The election conspiracy movement continues as 2024 approaches
An attendee wearing a shirt mocking President Joe Biden is seen before an election conspiracy forum Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Franklin, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
A book on the inside of the 2020 election sits on a table during an election conspiracy forum Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Franklin, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) – One by one, the presenters inside the packed hotel ballroom shared their computer screens and promised to show how easy it is to hack into voting systems across the United States
They drew gasps from the crowd and highlighted theoretical vulnerabilities and problems from past elections. But instead of tailoring efforts to improve election security, they argued that all voting machines should be eliminated — a message wrapped in conspiracies that elections were rigged to favor certain candidates.
“We are at war. The only thing not flying right now is bullets,” said Mark Finchem, a Republican candidate for secretary of state in Arizona last year who continues to contest his loss and was the final speaker at the daylong conference.
Finchem was among a group of Republican candidates running for governor, secretary of state or attorney general who contested the outcome of the 2020 election and who lost clean sweeps in November in key political battleground states, including Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Still, deep distrust of the U.S. election persists among Republicans, skepticism fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims and by allies who have traveled the country meeting with community groups and holding forums like the recent one just outside Nashville, attended by about 250 people.
As the nation races toward the next presidential election, the mushrooming election conspiracy movement shows no signs of slowing down. Millions have become convinced that any election in which their preferred candidate loses has somehow been rigged against them, a belief that has fueled efforts among conservatives to ditch voting machines and stop or delay certification of election results.
“Voters who know the truth about our election have faith in them,” said Liz Iacobucci, director of election security at the voter group Common Cause. “But the people who have been led into unbelief – those people can be led into other things, like January 6.”
Trump, who is running for the White House for a third term, has signaled that the 2020 election will remain an integral part of his 2024 presidential run. In a recent conversation with reporters about a new book, Trump pointed to polls that show a significant number of people believe the 2020 election was stolen, even though there is no such evidence.
“I’m a voter,” Trump said. “You have a lot of suffragettes in this country and they are not happy about what has happened.”
There has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the US, and multiple reviews in the battleground states where Trump contested his loss confirmed the election results were accurate. State and local election officials have spent more than two years explaining the many layers of protections surrounding voting systems, and last year’s midterm elections were largely uneventful.
Trump allies such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn remain prominent voices calling for a ban on voting machines. They want hand-marked paper ballots that are counted individually without the help of machines by poll workers in the nearly 180,000 polling places across the country.
“We all have the same agenda, to get our elections fair and transparent and where they can’t be hacked,” said Lindell, who recently announced plans to form what he calls an “election crime agency” to bring his myriad legal, cybersecurity and legislative efforts under one organization.
In an interview, Lindell said he has spent $40 million since the 2020 election investigating fraud allegations and supporting efforts to ban automatic voting machines. He said he is taking out loans to continue financing the work.
During an “America First Forum” held last month in South Carolina, Flynn told those gathered at a Charleston hotel that they were fighting not only Democrats but other Republicans who dismiss their concerns about the 2020 election.
“Our Republican Party, they want to move forward,” Flynn said via video conference. “And frankly, the American people are not going to move forward.”
An AP and PBS series “Frontline” investigation last year examined how Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, traveled the country spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and vaccines while building a movement based on Christian nationalist ideas. He relies in part on groups such as The America Project and America’s Future.
America Project was launched in 2021 by Patrick Byrne, founder of Overstock.com. Byrne said elections remain a top priority for the group, although it will also focus on border issues. Asked how much he plans to spend before the 2024 election, Byrne told the AP: “There is no budget.”
“I have no children, no wife,” he said. “There’s no point in saving it for anything.”
Newly filed tax forms do not detail where the group’s $7.7 million in revenue came from that year, but Byrne and Michael Flynn’s brother, Joseph Flynn, told the AP that most of it came from Byrne himself. The group reported giving $2.75 million to Cyber Ninjas for a biased and widely criticized review of the 2020 elections in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix.
Michael Flynn is now focused on the non-profit group he leads, America’s Future, and other projects, according to his brother. This group reported raising $2.3 million in 2021 and disbursing $1.2 million in grants, including just under $1 million to Cyber Ninjas.
Others who have been central to the work of raising doubts about the correctness of elections have also been active this year. Among them is Douglas Frank, a math and science teacher in Ohio, who said on his social media account that he met with various groups in six states in January, seven states in February and planned to be in eight states in March.
At the Tennessee forum, Kathy Harms, one of the event organizers, took the stage to talk about why she’s fighting to get rid of voting machines.
“I’m not doing this for me. I would rather just be a grandmother at home, says Harms, who lives in the county where the conference was held. “I have grandchildren I do this for because I want them to have what I have. I don’t want a banana republic.”
Presentations by people working in information technology argued that election officials have little security knowledge or experience.
One of them, Mark Cook, walked participants through the voting process, pointing out potential threats and playing a video he said was of an “Iranian whistleblower” who accessed US voter registration data to fraudulently request and submit military ballots.
Cook said the video had some “real-life components” and “may be legitimate.” He did not mention that an influx of duplicate military ballots would be readily apparent because election workers log each person who casts a ballot, meaning a second ballot that appears to have been cast by the same person would be taken.
“There are thousands of ways to exploit these systems,” Cook said, dismissing security measures taken by election officials as a “shell game” and “smoke and mirrors to distract us.”
Election officials acknowledge that vulnerabilities exist, but say several defenses are in place to prevent attempts at manipulation or detect malicious activity.
“Election officials and their partners understand that the goal is not to create a perfect election system, but one that ensures that any attack on the election system does not exceed the ability to detect and recover from it.” said David Levine, a former local election official who is now a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Among those listening to the presentations at the Tennessee conference was Luann Adler, a retired educator and school administrator who said she has lost faith in elections after reading articles and watching online videos about voting machines. She has advocated in her community to ban voting machines and limit voting to a single day.
When she served as a poll worker last year, Adler said, she didn’t observe any problems. Still, the experience didn’t change her mind.
“As we’ve seen today, a machine can be manipulated,” Adler said. “I’m not pointing to any individual or any community as malevolent, but I don’t trust the machine.”
Associated Press writers Michelle R. Smith in Providence, RI; Nicholas Riccardi in Denver; and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.