Despite a dizzying number of failed legal challenges, independent recounts, and dubious investigations that all confirmed the same thing — that widespread voter fraud did not “steal” the 2020 election from Donald Trump — a nationwide network of activists and groups that came together around the “Big Lie” is pushing to discredit U.S. electoral systems and foster mistrust in the democratic process.
American Oversight’s investigation of these activists and groups’ actions and communications with government officials has revealed details about the level of coordination and influence they have exercised in spreading stolen-election myths under the false banner of “election integrity.”
The myth of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election has been embraced by a web of Trump-supporting election deniers, including lawyers, business owners, activists, conspiracy theorists, and right-wing media personalities, who have formed so-called election integrity groups, recruited partisan poll watchers, or sought to infiltrate local offices. They have also pushed sympathetic state and local leaders to conduct partisan “audits” of ballots, sometimes closely working alongside or within those efforts, and have peddled conspiracy theories about voting machines that have prompted conservative-leaning counties to refuse to certify election results. Harassment and threats against election officials have spiked in the past two years, alongside a spate of bills aimed at altering elections processes, several alleged breaches of voting systems, and a suffocating number of requests aimed at challenging other voters’ registrations.
As unnecessary “audits” and investigations of already-verified vote counts emerged in multiple states, conspiracy theorists often collaborated with willing government officials to make a spectacle out of the hunt for voter fraud. Such investigations occurred in several swing states — including Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Mexico and Pennsylvania — where Trump supporters had signed and submitted false electoral certificates in a plot to delay or prevent the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Perhaps the highest-profile such review in 2021 was the Arizona Senate’s partisan — and expensive — “audit” of votes cast in Maricopa County. American Oversight’s investigation of that review uncovered extensive details about the involvement of prominent right-wing election deniers, including Shiva Ayyadurai (whose company led an “audit” in Otero County, N.M.) and conspiracy theorist Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, both of whom entered subcontracts with the Senate or Cyber Ninjas, the inexperienced cybersecurity firm hired by the Senate to lead the review. Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan is also tied to an alleged voting machine breach in Georgia and is currently under investigation in Michigan for allegedly illegally dismantling voting machines. A list of “audit” employees obtained by American Oversight included Pennsylvanian Andre McCoy, one of his state’s fake electors.
Another key figure in the Maricopa “audit” was Phil Waldron, the former Army colonel who days before the Jan. 6 election certification had circulated among Trump-allied government officials and members of Congress a 38-page PowerPoint presentation on how to overturn the election. Waldron, who was subpoenaed by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, is affiliated with the cybersecurity firm Allied Security Operations Group, which not only was almost hired to conduct the “audit,” but also was one of three firms named in a post-election plan devised by three Trump associates — lawyer Sidney Powell, Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — to seize voting machines across the country so as to examine them for “irregularities.” Powell, Byrne, and Flynn, as well as others — like former right-wing media host and current Trump attorney Christina Bobb, who communicated with “audit” leaders on behalf of Rudy Giuliani — helped fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars and supply volunteers for the ballot review.
The Wisconsin Assembly’s Republican majority also initiated a partisan election investigation in 2021, with conservative state lawmakers even visiting the site of the Arizona “audit” in the hopes of replicating it in their state. American Oversight’s year-long investigation into efforts to undermine democracy in that state uncovered state legislators’ communications with prominent members of the election-denial network, including Pulitzer and Logan, and revealed the level of influence exercised by right-wing groups that had previously sought to overturn the 2020 election. Michael Gableman, the attorney who led the election review before being fired in August 2022, was in contact with associates of one such group, the Thomas More Society, as well as MyPillow CEO and Trump ally Mike Lindell through the course of his work.
Gableman attended Lindell’s August 2021 “cyber symposium,” an event that elevated various election conspiracies, as well as Lindell’s similarly themed “Moment of Truth” conference a year later. After the 2021 event, Arizona Sen. Wendy Rogers and Virginia Sen. Amanda Chase established an “election integrity coalition” of like-minded state lawmakers, which, as revealed in records obtained by American Oversight, at least initially consisted of a bi-monthly conference call “to further discuss Election Integrity and continue to move the effort forward.” Meetings appear to have continued through at least December 2021, and emails about the coalition continued to be exchanged through at least March 2022.
American Oversight has also obtained communications among promoters of election disinformation and Montana state legislators that shed light on the structure and goals of Lindell’s shadowy “Cause of America” coalition, which began bringing together election deniers in November 2021. In emails from late 2021 and early 2022, a Montana activist described the group as a “coalition of coalitions” and referred to various subcommittees, including those focused on “legislation, civic engagement, and big picture.” He wrote that he would “pass along the key notes” from an upcoming meeting with activists from eight battleground states to the lawmakers, barring “any NDAs or stated desires of confidentiality.” In the summer of 2022, Lindell directed election conspiracy theorists to flood local election offices with public records requests about voting records in an apparent attempt to disrupt office functions ahead of the midterms.
Another recurring meeting among high-profile election deniers — which overlaps with Chase and Rogers’ lawmakers caucus and, according to records we obtained, appears to have begun before June 2021 and lasted through at least September 2021 — focuses on “the election remedy process at the state level.” That meeting was hosted by Virginia-based Army Reserve officer Ivan Raiklin and Texas real estate mogul Al Hartman. Invitees included lawmakers and activists such as Waldron; Catherine Engelbrecht of voter-fraud alarmist group True the Vote; Trump-allied lawyer John Eastman, whose memo on preventing the certification of the election birthed the fake electors plot; Wisconsin state Rep. Janel Brandtjen; and Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, a key figure in the Arizona “audit” who is currently his party’s candidate for Arizona secretary of state. (A Washington Post analysis found that of all 2022 GOP nominees for swing-state offices with some authority over elections, nearly two-thirds are election deniers.)
This ecosystem of anti-democratic fearmongers poses a real threat to fair elections in the United States. Their efforts to upend democracy follow a decades-long right-wing campaign of stoking myths about voter fraud as a way to restrict voting rights and cement conservative power. In October 2022, the Supreme Court is set to hear a case about the “independent state legislature theory,” a dubious fringe belief supported by election-denying groups in the Big Lie network that would give state legislatures more power over federal elections.
American Oversight has used open records requests to seek and obtain communications between promoters of election disinformation and officials in Arizona and Wisconsin, as well other states where lawmakers and government officials have been entangled in efforts to cast doubt on election security and restrict the right to vote.
In light of reporting on right-wing networks pushing sheriffs to criminally investigate false claims of election fraud, we submitted requests seeking county sheriffs’ communications with notable election conspiracy theorists. We are also seeking any communications between Trump administration officials and prominent election deniers that may have occurred during the presidential transition. And in August 2022, American Oversight sued the Election Assistance Commission for the release of communications between select commissioners and election conspiracy theorists, including Trump-allied lawyer Cleta Mitchell, whose appointment to the EAC’s advisory board in 2021 troubled voting-rights advocates.