from the 2020 general and primary elections, and the Aug. 2, 2022 primary election.
At the Johnson County Election Office, Al Sneller, an employee in the warehouse, moves dozens of boxes into storage that contain ballots, documents and other paperwork from the 2020 general and primary elections, and the Aug. 2, 2022 primary election. Kansas City Star via Getty Images

The Fallout

Looking back over the past three years of the sheriff’s investigation, Mike Kelly — who was elected chair of the county commission in November 2022, and who was a critic of Hayden’s even before that — stressed just how little Hayden seems to have to show for his work.

“We’re no further along now than we were then — and that’s because there isn’t anything there,” Kelly said. “We try always to be respectful of law enforcement, and everyone who wants to serve. But this whole process has been a huge disservice, especially to all the frontline men and women, when an elected official would degrade the important work they do by continuing on this process without any results for years. It’s become more a stage for, frankly, political theater than it has been for any real investigation.”

Kelly recalled a June 2023 county commission meeting where Hayden said he’d assigned two detectives to the investigation who “also work cold cases.”

“It’s never moved forward with any evidence of impropriety,” Kelly said.

Both of Hayden’s challengers for the sheriff’s office agreed it was unusual for an investigation like Hayden’s to go on for so long without any substantive updates. And both said that, according to what they’ve seen, Johnson County’s elections are trustworthy.

Roberson, the Democrat and current chief of the Prairie Village Police Department, said the lack of any concrete information from Hayden’s investigation made it feel more like a complex drug- or human-trafficking probe.

“This is not the case here,” he said. “It’s very unusual that no information is being disseminated about the investigation, where it’s at, or the allegations that have come out that aren’t substantiated.”

Bedford noted Hayden’s ever-shifting rhetoric on the probe: “The statements changed all the time, and that’s what I couldn’t understand. If something is there, tell us something’s there.”

Hayden did not respond to HuffPost’s repeated requests for comment.

But he’s not alone in leveraging his sheriff’s office to pursue election-related charges. In 2021, Christopher Schmaling, the sheriff of Racine County, Wisconsin, referred recommendations for criminal charges against five members of the state’s election commission, over their decisions regarding nursing home voting procedures during the pandemic. Racine’s district attorney declined to pursue charges.

And Dar Leaf, the sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, sent a deputy and a private investigator from town to town that year, trying to dig up information on the election. There have been several charges filed in Michigan — but none resulting from Leaf’s investigation. Rather, Leaf’s former attorney and a handful of others, including the former Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general, currently face charges related to improperly accessing voting machines.

Both Leaf and Schmaling attended the 2022 constitutional sheriffs event alongside Hayden.

It isn’t clear whether the median Johnson County voter supports Hayden’s work, though one county survey released in March assessed that the sheriff’s office was the “top priority for improvement” in the county, given that only 53% of respondents expressed satisfaction with the office — down a few points from 2020 — while nearly one-fourth of respondents said the office was one of the most important services the county provided.

Still, just as the national Republican Party has moved to the right during the Trump Era, so have Kansas Republicans. In February last year, 90 out of 179 delegates narrowly elected an election conspiracy theorist, Mike Brown, to lead the state GOP.

The same shift happened in Johnson County. When the first reports emerged in March 2022 of Hayden’s probe, the then-county GOP chair, Marisel Walston, said in a statement, “The official position of the Johnson County Republican Party Leadership is that the election systemin our county is secured. We trust in the work of election workers, the election commissioner, and the Secretary of State.”

It’s no longer clear that’s the case. Now, under new leadership, the Johnson County Republican Party’s socialmedia channels are dotted with election conspiracy theories and other culturewarchum.

In March, the party posted a video on X of Melissa Leavitt, an activist in western Kansas who fundraised for the recount of the abortion vote despite the pro-choice option winning by 165,000 votes. In the video, Leavitt urged viewers to pressure legislators to support a wide-ranging bill that would, among other things, require a hand count of Kansas’ hundreds of thousands of ballots every election, eliminate the use of remote drop boxes by counties, and end a three-day grace period for accepting mail-in ballots.

“This is the top thing in our nation right now,” Leavitt said. “How do you think we ended up with this crisis? It didn’t come from fair and free and true and fraud-less elections, I’ll tell you that.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misquoted Marisel Walston as saying in a statement, “The official position of the Johnson County Republican Party Leadership is that the election in our country is secured.” In fact, Walston said former Johnson County GOP leadership’s position was that the election system in the “county” was secure.