US election conspiracies find fertile ground in conferences
On a quiet Saturday at an Omaha hotel, about 50 people gathered in a ballroom to learn about elections.
The issue wasn’t voter registration or volunteer training for poll workers. Instead, they paid $25 each to listen to panelists pitching conspiracy theories about voting machines and rigged election results. In language sometimes prone to violent imagery, some panelists urged those present to join what they described as a battle between good and evil.
Among the onlookers was Melissa Sauder, who was driving with her 13-year-old daughter nearly 350 miles from the small western Nebraska town of Grant. After years of scouring websites, listening to podcasts, and reading conservative media reports, Sauder wanted to learn more about what she believes are serious US election integrity issues.
She can’t shake the belief that voting machines are being rigged even in her home district, where then-President Donald Trump received 85% of the vote in 2020.
“I just don’t know the truth because it’s not open and obvious and it’s not transparent to us,” said Sauder, 38. “We trust people who trust the wrong people.”
It’s a sentiment now shared by millions across the United States following relentless attacks on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election by Trump and his allies. Nearly two years after that election, no evidence has surfaced to suggest widespread fraud or manipulation, while state-by-state reviews have confirmed the results showing President Joe Biden won.
Still, the attacks and falsehoods have had an impact: A 2021 poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found about two-thirds of Republicans say they don’t believe Biden was legitimately elected.
Events like August 27 in Nebraska’s largest city are one reason.
Dubbed the Nebraska Election Integrity Forum, the conference featured some of the country’s most prominent figures who have been promoting conspiracy theories that the last election was stolen from Trump through widespread fraud or voting machine manipulation. It was just one of dozens of similar events taking place across the country for nearly a year.
Over eight hours, with only a brief lunch break, attendees were inundated with election plots, complete with charts and slideshows. Speakers talked about the manipulation of voting machines or systems that store voter rolls, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and enormous numbers of votes cast by dead people and non-US citizens – all theories that have been debunked.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or tampering with voting equipment that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 election, in which Biden won both the popular vote — by more than 7 million votes nationally — and the electoral college count. Numerous official reviews and audits in the six battleground states where Trump has contested his loss have confirmed the validity of the findings. Judges, including some appointed by Trump, dismissed numerous lawsuits making various allegations of fraud and wrongdoing.
All of this was ignored as speaker after speaker told attendees that machines were being rigged and elections were being stolen. One of the event’s headliners was Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, who said he’s spent around $20 million of his own money since 2020 to prove voting machines were, and remain, vulnerable to rigging in this election .
That all technology is vulnerable, including voting machines, is undisputed. State and local election officials in the US, with help from the federal government, have focused on improving their security measures.
But Byrne and some of the other speakers said they believe the government has been corrupted and cannot be trusted. In his remarks, he complained about those who say there was no fraud in 2020 and journalists who report it, labeling them “election fraud deniers”.
Another keynote speaker at the Omaha event was Douglas Frank, a math and science educator from Ohio who has traveled across the country to engage with community groups and meet with local election officials who are offering to study their voting systems and to analyze.
He had harsh words for some of those who oversee state-level elections.
“I like to tell people we have evil foreign ministers,” Frank said. “We have a few of those in our country and it’s like WWII – when the war is over we need Nuremberg trials and we need firing squads, okay? I’m looking forward to the exams, okay?”
The crowd applauded.
State and local election officials have faced a spate of harassment and death threats since the 2020 election. This has led to some resigning or retiring, raising concerns in some quarters that their successors may seek to meddle in elections or rig electoral systems.
Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky who criticizes the spread of conspiracy theories, said earlier attacks in the election year had focused on candidates or political parties, but now they have focused on the electoral administration.
“There are a lot of really bad actors here trying to undermine trust in a system. It’s dangerous,” he said.
The Omaha conference was sponsored by the American Citizens & Candidates Forum for Election Integrity, which has hosted more than a dozen such gatherings since the 2020 election.
The speakers urged those present to take action. This includes getting to know their local election officials, the local sheriff, and volunteering as an election observer for November’s general election to report any activity that they believe may be fraudulent.
Omaha resident Kathy Austin said she recently submitted her name as a poll worker but hasn’t heard anything. She is convinced that the 2020 election was stolen by Trump.
“I wasn’t really involved in politics before the 2020 election,” Austin, 75, said. That changed after she saw posts on social media alleging voter fraud.
“Then I talked to different people,” she says. “And the more I learned, the more I realized there was a problem.”
Cassidy reported from Atlanta.
This story was originally published Sep 4, 2022 8:38 am.