FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) – One by one, presenters in a packed hotel ballroom shared their computer screens and promised to show how easy it is to hack voting systems across the US
Drawing breath from the crowd, they highlighted the theoretical weaknesses and problems of the last election. But instead of adapting their efforts to improve election security, they argued that all voting machines should be eliminated — a message wrapped in conspiracies about rigging the election to favor certain candidates.
“We are at war. The only thing that’s not flying right now is bullets,” said Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Arizona last year who is still fighting his loss and was the final speaker at the one-day 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 lost in landslides last November in key political battleground states, including Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Still, there remains a deep mistrust of the American election among Republicans, skepticism fueled by false claims from former President Donald Trump and allies who travel the country meeting with community groups and holding forums like one recently near Nashville that drew about 250 people.
As the nation moves toward the next presidential election, the election conspiracy movement that has been growing since the last one shows no signs of slowing down. Millions are convinced that any election in which their preferred candidate loses is somehow rigged against them, a belief that has fueled efforts among conservatives to reject voting machines and halt or delay the certification of election results.
“Voters who know the truth about our elections have confidence in them,” said Liz Iacobucci, election security program manager at voter advocacy group Common Cause. “But people who are led into disbelief — those people can be led into other things, like January 6.”
Trump, who is running for the White House for the third time, has signaled that the 2020 election will remain an integral part of his 2024 presidential bid. In a recent interview with reporters about the new book, Trump pointed to polls showing a significant number of people believe the 2020 election was rigged, even though there is no such evidence.
“I’m an election denier,” Trump said. “You have a lot of election deniers in this country and they’re not happy with what happened.”
There was no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the US, and multiple reviews in battleground states where Trump contested his loss confirmed the election results were accurate. State and local election officials spent more than two years explaining the many layers of protection 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 the voting machines. They want hand-marked paper ballots to be counted individually without the help of machines by voters in nearly 180,000 polling stations across the country.
“We all have the same agenda, that our elections are fair and transparent and that they can’t be hacked,” said Lindell, who recently announced plans to form what he calls an “election crimes bureau” to bring his myriad legal , cybersecurity and legislative efforts within one organization.
In an interview, Lindell said he has spent $40 million since the 2020 election investigating claims of fraud and supporting efforts to ban voting machines. He said he was taking out loans to continue financing the work.
During an “America First Forum” held last month in South Carolina, Flynn told a crowd at a Charleston hotel that they were fighting not only Democrats but also fellow Republicans who are dismissing their concerns about the 2020 election.
“Our Republican Party, they want to move on,” Flynn said via video conference. “And frankly, the American people are not going to go any further.”
An investigation last year by the AP and the PBS series “Frontline” examined how Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, traveled the country spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and vaccines while building a movement based on Christian nationalist ideas. It relies in part on groups such as The America Project and America’s Future.
Project America was launched in 2021 by Patrick Byrne, founder of Overstock.com. Byrne said the election remains a top priority for the group, although it will also focus on border issues. Asked how much he plans to spend ahead of the 2024 election, Byrne told the AP: “There is no budget.”
“I have no children, I have no wife,” he said. “There’s no point in keeping it for anything.”
Recently 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 that revenue came from Byrne himself. The group reported giving $2.75 million to Cyber Ninjas for the partisan and much-criticized 2020 election audit in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix.
Michael Flynn is now focused on the nonprofit group he runs, America’s Future, and other projects, his brother says. That 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 were central to the effort to cast doubt on the accuracy of the election were also active this year. Among them is Douglas Frank, a math and science teacher from Ohio, who said on his social media account that he met with different groups in six states in January, seven states in February and planned to be in eight states in March.
At the forum in Tennessee, Kathy Harms, one of the event’s organizers, took the stage to talk about why she’s fighting to get rid of the voting machines.
“I’m not doing this for myself. I’d rather just be a stay-at-home grandma,” said Harms, who lives in the district where the conference was held. “I have grandchildren that I do it for because I want them to have what I have. I don’t want a banana republic.”
Presentations by people involved in information technology claim that election officials have little knowledge or experience in the field of security.
One of them, Mark Cook, walked attendees through the voting process, pointing out potential threats and playing a video of what he said was an “Iranian whistleblower” accessing US voter registration information to fraudulently request and submit military ballots.
Cook said the video had some “real components” and “could be legitimate.” He failed to mention that the influx of duplicate military ballots would be immediately apparent because election workers record each person who votes, meaning a second ballot that appears to have been cast by the same person would be caught.
“There are thousands of ways to exploit these systems,” Cook said, dismissing the security measures taken by election officials as “a shell game” and “smoke and mirrors to distract us.”
Election officials acknowledge that there are vulnerabilities, but say there are multiple defenses in place to thwart manipulation attempts 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 elections official who is now a member of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Among those listening to presentations at the Tennessee conference was Luann Adler, a retired teacher and school administrator who said she lost faith in the election after reading articles and watching videos about voting machines online. She advocates in her community to ban voting machines and limit voting to one day.
While working as a pollster last year, Adler said she didn’t see any problems. However, the experience did not change her opinion.
“As we saw today, the machine can be manipulated,” Adler said. “I’m not pointing fingers at any person or any community as being mean, but I don’t trust the machine.”
Associated Press writers Michelle R. Smith in Providence, Rhode Island; Nicholas Riccardi in Denver; and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
Associated Press reporting on democracy is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.