The Activist Network Eroding Trust in Democratic Elections

Embracing conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen, a nationwide network of Trump-allied activists aims to discredit democracy and undermine confidence in the electoral process.

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’s Investigation

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. 

Updates

Cyber Ninjas CEO’s Text Messages About Arizona ‘Audit’ Reveal Frequent Contacts with Election Deniers

December 1, 2022
Former CEO Doug Logan’s communications reveal contact with numerous election deniers about potential future audits as well as funding issues.

In the Documents: Emails Show Nationwide Network of Election Deniers Pushing for Election Audits

November 4, 2022
In the two years since the 2020 election, Trump-allied conspiracy theorists and voter-fraud alarmists across the country have led efforts to sow distrust in U.S. elections, pushing government officials to embrace false claims of widespread fraud, coordinating with other election deniers, and encouraging a parade of sham election audits and partisan investigations.  

In the Documents: Cyber Ninjas’ Communications with Election Deniers

October 5, 2022
Records of communications between Cyber Ninjas employees and several conspiracy theorists provide yet more evidence of the influence that prominent election deniers exercised in the partisan “audit” of votes cast in Maricopa County, Arizona.

American Oversight Publishes Report of Findings from Investigation of Partisan Wisconsin Election Review

October 4, 2022
On Tuesday, American Oversight released an in-depth report on its findings from its multiple public records lawsuits and investigation of Michael Gableman’s problematic election inquiry.

In the Documents: Florida Gov. DeSantis’ Meetings with Election Conspiracy Group

September 27, 2022
DeSantis’ office met multiple times with a right-wing group whose co-founder promoted an Islamophobic conspiracy theory about an election worker, according to documents obtained by American Oversight and reported on by CNN.

In the Documents: The Thomas More Society and Other Outside Groups’ Influence on Partisan Wisconsin Election Investigation

September 2, 2022
Public records obtained by American Oversight over the past year shed light on the involvement of the conservative legal group and prominent election deniers in attorney Michael Gableman’s problematic inquiry.

Records Reveal Big Lie Activists’ Coordination Across Texas, Emails to Texas Secretary of State

August 8, 2022
Documents obtained by American Oversight and reporting by Votebeat Texas have provided a window into the coordinated efforts of a conservative “election integrity” group in Texas to seek evidence of and advance lies about widespread voter fraud.

American Oversight Sues Election Assistance Commission for Communications with Election Deniers, Voting-Restriction Advocates

August 2, 2022
American Oversight sued the Election Assistance Commission for the release of communications between select commissioners and known election conspiracy theorists and voting-restriction advocates, including EAC advisory board member Cleta Mitchell. 

In the Documents: Records Reveal 2021 Proposal to Nominate Voter Fraud Alarmist to Federal Elections Advisory Board

July 25, 2022
Late last year, attorney Cleta Mitchell — who aided in the former president's efforts to overturn his election loss — was appointed to a federal election agency’s advisory board. Records obtained by American Oversight reveal that election-fraud activist J. Christian Adams had also proposed nominating Hans von Spakovsky, another election fraud conspiracist.

In the Documents: Patrick Byrne’s Continued Involvement in Election-Denying Efforts

July 15, 2022
American Oversight has obtained documents from several states showing the former Overstock.com CEO's efforts to undermine the 2020 election.

Cyber Ninjas Emails Reveal New Details on Role of Partisan Funders, Contract Disputes

June 16, 2022
The Arizona Senate released more documents in response to American Oversight’s lawsuit for records related to the partisan “audit” of Maricopa County election results.

Cyber Ninjas Emails Reveal New Details About Recruitment of ‘Audit’ Volunteers, Involvement of Election Deniers

June 8, 2022
The records, released by the Arizona Senate on Monday, provide new information about the partisan election review’s partisan bias and its connections to efforts in other states.

Cyber Ninjas Emails Show Further Links Between Arizona ‘Audit’ and Wisconsin Election Investigation

June 3, 2022
On Thursday, the Arizona Senate released another set of records related to its partisan election “audit.”

One Year Since Filing Lawsuit, American Oversight Releases Updated Report on Arizona Election ‘Audit’ Records

May 19, 2022
On Thursday, American Oversight released a new report that highlights major findings from our investigation of the Arizona Senate’s partisan “audit” of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County. 

American Oversight Obtains Arizona Election ‘Audit’ Records Previously Held by Cyber Ninjas

May 10, 2022
On Tuesday, the Arizona Senate released a set of records, previously held by former Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, related to the sham “audit” of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.

Emails Show Trump Ally Pushing Federal Officials to Audit Voting Machines in the Weeks After the 2020 Election

April 12, 2022
The records obtained by American Oversight show that Trump allies’ attempts to get the federal government to help them reverse election results went even broader than previously known,” reported Politico.

American Oversight Obtains Previously Deleted Records from Wisconsin Election Investigation

April 8, 2022
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Vos released more than 20,000 pages of documents in response to American Oversight’s litigation for records related to the ongoing partisan election investigation.

In the Documents: Wisconsin State Representative’s Contacts with Election-Denying Activists and Lawyers

March 17, 2022
Records uncovered by American Oversight reveal further contacts between state Rep. Janel Brandtjen’s office and conservative lawyer Erick Kaardal, as well as contacts with prominent Big Lie proponents.

December 2020 Emails to Arizona Lawmakers Reveal Election Deniers’ Plans for Scanning and Throwing Out ‘Invalid’ Ballots

January 24, 2022
The emails obtained by American Oversight, which outlined a plan to overturn Trump’s election loss in Arizona, also included members of Trump’s legal team.

In the Documents: Emails from Wisconsin Legislature, Elections Commission Regarding Efforts to Investigate 2020 Election

January 19, 2022
Records obtained by American Oversight include communications about the state’s bipartisan elections commission, which is currently under attack by state Republicans, as well as emails sent to state Rep. Janel Brandtjen by a conservative attorney who tried to overturn Wisconsin’s 2020 election results.

American Oversight Sues DOJ and DHS for Trump Officials’ Communications with Fox News Hosts and ‘Big Lie’ Proponents

December 15, 2021
The lawsuit is the seventh American Oversight has filed seeking public information related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and calls for the release of officials’ communications with vocal Trump allies in the weeks after the 2020 election.

Election Denier Phil Waldron’s Communications with Arizona Senate Leaders

December 14, 2021
Waldron’s name has emerged in news reports about the investigation into Mark Meadows’s role in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, providing yet another reminder of the links between those efforts and partisan election reviews in multiple states.

Documents from Wisconsin Election Investigation Reveal Contact with Mike Lindell, Other Partisan Activists

December 6, 2021
The emails from conspiracy theorist Lindell were sent to Michael Gableman, the lawyer running the investigation, the same month that Gableman attended Lindell’s “cyber symposium” in South Dakota.

More Evidence of the Biased Origins of the Arizona Senate Election ‘Audit’

September 30, 2021
More documents were released last week by the Arizona Senate in response to American Oversight’s litigation for records from the problematic election “audit.”

Why You (Still) Should Not Trust the Arizona Senate’s Final ‘Audit’ Report

September 23, 2021
Officials have said that the much-delayed final report on the purported findings from the Senate’s election-undermining political stunt will be released on Friday, Sept. 24.

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

September 13, 2021
On Monday, American Oversight published an in-depth look at the "Big Lie" and the decades-long campaign by conservative activists and lawmakers to hype up the threat of voter fraud.

New Report: How the Arizona Election ‘Audit’ Has Already Been Compromised

July 22, 2021
Drawing from the hundreds of pages of documents and emails uncovered by American Oversight, as well as public reporting, the report identifies key issues that undermine the credibility of the Arizona Senate’s partisan election review.

Arizona Senate Releases Emails Related to Election ‘Audit’ to American Oversight

June 4, 2021
On Friday, the Arizona Senate released records related to the sham "audit" of Maricopa County ballots, including emails indicating Senate President Karen Fann's frequent contact with Rudy Giuliani in December 2020, as well as a "personal call" from President Trump.
Show all updates

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