From Voter-Fraud Myths to Bogus Election Audits: The Evolution of the ‘Big Lie’

The "Big Lie" was built on a decades-long campaign by conservative activists and lawmakers, who hyped up the threat of voter fraud to impose restrictive voting laws and to cement political power. From Trump’s early false claims of large-scale fraud in 2016 and his attempts to pressure officials to overturn his 2020 loss to the long trail of election “audits,” American Oversight has been investigating the anti-democracy movement’s attempts to promote the Big Lie and undermine free and fair elections. 

More than half a year into President Joe Biden’s first term in office, former President Donald Trump still hasn’t conceded his November 2020 defeat. Instead, after backing a string of legal challenges to Biden’s election and inciting a bloody attempt by his supporters to stop the certification of Biden’s victory, Trump has now placed his hopes in a series of sham “audits” of already counted and re-counted election results. 

Trump’s “Big Lie” — that the election was “stolen” from him because of voter fraud — has no basis in reality. Elections officials from both parties, outside observers, and Trump’s own Justice and Homeland Security Departments found no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in the 2020 presidential election, with one DHS office calling the election “the most secure in American history.” But the lies have not subsided. A May 2021 poll found that more than half of Republicans believed that Trump remained the “true president.” 

In his effort to undermine the democratic system, Trump has been aided by an array of allies, including his own inner circle of lawyers and grassroots leaders; legislators who used the Big Lie to restrict voting rights in their states; deep-pocketed conservative groups; and state attorneys general who backed outlandish legal challenges to the 2020 results. The Big Lie was able to take hold in part because it was built on a decades-long campaign by conservative activists and lawmakers, who hyped up the threat of voter fraud in order to impose restrictive voting laws and to cement their own political power. 

Most proponents of the Big Lie no longer believe that their efforts will return Trump to power in the near term. But by casting doubts on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, they threaten to weaken confidence in the democratic system for years to come.

From Trump’s early false claims of large-scale fraud in the 2016 presidential election and his attempts to pressure federal and state officials to overturn his 2020 loss to the long trail of election “audits,” American Oversight has been investigating the anti-democracy movement’s attempts to promote the Big Lie and undermine free and fair elections. 


Building the ‘Voter Fraud’ Narrative

While fear-mongering about voter fraud reached its current alarming pitch during the Trump administration, efforts to inflate the perceived risk of such fraud have been going on for years. In the last two decades, a robust “election integrity” movement has grown out of a conservative backlash, giving rise to what Roll Call in 2012 called a “voter fraud brain trust.” These activists have long used overblown claims about fraud to justify voting restrictions aimed at ensuring a conservative electorate.

This included people like former Justice Department officials Hans von Spakovsky, who is now with the Heritage Foundation, and J. Christian Adams, who is head of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that pushes for aggressive voter-roll purges. The group True the Vote, founded in 2009 by tea party activist Catherine Engelbrecht, has for years helped stoke fears about fraud, working with partisan lawyers and strategists.

Another prominent purveyor of the voter-fraud myth was Kris Kobach, who in his 2010 run for Kansas secretary of state campaigned on “stopping election fraud.” While in office, Kobach championed a state law requiring proof of citizenship to vote as a way to prevent what he claimed was the threat of registration by noncitizens, and he spent years peddling anti-immigrant and restrictionist voting laws across the country. Around this same time, a push for stricter voting rules such as ID requirements was also taking hold in multiple states, despite the continuing lack of evidence of the need for such measures. These restrictions often threatened to disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.

Donald Trump’s 2016 Claims

Donald Trump started casting doubt on future electoral losses even before he took office. In the weeks before the 2016 presidential election, as Trump’s prospects were looking dim, he claimed without evidence that the election was “absolutely being rigged” for Hillary Clinton and that “large scale voter fraud” was taking place. Trump went so far as to refuse to commit to acknowledging Clinton as the president-elect were she to win. 

Mike Pence, then the vice presidential nominee, echoed Trump’s warnings about impending widespread fraud, as did prominent campaign surrogates such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who later became Trump’s first attorney general. Kobach, who had joined the Trump campaign as an immigration adviser, claimed before the election that in a number of swing states, “If it’s close, the votes of aliens could turn the election.”

Of course, Trump did win the 2016 presidential election, although he did so while losing the popular vote. Yet he refused to acknowledge his popular-vote loss, instead falsely claiming, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Kobach happily stood by Trump’s lies about millions of illegal votes. Von Spakovsky, writing in the Wall Street Journal, claimed that while there was “no way of knowing for sure,” there was “a real chance that significant numbers of noncitizens and others are indeed voting illegally, perhaps enough to make up the margin in some elections.” Prominent Republicans, including then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and then-RNC Chair Reince Priebus, declined to publicly contradict Trump’s lies. 

Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (PACEI)

Trump quickly put the resources of the United States government to work amplifying his false claims. In May 2017, Trump announced the creation of an “election integrity commission” that would be led by Pence and Kobach. The commission was later expanded to include a who’s-who of proponents of the voter-fraud myth, including von Spakovsky, Adams, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

In November 2017, American Oversight represented one member of the commission, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, in a lawsuit alleging that he and other members had been excluded from the commission’s work and denied access to documents. Dunlap had joined the commission in good faith, hoping that its work would focus on substantive improvements to election procedures. In December, a judge ordered the commission to release documents to Dunlap and to include him fully in its proceedings; less than two weeks later, Trump disbanded the commission.

The documents released to Dunlap showed why the Trump administration was unwilling to conduct the commission’s work in broad daylight: While commission staff had outlined a report in which they intended to expose various categories of widespread fraud, they had in fact found no such evidence of fraud to include. At the same time, conservative members of the commission had been working behind the scenes to gather and spin data, out of sight of their fellow commissioners. 

The commission’s work was later turned over to the Department of Homeland Security, where it in part fell to a policy analyst who American Oversight found had trained with von Spakovsky — and who later lost his job because of his relationship with a group of white nationalists.

State Fraud Investigations and Stoking Fears About Mail-in Voting

While Trump’s efforts to prove extensive fraud in the 2016 election collapsed under public scrutiny, the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival in the spring of 2020 — while states were in the midst of conducting or preparing for high-turnout primary elections — ended up providing extra fuel for the alarmist rhetoric of voter-fraud activists and Trump supporters. Trump went all-in on warning that large-scale mail-in voting would lead to a “rigged” election, and his campaign and the Republican Party spent millions on lawsuits aimed at preventing the expansion of mail-in voting. Although those fears were not borne out, the idea that fraud was an inevitable consequence of making voting easier became a frequent talking point of Trump and his allies.

As election officials attempted to expand early voting or voting by mail, the leadup to the 2020 general election saw state leaders using their own powers to boost the nonexistent threat of widespread fraud. Leaders in Georgia and Kentucky created “fraud task forces,” purportedly to safeguard fair elections. American Oversight’s investigation in Georgia found that the state’s “absentee ballot fraud task force,” created by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, had met only once — six months before the election. One member of the task force confirmed to us that none of the elections officials he spoke with had “any concern of absentee ballot voter fraud.” 

In Texas, we uncovered documents showing that Attorney General Ken Paxton had poured taxpayer resources into an “election integrity unit” that resolved just 16 prosecutions, all relatively minor offenses that didn’t lead to jail time.

Throughout the Trump administration, voting-restriction activists, including von Spakovsky and Adams, touted the myth of widespread voter fraud to state and local leaders. In August 2020, von Spakovsky led a meeting for Republican state election officials to “strategize” about “election integrity” measures. American Oversight found that in 2019, Adams’ Public Interest Legal Foundation had sent officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., a list of 100 people whom it claimed were deceased and had votes cast in their name; investigative reporters at Reveal culled through the names on PILF’s list and found no evidence of fraud. And in early 2020, PILF sent Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a letter urging him to take “critical steps to reduce voter fraud in Florida,” including by cracking down on voter-registration organizations.

These activists also continued to exert influence at the federal level. An email we uncovered from September 2020 revealed that the Heritage Foundation had convened an “Election Law Working Group” composed of prominent voting-restriction activists and Republican operatives, as well as multiple U.S. Election Assistance Commission officials.

At the same time, Trump had enlisted his Justice Department in promoting doubts about the absentee ballot process. In the weeks leading up to the election, Attorney General William Barr gave a series of media interviews in which he promoted baseless claims about the supposed upcoming risks of election fraud, especially through mail-in voting. In one case, Barr cited a false story about the indictment of a person in Texas for illegally filling out 1,700 ballots. The Justice Department later claimed Barr had been given this false information in a briefing memo, but when American Oversight requested the memo under the Freedom of Information Act, the department was unable to provide any indication that it existed. 

Later that September, after voting had begun in many jurisdictions, the Justice Department released an odd statement about “potential issues with mail-in ballots” in one Pennsylvania county. It later came out that Barr had briefed Trump on the investigation; Trump subsequently touted the investigation in a television interview. Within days, a state probe had found that the issue was a mistake by an election worker, not fraud. Meanwhile, Barr also partially lifted a long-standing policy that prohibited the department from potentially interfering in elections by publicizing vote-related investigations. 

Attempts to Stop Election Certification

When polls closed on Nov. 3, 2020, the result of the presidential election was unclear, in part because of the additional challenges of counting absentee ballots. Four days after Election Day, all the major networks and news agencies called the race for Biden.
Trump and his supporters turned up their efforts to undermine confidence in the results, with a particular focus on the states where Biden would score his closest wins: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada. While votes were still being counted in some of those states, Trump gave a press conference during which he claimed that he had “easily” won the election if only “legal votes” had been counted. Trump was following a playbook laid out by his attorney Rudy Giuliani on election night, when Giuliani reportedly urged Trump to “just say we won” the states where the count was outstanding. 

Trump then launched an effort to pressure state and local officials, and his own Justice Department, to repeat this Big Lie and secure him a second term in office — despite what was emerging as a clear victory for Biden in an election that was widely reported to have been free of large-scale problems.

Pressure on the Justice Department

Only under the scrutiny of congressional investigation has the extent of Trump’s pressure on his Justice Department to help him hold onto power come into focus.

While Barr had played along with Trump’s fear-mongering about voter fraud in the leadup to the election — and had even authorized certain fraud investigations shortly after the election, a move that caused the official who oversaw such investigations to resign —  Barr eventually acknowledged publicly that the widespread fraud Trump had alleged had not taken place. But still Trump repeatedly pressured Justice Department officials not only to repeat his lies but to take steps to stop the certification of the election results.

Congressional investigations have revealed new details about this effort. Soon after Barr resigned in late December, Trump told Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me,” according to notes of the call released to congressional investigators. According to the notes, Trump threatened to “replace DOJ leadership” and elevate Jeffrey Clark, a little-known political appointee and Trump loyalist, to head the department. A former U.S. attorney in Georgia, Byung J. Pak, also told Senate Judiciary Committee investigators that he had resigned in January after hearing that Trump was planning to fire him for failing to corroborate his lies about widespread fraud.

American Oversight is currently suing for documents that could shed light on this period at the Justice Department, including communications between the White House and agency officials.

Trump Pressure on State Officials

While Trump was pressuring the Justice Department to help him prevent the certification of his election loss, he was also personally coercing state and local elected officials who he thought might aid his scheme. Among the officials who received personal pleas from Trump in the weeks after the election were the speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp; Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger along with a top investigator in Raffensperger’s office; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey; and two officials in Wayne County, Mich., who later tried to stop the certification of the county’s election results. In late November, Trump invited the leaders of the Michigan legislature to visit him at the White House; after the meeting, they said they had seen no evidence that the election results in their state had been compromised.

Trump’s Jan. 2 call with Raffensperger, which the secretary of state recorded and released to the press, demonstrated the types of conversations Trump initiated with state and local officials. In the call, Trump urged Georgia election authorities to “find” enough votes to hand him a win in the state, calling the election a “scam.” Joining Trump on the call were his chief of staff Mark Meadows and a team of attorneys including Cleta Mitchell, a well-known conservative lawyer who had long been involved in the effort to restrict voting rights. The previous week, Trump had also placed a call to Frances Watson, the chief investigator in Raffensperger’s office. A recording of that call, which was later released to American Oversight in response to a public records request and separately obtained and reported on by the Wall Street Journal, revealed that Trump had told Watson that she would “be praised” when “the right answer comes out.” 

Despite Trump’s pressure campaign, officials certified the election results in each of these swing states — in Georgia, after two separate recounts. However, in a sign of the new alternate reality that Trump and his supporters were creating, groups of Trump allies in seven states submitted fake certificates to the Senate claiming that Trump had in fact won their states’ electoral votes.

Legal Efforts

As Trump was pressuring state and federal officials to reject the results of the election, his lawyers — with the help of a set of state attorneys general — were launching an all-out legal challenge to election certification. In the weeks following the election, Trump and his allies filed dozens of lawsuits alleging voter fraud and arguing that various measures that facilitated voting during the pandemic had been improperly enacted.

A constellation of lawyers pushed the claims of Trump and his allies, from the large law firm Jones Day — several of whose attorneys had gone to work for the Trump administration — to Giuliani and little-known attorney and activist Jenna Ellis, and to Sidney Powell, who was eventually disowned by the Trump campaign after she aimed her wild election-related conspiracy theories at Georgia’s Republican governor.

In the end, the lawsuit that garnered the most hope among Trump supporters was one filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the presidential election results in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The New York Times later reported that Paxton’s lawsuit had been designed by a team including Kobach, former North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin, and pro-Trump attorney Lawrence Joseph.

Kobach had tried to recruit Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to file a lawsuit; a draft of the lawsuit that American Oversight obtained from Landry’s office showed that it originally challenged the election results in Minnesota and Nevada as well. Landry ended up joining a group of 17 state attorneys general in supporting Paxton’s lawsuit.

American Oversight’s investigations have also uncovered the involvement of Michael Farris, president of the social conservative behemoth Alliance Defending Freedom, who counseled South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson on the efforts by Wilson and his fellow attorneys general to challenge the election results. Another Trump supporter who was in touch with Wilson claimed that a faulty analysis of supposed voting irregularities in Georgia conducted by former Trump campaign operative Matt Braynard had been authorized at “the highest levels,” which Wilson’s correspondent took to mean the White House.

Shortly before the Electoral College met to cast its votes, the Supreme Court rejected Paxton’s lawsuit. The legal battle to overturn the election results had concluded, but the propaganda campaign to undermine confidence in the election was far from over.

The Jan. 6 Attack

The myth of a stolen election that Trump and his allies had built through the sheer force of a unified lie came to a head on Jan. 6, 2021, when a “Stop the Steal” rally led by Trump escalated into a violent mob that stormed the Capitol while lawmakers prepared to certify the presidential election results. One Capitol Police officer and four Trump supporters died in the attack on the Capitol; four law enforcement officers who responded to the attack died by suicide in the following months.

Trump, like many Americans, watched the horrifying scene unfold on TV — while fielding calls from congressmen sheltering in the Capitol, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Jim Jordan — but it took him hours to respond, ultimately releasing a video urging his supporters to go home while praising them and repeating the lie that had spurred them to action in the first place. Remarkably, after the Capitol was secured hours later, eight senators and 139 House members still objected to the certification of election results in at least one state. Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 led to his second impeachment by the House of Representatives, and the events of the day are now under investigation by a House select committee.

American Oversight has filed dozens of federal, state, and local records requests investigating what happened on Jan. 6, and has filed four lawsuits to demand the release of the records of top administration officials from before and during the attack. We are also investigating the intelligence and law enforcement failures that led to the pro-Trump mob overrunning the Capitol, and are looking into the actions of and the influences on state and local elected officials who participated in or enabled the attack.

On Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as president, ending any realistic hope Trump and his supporters may have had of reversing the outcome of the 2020 election. But the project of casting doubt on the 2020 vote — with the goals of passing restrictive voting measures and sowing mistrust in future elections — continued.

Voting Restrictions

President Trump’s consistent lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud fueled a wave of restrictive voting laws across the country, aimed in part at turning back advances to voting access that had led to record voter turnout.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, during the 2021 legislative session state lawmakers in 49 states introduced 400 bills aimed at restricting voting access, and 30 such laws were enacted in 18 states. In Georgia, where Trump had focused so much of his pressure campaign on “finding” the 11,000 votes that had kept him from victory there, Republican lawmakers passed a sweeping bill that made voting harder and asserted partisan control over elections administration. American Oversight has submitted records requests in eight states seeking communications around these bills.

While this national trend was encouraged by Trump’s own political agenda, it was underwritten by many of the same funders and activists who had worked for years to drum up fears about widespread voter fraud. Notably, the executive director of Heritage Action, the political arm of von Spakovsky’s longtime employer the Heritage Foundation, boasted to funders that her group had helped to draft anti-voter legislation across the country.

Sham Recounts and Audits

While state legislators were working to make it harder to access the ballot box, Trump and his supporters were finding new ways to relitigate the results of the 2020 election, most notably with a sham “audit” of the results in Arizona.

Arizona

Soon after the election, the Arizona Senate, led by Senate President Karen Fann, subpoenaed Maricopa County, the home of Phoenix and the state’s most populous county, for images of mail-in ballots, voting equipment, and other material. Records later obtained by American Oversight showed that Fann admitted to having had “numerous conversations” with Giuliani during this period, and had received a “personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud.”

Despite an independent audit showing that there had been no problem with the voting machines used in Maricopa County, the state Senate pushed ahead with its own “audit” of the results. To conduct this operation, the Senate hired a little-known firm called Cyber Ninjas, which had no experience in conducting election reviews and was led by a man named Doug Logan, who had publicly supported “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories. 

While the Senate handed over $150,000 for this partisan ballot review, its organizers quickly started raising private funding in an effort coordinated in part by Christina Bobb, a reporter for the pro-Trump outlet One America News. Cyber Ninjas, under public pressure, eventually released a list of its largest funders, a constellation of dark-money groups linked to prominent supporters of the “Stop the Steal” movement. Bobb also raised money for state legislators from across the country to visit the “audit” and export its strategy to their home states.

In May, American Oversight sued the Arizona Senate to release records from the “audit,” including those in the possession of Cyber Ninjas. In response to our lawsuit, the Senate has released tens of thousands of pages of documents shedding light on the involvement of a number of conspiracy theorists in the effort and providing more details about the audit’s opaque funding structure (including Cleta Mitchell’s involvement in payments to vendors) and the efforts to replicate Arizona’s “audit” in other states across the country. However, the Senate is still withholding thousands of documents in its possession and arguing that Cyber Ninjas’ records from the “audit” should not be subject to disclosure at all.

Wisconsin

As the Arizona Senate pursued its sham “audit” of election results, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos hired retired state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to oversee an investigation of that state’s election results. In late August, the price tag for the investigation ballooned to nearly $680,000, and news reports indicated that Reince Priebus, who had led the state’s Republican Party before serving as RNC chair and then Trump’s chief of staff, was involved in conversations about its planning.  

Like Arizona’s audit, Vos’s investigation has largely operated under a veil of secrecy. American Oversight has, under Wisconsin’s open records law, requested contracts and communications about both the Vos investigation as well as a separate investigation led by state Rep. Janel Brandtjen. 

Other States

Trump allies across the country have been watching Arizona. Elected officials from at least eight states visited the Arizona “audit” (and in many cases, American Oversight is seeking more information about their visits through public records requests). In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Trump ally, was attempting to replicate the Arizona Senate’s effort before state Senate leader Jake Corman in late August handed the responsibility over to state Sen. Cris Dush, who had visited the Arizona “audit” with Mastriano. In Georgia, an outside activist is suing to examine ballots from Fulton County. Even in Washington state, where the presidential election wasn’t close, and in North Carolina, where Trump won, Trump-aligned state legislators are hunting for fraud.

The Big Lie grew out of years of organized misinformation about voting aimed at restricting access to the polls, and has morphed into a lie that erodes confidence in future elections and the peaceful transition of power. American Oversight will continue to investigate the individuals, groups, and election-undermining actions that underpin this movement threatening the core of our democracy.