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How a Rural Colorado County Became an Epicenter of Trump’s Big Lie

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How a Rural Colorado County Became an Epicenter of Trump’s Big Lie
Then-President Trump in the Oval Office with his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, middle, and strategist Stephen K. Bannon. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

First an election official erred. Then Trump’s IT squad arrived. Then the false claims, conspiracies, stolen data and denials ensued.

Colorado’s southwestern Mesa County is filled with desert lore. It’s also home to one of 2020’s stranger false stolen election narratives that keeps resounding like echoes in its canyons but offers lessons for 2022’s general election.

Tina Peters, Mesa County’s Clerk, was not a cultish election denier immediately before or after 2020’s presidential election. She did not make any accusations that her voting system’s computers had been secretly sabotaged when Sandra Brown, Mesa County’s back-office election manager, mistakenly double-counted 20,000 ballots in late October 2020—a procedural error during preprocessing ballots that Brown repeated in Mesa County’s municipal elections in April 2021.

But soon after April 2021’s elections, where a slate of conservatives who skipped a candidate forum all lost, the first of what became a parade of pro-Donald Trump, self-proclaimed election IT experts began telling Peters about anomalies with her county’s voting system computers. The anomalies were the same clichés about illegal voters and forged totals that had been put forth by Trump diehards in other states. Except the allegations were dressed up as statistics and technicalities. Peters, a businesswoman turned public official, was more than impressed.

As March 2022 indictments by Mesa County District Attorney Daniel Rubenstein, a Republican, and a recent New Yorker profile recount, Peters used a standard update of election software in late April 2021 to make unauthorized copies of her election system’s hard drives, software, and data. The apparent goal was gathering intelligence to show that the technology—made by Dominion Voting Systems—could not be trusted to produce accurate vote counts.

Trump’s lawyers and partisan IT specialists had made copiesof computer drives, software and data in December 2020 in Antrim County, Michigan, after a former state GOP leader turned state judge allowed it. The copies, of another Dominion system, were not to be shared. But they were soon leakedin Trump circles.

That effort, nonetheless, produced no evidence for any of Trump’s failed post-election lawsuits. Still, one day after January 6, 2021’s pro-Trump insurrection, some of the same data miners went toCoffee County, Georgia. There, an election official let them copy their Dominion system’s drives, software and 2020 data. Members of this loose cadre of IT experts showed up in Mesa County in late April—several weeks after back-office manager Brown again erred in using a computer as it was compiling vote subtotals in its municipal elections.

What happened next in Mesa County gets complex. It also reveals how a rare but recurring trend among a handful of local election officials—mistakes with setting up or using their system’s computers—can be exploited by partisans who claim that invisible forces are secretly stealing votes if their candidates lose.

In every cycle, there are some election officials who do not properly set up or use these computers—errors that usually are caught and corrected, but initially produce incorrect election results. This trend has been overlooked in the press coverage of the interstate plot by Trump’s IT gurus to steal election software and 2020 data.

The operational problems, however, are among the findings by the Independent Media Institute’s Voting Booth project, which has co-written a forthcoming guide about how election systems work. The co-author is Duncan Buell, a computer scientist who has studied voting systems, software, and data for more than a decade, and was an election official in Richland County, South Carolina, home to the state’s capital, Columbia. These errors recurred in each cycle that he studied.

In 2020’s general election, the programming, and operational mistakes were few and far between. Nonetheless, the errors that Trump’s IT squads seized upon—errors that were corroborated by post-election inquiries by other government bodies—helped fuel the lie that the presidential election was stolen.

Moreover, some of the election workers who made these mistakes—such as Mesa County’s Brown—and their elected superior—such as Peters—then fell under the spell of Trump’s conspiratorial IT squad—producing fodder for more false claims.

These trends—mistakes with programming or using election computers and rogue officials who abuse the public trust by making unfounded claims—offer warnings before 2022’s general election. Many 2020 election-deniers are candidates seeking state and federal office this fall. A few already have shown in their primaries that they will attack the process and technology if they fear they may lose.

Before 2020’s election, virtually all of the members of Trump’s IT squads did not know much about voting system computers or election administration safeguards. But they eagerly presented their credentials and claimed, that election computers had been hijacked, and, moreover, that no Dominion system should be trusted. Their unproven accusations became, and remain, fixtures in Trump circles.

“It wasn’t just Colorado,” said Walter Daugherity, a recently retired University of Texas lecturer in computer science and engineering, on an August 22 televised panel sponsored and hosted by Mike Lindell, a Trump ally who has spent millions to promote the stolen election fiction and whose actions are under investigation by federal authorities. “Everywhere across the country that had a Dominion trusted build [software] upgrade had the same thing happen.”

Daugherity was one analyst who received Mesa County’s pilfered data. He and Jeff O’Donnell, an IT analyst whose moniker in Trump circles is “the Lone Raccoon,” co wrote a series of reports concluding that Mesa County’s computers mysteriously allowed 20,346 presidential ballots to be counted twice. The double counting was not the fault of election officials, specifically back-office election manager Brown, they wrote, positing that an “external trigger,” “signal,” “software algorithm” or “pre-programming” had caused “unexpected voting patterns.”

Their speculation was one of many similar pronouncements in Trump circles. They accused Dominion of complicity in a scheme that would be illegal, if it were true.

“The report made claims which, if true, would indicate a crime was committed related to election fraud,” Mesa County District Attorney Rubenstein said via email on August 25. “I stand by the investigation that we conducted and am confident that there is no evidence of a crime being committed.”

Inside One Disinformation Bubble

Mesa County was among a handful of counties across America’s 8,000-plus election jurisdictions where Trump allies discovered glitches in administering the 2020 election. The glitches, which produced incorrect initial vote counts, were signs that Trump lost due to a vast conspiracy, they asserted.

That narrative, which continues today, ignores the most banal explanation of what happened in Mesa County and in jurisdictions such as Antrim County, Michigan. In both locales, county election officials erred with setting up or using their voting system’s computers, mistakes that initially were not noticed but were later caught and corrected.

The operational errors were recorded by the system’s computers, which keeps logs of every action—from ballot paper jams to vote counts. The errors were confirmed by other evidence, such as, in Mesa County, police investigators reconstructing the mistakes on the same equipment, parsing video footage from security cameras in the room where they occurred and interviewing witnesses. But conspiracy minded Trumpers, including O’Donnell and Daugherity, went looking for incongruities in computer logs and vote count databases, which, they said, masked programming that reassigned votes from Trump to other presidential candidates.

“The findings in this report were prepared by the authors as consultants to the legal team representing Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk,” the executive summary of their March 19, 2022 report said. “The findings provide evidence of unauthorized and illegal manipulation of tabulated vote data during the 2020 General Election and 2021 Grand Junction Municipal Election. Because of this evidence, which led to the vote totals for those elections being impossible to verify, the results and integrity of Mesa County’s 2020 General Election and the 2021 Grand Junction Municipal Election are in question.”

Among the incongruities they cited are batches of ballots that were not sequentially numbered in a results database. That can occur, several election experts explained, when batches of ballots with sloppy ink marks (made by voters) are detected by the software and set aside until the voter’s intent is determined. That process, called adjudication, is done in Colorado in the presence of political party observers. The batches are added to the database after the voter intent issues are resolved. (It was at this step where Brown failed to correctly use the system’s computers).

The Mesa County prosecutor took the duo’s report seriously and investigated. On May 19, 2022, Rubenstein sent a 24-page letter to Mesa County Commissioners and the Grand Junction City Council summarizing the investigation and debunking the vote-padding claims in the most pedestrian way. Two initial miscounts had occurred. The first was in 2020’s general election. The second was in municipal elections in April 2021. Both were “caused by direct action of the former Back Office Election Manager Sandra Brown.”

Investigators found that Brown had stopped and then restarted the computer during the adjudication process, including replacing one computer—without resetting the system. Brown did not call the vendor for assistance, the county prosecutor’s letter said. She was confused, tried to fix things, and erred—essentially double-counting votes at this stage in the process. Election judges from political parties witnessed this, as did an overhead video camera.

“No evidence exists that would indicate that Ms. Brown had any nefarious or criminal motive in those actions, but rather appears to have been trouble-shooting problems in the flow of the adjudication process,” Rubenstein wrote.

Human error in configuring and running election computers also sparked stolen election allegations in Antrim County, Michigan. There, the initial results in the conservative northern Michigan county were incorrect because one contest had been omitted on the ballots when configuring the system’s computers. Nobody caught the error until suspicious vote totals surfaced on Election Night. (Because one race was left out, votes were assigned to the wrong candidate in a tabulation spreadsheet, essentially bumping Trump votes down one line, where they were assigned to Joe Biden.)

In both counties, Trump supporters said that the entire state’s election apparatus was corrupt and demanded that the state’s certified results be thrown out. Beyond such hyperbole, a key observation emerges. Trump’s self-declared election experts were not looking at, nor may not even be aware of, the array of data sets, election records and administrative protocols that catch and correct the errors that occur. In Mesa County, for example, the district attorney’s report made this point.

“These actions were verified to have been done by her [Brown] through video evidence, corroboration of records, audit of randomly selected ballot images [created by ballot scanners], interviews with witnesses and experts, and recreation of certain scenarios using a test environment and prove that the conclusions of Report 3 [O’Donnell’s and Daugherity’s report] are incorrect claims of what may have occurred,” Rubenstein said. “At this time, no evidence suggests that these actions negatively impacted the election.”

In contrast, what the pro-Trump duo used as the basis for their inquiry—analyses built on Peters’ pilfered computer drives—is a thinner evidence base.

The pair, who were reached by email after their August 22 presentation at Mike Lindell’s “Moment of Truth Summit,” sent a rebuttal to Rubenstein’s summery where they rejected numerous assertions and questioned the district attorney’s expertise, evidence, and methods. (Rubenstein also noted they had lied about interviewing 11 people who had been in the room when Brown messed up.)

When asked by this reporter why they did not mention the DA’s review in their presentation at Lindell’s August 2022 forum—where O’Donnell said, “There is still no evidence that this was ever or even could have been something that was done by the clerk at the time”—O’Donnell replied that the DA’s investigation was a sham and said that my questions were “insulting.”

“We did not mention the DA’s report because it is such a sloppy ‘investigation’ that it deserves no recognition other than derision,” the “Lone Raccoon” said. “It is sad to me that somebody who is a ‘national political reporter’ would blindly fall fort the propaganda put by a small-time DA instead of actually doing their own research. However, that seems to be the rule these days.”

“Doing Their Own Research”

Perhaps my e-mail was too blunt when asking the pair if they were aware of other evidence that explained Brown’s incompetence (she was fired and faces charges related to the data breach); and what was their response to the D.A. saying they lied when they said they had talked to the party observers present (who spoke to police investigators) when Brown erred?

But I had done my “own research.” When reporting on the Cyber Ninjas’ review in Arizona in 2021, I had repeatedly seen the disinformation dynamic that I saw here. Partisans with forgone conclusions started to parse election records. Lacking prior experience in studying election systems, they did not understand where what they were seeing in the electronic records related to wider contexts and protocols. That didn’t stop them from putting forth doubts about the results. And I’d also heard about the duo’s missteps from a lifelong Republican and credible election data analyst.

Benny White, a former fighter pilot and lawyer who lives in Tucson, Arizona, has been an election observer and data analyst for the Arizona Republican party for years. He became a persona non-grata in Trump circles for analyses in early 2021 that found tens of thousands of ballots cast by otherwise loyal Republicans in the greater Phoenix area had not voted to re-elect Trump. (The voting patterns were found in the final spreadsheet of every vote cast in every race.)

Reached by phone, White said that the duo called him as they were parsing Mesa County’s tabulation-related databases. White recalled that he told them where their assumptions were mistaken, and what they were not considering because they were not familiar with election administration and safeguards that find and fix errors.

“These folks have no understanding or appreciation of election administration,” he said. “They’re looking at everything from a sterile, mechanistic perspective. There are problems that can be caused because of human interface in the system design where operators can make mistakes. And for that reason, I am always an advocate of having an independent body, whether it’s a knowledgeable person or a bipartisan group of overseers, that is present at all times to watch what’s going on and ask, ‘Why are you doing that?'”

For example, White recalled that the duo claimed that the county’s voting system “had done something nefarious because these ballots [during adjudication] weren’t all tabulated in sequence.” But that circumstance occurs if the voter’s intent on a ballot is in question, White said, in which case Dominion’s software “will hold that batch [of 1,000 ballots from] being included in the aggregate results… That was another thing that it seemed to me that Daugherity failed to understand.”

“He bases a lot of his conclusions on statistics, statistical analysis,” White said of Daugherity. “There have been single instances where he would tell me something, and I would say, ‘Walter, you’re not considering this other facet of what was going on in that particular election… You have to know more before you reach these conclusions.'”

Election administration is not simple. It takes years to understand election law, varieties in state rules and procedures, the voting system technology and all of the subsets of data created and compiled that add up to winners and losers. Trump’s IT squad might be forgiven for misunderstanding and misinterpreting what they saw, if they had been more humble and fair-minded. But they weren’t.

Their mindset is to create chaos and doubt, while claiming they are seeking the truth. The clearest evidence of that mindset is how they exploited human errors by election officials by not accurately contextualizing those mistakes, but repeatedly over claiming that an entire jurisdiction’s votes were suspect, and that the same election technology deployed nationwide must be rejected.

With scores of 2020 election-denying candidates running for state and federal office in 2022’s general election, this deceitful pattern is likely to recur.

Voting Booth, Independent Media Institute______________

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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Debunking the Latest 2020 Conspiracy Theory from a Leading Trump Election Denier

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Debunking the Latest 2020 Conspiracy Theory from a Leading Trump Election Denier
He’s Destroyed Conservatism’: The Republican Case Against Trump’s GOP. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

One of the most conspiracy-minded “con artists” who sought to elevate and enrich himself by posing as a technical expert during the Arizona Senate GOP’s flawed review of the 2020 presidential election is returning to Maricopa County on October 1, where he is pushing a new – and easily-debunked – conspiracy theory about how 2020 votes were forged.

“I’m just going to explain a few things here that I think you need to look at. But there’s many – there’s much more work we have to do,” said Jovan Pulitzer, in a video posted online this week (and then taken down) that was recorded by AUDIT Elections USA, an Arizona-based advocacy group seeking more transparent vote counts. “I’m doing this because we can’t move on.”

Pulitzer, who rented a theater in Tempe where he will speak and host other election deniers, is alleging that a handful of accessible voting stations that assist voters with disabilities were used to hijack votes for Joe Biden. These computers have a touchscreen to register votes and a printer that produces a filled-out ballot card. A separate scanner then counts the votes.

“It is well-known that these voting machines have features built into them under the auspices of protection or equal access for people with disabilities that can be used nefariously,” he said. “I call this hiding in plain sight. They’ve always had the ability to modify the vote.”

Pulitzer is claiming that Maricopa County’s accessible voting stations hijacked Trump votes by using an on-board library of images to fill in the ovals next to Biden’s name.

“We have to look at, on all these ballots, 188,056,260 ovals – yes, 188,056,260 ovals – and you have to look at them all individually,” he said.

“This is made-up nonsense,” said John Brakey, AUDIT Elections USA executive director. “He’s talking about machines there that don’t even exist. He doesn’t even realize that 91 percent of the county’s [presidential] ballots were mailed out and came back in a signed envelope.”

Election officials in Maricopa County, where 1.2 million people voted for president, quickly pointed to evidence that showed why Pulitzer’s claims are yet another false narrative.

Maricopa County’s voting stations for voters with disabilities, called ballot-marking devices, do not print out ballots with any filled-in ovals. They print out human-readable text of the voter’s selections and a QR code (a dot matrix) of those choices that is read by a scanner. Thus, the claim about deliberately misprinted ballot ovals has no basis in reality. Pulitzer’s narrative, ignorantly or deceptively, relies on a voting system that Maricopa County does not use.

Further, the volume of presidential votes cast on Maricopa County’s ballot-marking stations is nowhere near Biden’s 10,457-vote statewide margin over Trump. As the county noted in a post-election report, only 454 people used the accessible voting stations in the presidential election. There’s no way that Pulitzer’s alleged forgeries would have affected the outcome.

Moreover, the ballots printed by the marking device computers are smaller (8.5 inches by 11 inches) than the traditional ballot cards (8.5 inches by 19 inches) issued to all other voters at voting sites. Here, again, the factual evidence is easy to account for, and does not support any claim that accessible voting devices could have altered the election’s results.

Maricopa County is the second most populous election jurisdiction in America. Only Los Angeles County has more voters. Its election department is highly professional, as seen by the data that it compiles and issues. In early 2022, it issued one of the country’s most comprehensive and technical refutations of every stolen election allegation posed after Trump’s loss.

That report was overseen by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican who voted for Trump but felt compelled to defend the county’s election administration after the Arizona Senate Republicans sanctioned an “audit” led by Cyber Ninjas, a pro-Trump IT firm.

Pulitzer had a unique and influential role in that error-plagued audit – which failed in multiple attempts to account for every ballot cast (a starting-line inventory control step) but concluded that Biden had won (without evidence that could be replicated).

Most of the sophisticated equipment that filled the floor of Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum – the tables of overhead cameras and microscopes – was prompted by Pulitzer, who told others that he was looking for signs of forgeries, including bamboo fibers in paper ballots that he said would prove that 40,000 ballots had been forged in Asia and smuggled, somehow unseen and undetected, into Maricopa County’s voting operations.

When the Cyber Ninjas and other IT contractors sanctioned by the Senate Republicans issued their findings in September 2021, the state legislators did not include Pulitzer’s forgery theory or analysis on its webpage. Nor did they invite him to present his findings in any forum.

“Jovan Hutton Pulitzer is a con artist who is a master of hoaxes and frauds,” Brakey wrote in an email during the audit where he was an observer. “[The] following are links to various sources that discredit him entirely. Please note that his so-called Wikipedia page is a FAKE page made up by him with the URL of his website, NOT the [real] Wikipedia URL. Pulitzer changed his name from Jeffrey Jovan Philyaw. He also goes by J. Hutton Pulitzer. He did invent CueCat, which PC World called ‘one of the 25 worst inventions of all time.'”

Pulitzer’s latest claims may be easily debunked before his upcoming event in Tempe, but it shows how determined 2020 election deniers remain as 2022’s general election approaches.

Independent Media Institute____________________

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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Key Senate Committee Passes Bill to Prevent Trump-Like Electoral College Coups

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Key Senate Committee Passes Bill to Prevent Trump-Like Electoral College Coups
Former President Donald Trump holds a copy of The Washington Post as he speaks in the East Room of the White House one day after the Senate acquitted him of two articles of impeachment, February 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. Getty Images/Drew Angerer

An 1887 law would be reformed to prevent radicals in state government and Congress from subverting the popular vote for president.

Efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law whose quirks and ambiguities became a roadmap for Donald Trump and his allies to try to subvert congressional certification of 2020’s Electoral College vote, moved a step closer in the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday.

The Senate Rules Committee, in a bipartisan 14-to-1 vote, approved a bill that clarified state and congressional procedures for the final stages of certifying presidential election results. The bill explicitly seeks to prevent the abuses that led to the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

“I’m pleased that we are where we are today,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who voted to send to the full Senate. “Assuming that we make no changes here today, or, at most, technical changes, I’ll be proud to vote for it and to help advance it.”

The Electoral Count Act (ECA) was passed after one of the 19th century’s most disputed elections. Like 2020’s presidential election, that contest also saw states sending competing Electoral College slates to Congress and violence at the Capitol. The ECA, which took years to write, is notorious for garbled and dense passages that Trump’s most aggressive supporters sought to exploit to subvert Joe Biden’s victory in November 2020.

The remedy, The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act or S.4573, seeks to blunt the cornerstones of Trump’s attempted coup.

“The Electoral Count Act was largely overlooked for over 130 years, but it was at the center of a plan to overturn the 2020 election and the will of the American people, that, as we all know who work here, culminated in a violent mob desecrating the Capitol,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and the Rules Committee chair. “They did this by making false claims that this law allowed the vice president to refuse to accept Electoral College votes that were lawfully cast, by recruiting state legislators to declare a failed election and appoint their own [presidential] electors, and by exploiting the fact that the law allows one single senator and one single representative to object to a state’s Electoral College votes and use baseless claims to delay the count in Congress.”

The bill is the result of a bipartisan group of 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans working for months to create a narrowly focused bill that prevents abuse by either party if their candidate loses. Klobuchar and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, the Rule Committee’s ranking minority member, highlighted four primary areas in the legislation.

“The bill explicitly rejects, once and for all, the false claims that the vice president has authority to accept or reject Electoral [College] votes. It makes it clear that the vice president role during the joint session is ceremonial,” Klobuchar said. “Second, it raises the threshold to challenge the electoral votes [of any state] during the joint session of Congress to guard against baseless claims. Right now, just two people out of the 535 members can object and slow down and gum up the counting. This bill would raise the threshold to one-fifth of Congress.”

“It replaces the undefined and controversial ‘failed election’ clause [in the 1887 law] and ensures that states can’t overturn the results of an election,” Blunt said, referring to state legislatures overriding their state’s popular vote for president. “It provides for an expedited federal court process to ensure states issue [presidential Electoral College] certifications after the [popular vote results of the election] has been certified in their state.”

The only Rules Committee member to object to the bill and vote against it was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, who claimed that it was a federal power grab.

McConnell, however, called the bill “common sense” and said that it – not a recently House-passed ECA reform bill – was the “only bipartisan compromise… [that can] become law.”

“It’s common sense… that the vice president obviously has no personal discretion or power over the presidential vote,” McConnell said. “It is common sense to protect state’s primacy in appointing their electors, but also strengthen requirements that states publicize their rules before the elections and stick to them. It’s common sense to make technical fixes to other related laws like the Presidential Transition Act. And its common sense that our colleagues leave chaos-generating bad ideas on the cutting-room floor.”

Several voting rights organizations praised the Committee’s action. But they also noted that it was the only pro-democracy legislation that stood a chance of emerging from Congress after the 2020 presidential election, which they said was insufficient.

“Fixing the Electoral Count Act is critical, but it is not enough. It eliminates some avenues for election sabotage, but many others remain,” said Wendy R. Weiser, vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.

On the other hand, Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization opposing more authoritarian government, noted the reform was supported by many Republican senators.

“The bipartisan vote to advance the Electoral Count Reform Act (ECRA) underscores the momentum and cross-ideological consensus… [to] strengthen presidential elections in the future,” said Genevieve Nadeau, Protect Democracy counsel. “We now call on Congress to finish the job and pass the strongest ECA reform possible by the end of the year.”

Independent Media Institute___________________

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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Trump Allies Challenging Georgia Voters To Suppress Midterm Turnout

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Trump Allies Challenging Georgia Voters To Suppress Midterm Turnout
He’s Destroyed Conservatism’: The Republican Case Against Trump’s GOP. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

On August 29, eight cartons of notarized paperwork challenging 25,000 voter registrations were delivered by pro-Donald Trump “election integrity” activists to Gwinnett County’s election offices in suburban Atlanta. They were accompanied by additional paperwork claiming that 15,000 absentee ballots had been illegally mailed to voters before the county’s 2020 presidential election.

Two days later, the activists held a briefing on the filings. It was led by Garland Favorito, a soft-spoken retired IT professional who has been agitating in Georgia election circles for 20 years and heads the non-profit, VoterGA. Favorito began by citing six lawsuits the group has filed against state and county officials – claiming counterfeit ballots, untrustworthy or illegal voting systems, and corrupt 2022 primary results. Then he turned to Gwinnett County.

“We are delivering today 37,500 affidavits challenging voter rolls and handling of the 2020 election,” said Favorito. “As a reminder, the presidential spread for the entire state of Georgia was 11,000 and change, not quite 12,000 [votes]. And we have 20,000 [allegedly improper voter registrations] just in Gwinnett alone. This number will increase as our analysis is ongoing.”

The Gwinnett challenges are not unique. In Georgia’s Democratic epicenters, Trump backers have been filing voter roll challenges since last winter targeting upwards of 65,000 voters. The state’s post-2020 election “reform” bill, S.B. 202, authored by its GOP-led legislature, allows an unlimited number of challenges.

While most of the claims put forth by Voter GA are easily refuted, the challenges individually targeting voters could have an impact in suppressing some number of votes this fall, where polls find some statewide contests are very close.

“This is brazen voter intimidation with the express intent of suppressing minority votes,” said Ray McClendon, NAACP Atlanta political action chair. “The NAACP is working to inform voters of their legal remedies in order to protect their voting rights. We will not be bullied by these underhanded tactics.”

Bogus Attack on Absentee Voting

The voter challenges concern three areas, said Zach Manifold, Gwinnett County election supervisor, who patiently explained why most of VoterGA’s claims were mistaken and overblown. For example, the assertion that 15,000 voters were improperly sent an absentee ballot in 2020 was flat-out wrong, he said, and formally should not even be called a voter challenge.

“They’re not really voter challenges because they’re related to the 2020 election,” Manifold said. “Voter challenges are challenging [individual registered] voters going forward for an upcoming election, or to remove them from the rolls.”

The linchpin in this allegation hinges on whether that a voter’s application for an absentee ballot was filed more than 180 days before the election.

“[They contend] our office should not have processed these applications because they were received more than 180 days before the election, which was the law at the time,” Manifold said.

The county elections staff investigated, he said, and found that the allegations were wrong, and, crucially, that VoterGA had overlooked a simple and obvious explanation.

“It appears that all of those, at least everything we have looked at – the few hundred that we sampled – were all valid [absentee ballot applications],” said Manifold. “They’re what we call rollover voters. You can apply for a ballot earlier in the year, before a different election, and roll it over [the absentee ballot request] throughout the whole cycle.”

The absentee ballot application on the county’s website offers this option. On page two, at item 12, a voter can check a box that says, “I opt-in to receive an absentee ballot for the rest of the election cycle.” In other words, these voters apparently had opted in. The voters and the county did nothing improper.

Neither Favorito nor Sheryl Sellaway, the media contact listed on VoterGA’s press release about the Gwinnett challenges returned phone calls seeking comment.

Voter Suppression Scenario

A similar dynamic is at play with the 25,000 individual challenges to registered voters on the county’s rolls. But, unlike the false claim of illegal absentee voting in Gwinnett County in 2020, which perpetuates Trump’s false stolen election myth, these forward-facing registration challenges could suppress an unknown number of votes from being counted in 2022’s November 8 election.

Such voter suppression is possible because under Georgia law the challenges could force some number of infrequent, but registered, voters to go through extra hoops before their ballots would be counted. Should any of the challenged voters try to vote this fall in Gwinnett County, they would be given a conditional ballot. That ballot would not be counted unless that voter presented additional ID at a hearing after Election Day. Historically, most voters skip these hearings.

(This process is similar to what happens to voters who are not listed in precinct poll books. They are given a provisional ballot, which is set aside and not counted until the voter shows up at a county office or an election board hearing with ID, which, historically most of these voters do not do.)

Manifold said that this cadre of VoterGa’s voter roll challenges were threading a needle that narrowly followed state law and avoided a 1993 federal law that bars larger-scale voter purges within 90 days of a federal election.

“Somebody could challenge somebody under [Georgia law section] 230 and put them into a challenge status all the way up to Election Day,” he explained. “What happens is that voter would vote a challenge ballot. It’s similar to a provisional ballot. And those ballots are adjudicated at the same meeting [after Election Day] where we do provisional ballots.”

“That puts the onus on the voter,” Manifold said. “The voter actually has to come to a hearing and say, ‘This is me.’ ‘I live here.’ ‘And you should count my ballot.'”

How many voters could find themselves in this situation is hard to predict, he said. About 22,000 of the voter registration challenges concern people who are infrequent voters or have not voted recently. VoterGA’s press release said it had used “a variety of public records to determine accuracy of the [voter registration] entries.” The release did not specify what public databases were used, but most of the affidavits cited the Postal Service’s change of address database. That database was not designed for vetting voter registration information.

Ironically, it appears that VoterGA’s efforts to winnow Gwinnett County’s voters rolls pales next to the county’s (and state’s) efforts to update these records.

Gwinnett County, which has 650,000 registered voters, has procedures dictated by state and federal law to contact infrequent voters before removing them from the rolls. Infrequent voters, people who may have moved or died are tracked via several government databases, Manifold said. In the past 12 months, the county has sent five notices by mail to alert these voters of their pending removal – and telling them what steps they must take to become active voters, meaning they would get a regular ballot in the next election. Normally, any infrequent voter who shows up would reactivate their registration status.

However, under VoterGA’s challenges – which name individual voters – those registrants would be shunted aside and given a conditional ballot. The county has assigned a team of workers to review these 22,000 voter registration challenges, Manifold said. So far, it has found that most of these individuals already are on the county’s radar, he said. But several thousand potential voters may not be.

“Almost 90 percent of the challenges that we have seen here are people that were already picked up in our conformation process,” Manifold said.

Manifold also said the current election cycle was the first one where Georgia was participating in an interstate registration data-sharing consortium, which helps to update its voter rolls and identify eligible but unregistered voters. Georgia also is among the states that automatically register voters as they get a drivers’ license.

Georgia’s automatic registration system, which is run by another state agency whose primary business has nothing to do with elections, has led to some number of data-entry typos (misspellings, incorrect addresses) in the voter rolls, Manifold said. These errors appeared to be the reason for the third category of registration challenges from VoterGA, where 2,700 registration files were found with missing address information or could not be tied to a physical street address.

“We do want to get that information updated,” Manifold said. “There is some sort of data mismatch somewhere in the system, and that means that voters are not getting whatever we’re sending out.”

But VoterGA is not coming in and working with county officials to alert them to deficiencies in voter registration data that, if corrected, could lead to more voters casting ballots. They are making sloppy and easily refuted allegations about 2020 absentee voters that seek to perpetuate false narratives about that election. And they are filing voter challenges that could suppress and nullify the ballots cast by an unknown number of infrequent but legal voters later this fall.

“What this really is all about is to frustrate minority voters into staying home on Election Day,” said the NAACP’s McClendon. “Such efforts will only motivate those who believe in democracy to fight even harder to ensure all voters’ voices are heard.”

Independent Media Institute_____________________

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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What Do Americans Care About? Not a Cold War With Russia and China

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What Do Americans Care About? Not a Cold War With Russia and China
Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China in a show of solidarity against threats of Western sanctions. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The Biden administration will soon release its National Security Strategy, which is being revised in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The document will no doubt trigger a renewed debate about how the United States should gear up for a new Cold War against Russia and China. But before we plunge into a global great-power competition, it’s worth recalling President Biden’s promise to create a “foreign policy for the middle class” and take a look at what most concerns Americans.

Congress is about to add tens of billions of dollars to the military budget. Unrepentant hawks scorn this as inadequate, urging a 50 percent increase, or an additional $400 billion or more a year. Aid to Ukraine totals more than $40 billion this year, and counting. A new buildup is underway in the Pacific. Biden summons Americans to the global battle between democracy and autocracy, implying that U.S. security depends on spreading democracy—and, implicitly, regime change—worldwide.

Americans, it is safe to say, have different—one might suggest more practical—concerns, as revealed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Asked about the most urgent issue facing the country today, 27 percent of respondents—the highest number—ranked inflation as No. 1, while only 2 percent ranked Ukraine at the top. In a range of Economist-YouGov polls over the past month, the top foreign-policy concerns included immigration and climate change.

The foreign policy “blob” may be gearing up for a global Cold War, but Americans are focused on security at home. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Eurasia Group Foundation, nearly half of Americans think the United States should decrease its involvement in other countries’ affairs; only 21.6 percent would increase it. Nearly 45 percent would decrease U.S. troop deployments abroad; only 32.2 percent would increase them.

Polls, of course, are merely snapshots—and war fever can transform opinion. However, a 2021 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported many of the same priorities. Far more Americans (81 percent) said they were concerned about threats from within the country than from outside the country (19 percent). Among foreign policy goals, more than 75 percent of respondents ranked protecting American workers’ jobs and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, respectively, as very important. Ranked lowest were “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” (18 percent) and “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” (32 percent).

What would a sensible strategy for the middle class look like? A recent paper from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—”Managed Competition: A U.S. Grand Strategy for a Multipolar World“—offers a good start. The author is George Beebe, a former head of the CIA’s Russia analysis unit who is currently director of grand strategy at the institute.

Beebe argues that over the past three decades, “yawning gaps” have emerged not only between “America’s ambitions in the world and its capacity for achieving those goals,” but also between a “Washington foreign policy elite too focused on promoting U.S. primacy” and “ordinary Americans yearning for greater stability and prosperity at home.”

He echoes the priorities of most Americans, arguing that “the chief strategic challenge Washington faces today is not to win a decisive battle between freedom and tyranny but to gain a breathing spell abroad that will allow the country to focus on desperately needed internal recovery.”

He then outlines the core of a strategy for this time: a “managed competition” with Russia and China. Recognizing that our economic health is intertwined with China’s, and that Russia’s nuclear arsenal demands prudence, he would “avoid promoting regime change” or otherwise “undermining political and economic stability in Russia and China.” Instead, in a managed competition, our rivals would be countered not only by American power and alliances, but also by rebuilding “agreed rules of the game,” beginning presumably with efforts to revive nuclear arms agreements and create cyber agreements to limit these growing security challenges.

For this to occur, he notes elsewhere, there must be an agreed end to the war in Ukraine. Beebe concedes that Vladimir Putin’s attack required a strong American-led response. But as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Beebe would distinguish between repelling Putin’s aggression and efforts to foster regime change in Moscow or to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit.

In the current euphoria over Russian reversals in Ukraine, this caution is likely to fall upon deaf ears. But a foreign policy for the middle class must find a way to curb our adventures abroad so that we can rebuild our democracy and strength at home. A Cold War against Russia and China might empower the foreign policy elite, enrich the military-industrial-congressional complex and excite our bellicose media, but it ignores the American people’s common sense.

 Globetrotter______________________

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation.

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As Schengen Visa Rejections Mount, Turks Sour on Europe

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As Schengen Visa Rejections Mount, Turks Sour on Europe
Flag of the European Union. (Unsplash/Christian Lue)

In a recent poll, more than a third of Turks said that the European Union is a more valued partner than China, Russia, and the United States combined. Yet, if tourist visas are any indication, the EU doesn’t hold the same opinion of Turkey.

Schengen visa approvals for Turkish travelers have fallen off a cliff in recent years, sparking outrage across the political divide. After a nearly five-fold increase in visa rejections for Turkish applicants, the Turkish foreign ministry accused the EU of burdening Turks with “unnecessary and large amounts of paperwork,” and even suggested that the refusals are a “planned and deliberate act” by European countries.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the escalating visa crisis. With 5.5 million Turks living in Western Europe (out of 6.5 million living abroad), many believe that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is derelict in looking out for Turks’ interests. Given the importance of Europe to the Turkish people, why hasn’t Turkey negotiated better terms for its own citizens? 

Cavusoglu had a chance to answer this question in June. During a meeting with his Norwegian counterpart, Anniken Huitfeldt, Turkey’s foreign minister granted Norwegians the ability to enter Turkey temporarily by using only a Norwegian ID card. But instead of securing a similar arrangement for Turkish passport holders, Cavusoglu received nothing. 

On social media, the Turkish public was incensed. “Such news can only be good if the same conditions apply to Turkish citizens,” one person wrote on Twitter. “Norwegian citizens …get an easy visa. Turkish citizens [must] document …seven generation[s]” just to spend a few days on holiday. It was an exaggeration, of course, but not by much. 

For a short-term Schengen visa, Turks must provide proof of travel insurance, accommodation, airfare, tax certificates, social security documentation, work contracts, deeds, and evidence of sufficient funds. Many applicants fail to meet this threshold. Today, 20 percent of Turkish applicants are denied entry to the EU. In 2015, it was closer to 4 percent

The EU, for its part, denies any mistreatment of a single country and insists that Turkey is not in its bureaucratic crosshairs. The EU Commission says the rejection of Turkish visas in 2022 is only 0.4 percent above the global refusal average, and that a shortage of staff and new regulations are limiting available visa slots. Meanwhile, the EU ambassador to Turkey, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, says that most of the recent Turkish rejections were the result of “incomplete and potentially fraudulent” applications.

To be sure, Turks aren’t without their own visa transgressions. Official visas have been misused by Turks to stay in European countries and seek asylum. In September 2020, 43 of 45 Justice and Development Party members from Yesilyurt stayed in Germany after traveling there for work. A similar incident occurred in October 2019, when Adana’s Karatas district, in southern Turkey, sent 30 musicians to a festival in Germany; more than half refused to return.

And yet, punishing every Turkish visa applicant for the misdeeds of a few doesn’t sit well with the public. At eksisozluk.com, one of Turkey’s largest online communities, 55 pages of angry comments are dedicated to the subject of Schengen visa rejections. One user wrote that a friend with 10-year visas to Britain and the US was rejected for the Schengen. Another speculated that despite Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, Russians appear to be having an easier time entering Europe than Turks (this perception could change if a new EU proposal to make it more expensive and harder for Russians to travel to the bloc is enacted).

Whatever the truth may be, a consensus is growing on the Turkish street that the Schengen visa is in place to keep Turks out.

The financial cost of such an exclusion is immense. Turkish citizens have paid more than €26 million to obtain Schengen visas over the last five years. In 2021, Turks paid more than €3.6 million in fees for rejected Schengen visas, and that number is certain to increase this year.

Turks have a lot to be angry about. The devaluation of their currency hasn’t helped the visa debacle, but neither has their own government, which seems more interested in luring foreign tourists to Turkey than in helping Turks see the world. 

Even if there has been misuse of the Schengen visa system in the past, Turkish and EU leaders have a duty to work through those challenges. For Europe to remain the envy of the Turkish eye, the EU must let Turkish travelers experience Europe for themselves.

Syndication Bureau_________________

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.

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How Vote Count Mistakes by Two Rural Counties Fed Trump’s Big Lie

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How Vote Count Mistakes by Two Rural Counties Fed Trump’s Big Lie
Former President Donald Trump arrives at the Sarasota Fairgrounds to speak to his supporters during the Save America Rally in Sarasota, Florida, U.S. July 3, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones

County officials didn’t properly set up and use their election computers, helping to launch a looming disinformation juggernaut.

Since 2020’s presidential election, two rural counties in Michigan and Colorado that initially reported incorrect results have had outsized roles in spreading Donald Trump’s big lie that his second term was stolen by Democrats colluding with one of the country’s biggest computerized voting systems makers.

The mistaken 2020 election results occurred in two out of the more than 8,000 election jurisdictions across America. They were caused by county officials who did not properly set up the election system computers in Michigan and properly use them in Colorado. The errors, which notably were caught and corrected, received scant attention compared to the sensation they sparked in Trump circles where a cadre of self-proclaimed IT experts—and, later, some of the same officials who erred—asserted that the computers had been sabotaged.

What unfolded inside the election departments in Antrim County, Michigan, and Mesa County, Colorado, in pro-Trump circles that misunderstood but exploited the counties’ errors—and then fueled conspiratorial and likely illegal evidence-stealing gambits in other battleground states (such as Georgia)—is a cautionary tale before 2022’s state and federal elections.

The procedural lapses that led to initially wrong vote counts are among the findings in research by the Independent Media Institute’s Voting Booth project. It has co-authored a forthcoming guide about how vote-counting systems work. Duncan Buell, a lifelong computer scientist who has spent the past dozen years analyzing election systems, software, and data, and served as an election official, co-authored the guide. The lapses have recurred in every election cycle Buell has studied.

The revelation that complications surrounding using the newest voting system computers by local officials helped launch false but widely believed stolen-election narratives comes as scores of Trump-mimicking election deniers are running for state and federal office in 2022’s general election, and as Trump is still falsely claiming that he was re-elected in 2020.

Some candidates, such as Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, said on the eve of her August primary that the voting apparatus would be rigged unless she won—which she did. Lake’s claim drew scoffs, but most reporters and voters do not know how election computers are set up, and then detect and compile votes. Nor are they aware of basic operational mistakes that can mar this process.

The mistakes by a handful of local election administrators are rare but were confirmed and described in detail in several government-led investigations. They appear to be an unavoidable part of managing elections, especially as new technology is used in high-pressure contests.

Programming and operational errors that led to incorrect initial vote counts occurred in DeKalb County, Georgia, in 2022’s primaries, in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, in 2019’s general election, and 2018 in South Carolina’s general election, which Buell witnessed as a member of the Richland County election board, where the state capital, Columbia, is located.

Comparable errors occurred using different voting systems, Buell noted, including computers from the country’s two biggest voting system firms, Election Systems and Software (ES&S) and Dominion Voting Systems.

“It is worth noting that all the errors observed in Antrim County, on Dominion equipment, have comparable errors that I have observed since 2010 in analyzing the ES&S data in South Carolina,” he said.

Election law attorneys and policy experts who are alarmed about the escalating threats to election officials by Trump factions since 2020 do not like to talk about the possibility that local officials may struggle with the newest election system computers. They have spent months defending election officials as above-the-fray experts that should be trusted, and pointedly say that it is a false equivalency to compare mistakes that get caught and corrected with intentional lies and stolen election conspiracies.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we would be in the same place had a water main in Fulton County not broken [in an Atlanta voting center], had Antrim County not happened,” said David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a non-partisan, non-profit that created a legal defense fund to assist threatened election officials. “These were excuses for the delegitimization of an election that was otherwise much more secure by any measure than anything we’ve ever had, thanks to paper ballots and audits.”

“Trump was using the rhetoric long before any specific instances happened in 2020,” said Ben Ginsburg, a longtime Republican election attorney, speaking at a September 6 briefing with Becker. “And David is exactly right. The system is designed to recognize that things aren’t going to be perfect. That’s why every state has recount proceedings, [vote] contest proceedings, and litigation. So, the notion that there will be mistakes is built into a process.”

Nonetheless, the fact remains that about two-thirds of the 74 million people who voted to re-elect Trump still believe the propaganda juggernaut that the election was illegitimate. In contrast, there are few efforts that explain and contextualize actual errors that occur. Typically, comments by election officials are terse and short-lived news items, acknowledging that mistakes were made and corrected.

Meanwhile, as the 2022 general election nears, many election officials are beefing up security protocols at county offices and operation centers, steps that may make their processes less transparent and invite more conspiratorial accusations.

Setting Up Voting Systems

This article is the start in a series that will explain what happened as actual mistakes occurred and how they become fodder for outsized false claims and disinformation about election results, officials and voting systems.

That some county election managers did not properly set up or use their system’s computers before 2020’s general election is not entirely surprising. Nor it is very surprising that Trump’s allies were poised to follow the former president’s cues and seek to exploit any error or procedural change to buoy their rhetoric.

What must be remembered are the claims of rigging and the concerns about changes to election processes occurred during a pandemic. In the middle of 2020’s presidential primaries, the COVID-19 pandemic arose. Some battleground states that did not postpone their primaries experienced a range of snafus, from poll workers who did not show up to last-minute consolidation of voting sites, creating confusion, congestion and delays for voters and election workers.

By summer, may states responded by encouraging the use of mailed-out ballots, which is a big procedural and logistical change for vetting voters and processing ballots. That abrupt transition came as many locales were using a new generation of election computers for the first time in a presidential election, which is always the highest turnout and most stressful general election to administer.

Introducing any new voting system or balloting option can be confusing for officials and voters. Election officials across the country knew their work would come under a microscope, and they took extra steps to ensure their results would be correct—emphasizing that most of the county would be voting on paper ballots for the first time in many presidential elections. But what is largely unappreciated about the newest generation of voting systems is they contained more individual computerized devices to process ballots than the prior generation of machines.

The new computers could number in the hundreds or thousands depending on the jurisdiction’s population. They include ballot-marking devices, scanners reading ballots, tabulators compiling precinct votes, and a central computer compiling all of the jurisdiction’s results. Each device must be programmed and synced with other computers at polling places and county operation centers.

Getting the correct ballot to voters and configuring the computers that cast or count votes is not simple or trivial—not when jurisdictions have 100s of different ballots. (Ballots vary as local races are added.) Nor are programming mistakes a “minor clerical error [that] turned into a major conspiracy theory,” as an August 26 report by the New York Times characterized Antrim County’s issues. Clerical tasks involve typos, not configuring, syncing, and verifying hundreds of ballot styles, thumb drives, and computers spanning voting sites and county headquarters.

In Antrim County, Michigan, election workers did not check if all of the computers had been properly programmed and synced after some ballots were redesigned at the last minute. As a result, ballot scanners and tabulators did not have the correct list of candidates and wrongly assigned votes. The initial returns incorrectly reported that Joe Biden had won the conservative northern Michigan county.

In Mesa County, Colorado, the back-office election manager did not know how to use a computer that completed the processing batches of 1,000 ballots to compile countywide results. As political party observers stood by, she double-counted more than 20,000 ballots. The scene was captured by overhead video cameras. She later made the same mistake in April 2021’s municipal election.

These mistakes were caught and corrected. Their details were documented by government investigations that issued several key reports. In Michigan, the first report (March 2021) was prepared by one of the country’s leading voting system analysts for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. The second report was by the state senate’s Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee (June 2021). In Colorado, Mesa County prosecutors issued a report (May 2022) that described the operational errors and also refuted accusations by pro-Trump IT specialists that claimed the computer system had secretly stolen votes.

What was somewhat surprising after the 2020 election was the emergence of a cadre of publicity-seeking, self-proclaimed, pro-Trump IT specialists who started claiming that the election was stolen at the same time the Trump campaign lost more than 60 state and federal court lawsuits for lack of evidence.

The self-proclaimed election IT experts had virtually no prior experience with analyzing election system computers. Nor were they apparently aware of other post-Election Day safeguards that find and fix vote count errors. Nonetheless, they asserted that they found unexplained signs of fake votes that they attributed to secretive programming by the equipment manufacturer. Their accusations were among the many efforts by Trump and his allies to cast doubt on the election’s outcome before and after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

But what was unexpected was that some of the county officials tasked with setting up and using these computers—including those who erred—would, months later, blame the mistakes on their computers, or publicly say their election system had been hijacked or were vulnerable to such hacking. In the spring of 2021, these officials began actively colluding with Trump’s conspiracy-minded IT squad.

Viral Lies, Slow Accountability

Of course, other partisan Republicans wanted Trump to win and helped set the stage for putting forth false stolen election claims.

Antrim County’s initial miscount went viral in pro-Trump circles. In early December 2020, a state judge, a former Michigan House Republican minority leader, ordered local election officials to allow outside investigators to analyze the county’s voting system’s computers. A firm hired by Trump’s lawyer, Sidney Powell, copied the system’s hard drives, software and data. (The copies, which the court said were not to be shared, were slowly and selectively leaked. They were widely distributed at an August 2021 forum led by Trump ally Mike Lindell.)

In mid-December 2020, a pro-Trump IT firm, Allied Security Operations Group (ASOG), issued its “forensic audit” report on Antrim County’s computers, which were made by Dominion Voting Systems (whose system was also used in Georgia and Arizona). Its summary said, “We conclude that the Dominion Voting System is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systematic fraud and influence election results. The system intentionally generated an enormously high number of ballot errors.”

Matthew DePerno, the Michigan Republican Party’s 2022 nominee for state attorney general, helped produce the ASOG report. (In August 2022, Michigan Attorney General, Dana Nessel, a Democrat seeking re-election, appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the illegal breach of the voting system. The appointment sought to avoid conflict-of-interest accusations.)

In response to ASOG’s report, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, commissioned one of the nation’s foremost election technologists, the University of Michigan’s J. Alex Halderman, to analyze what happened. His March 2021 report said ASOG’s review “contains an extraordinary number of false, inaccurate, or unsubstantiated statements and conclusions,” including repeatedly misreading computer logs that record every operation—from ballot paper jams to votes.

Halderman also described how Antrim election officials had failed to properly set up the system, which, in turn, led computers to assign accurately detected votes on paper ballots to the wrong line—and wrong candidate—in the county’s final results database. “The EMS [election management system] ignored most votes intended for [Joe] Biden, reported all votes intended for Trump as votes for Biden, and reported all votes intended for [Libertarian Jo] Jorgensen as votes for Trump,” his report said. “This pattern lets us almost exactly reproduce the erroneous initial results.”

But Trump’s allies, including his data gurus, ignored Halderman’s report and the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee’s report, issued by Republicans that June. Instead, they seized upon a strategy that they took to other states. Their mindset was to create chaos and doubt, so they went looking for fodder for their claims.

One day after the January 6 insurrection, the Atlanta-based technology firm that Powell hired to copy Antrim County’s voting system went to rural Coffee County, Georgia. There, a pro-Trump election official allowed the systems’ hard drives, software, and data to be copied. The official claimed in an online video that the system could be rigged, which also went viral in Trump circles.

In April 2021, Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk, shared unauthorized copies of her county’s election system with Trump’s IT allies. Even though Peters’ back-office election manager mistakenly double-counted votes, which was found and fixed, Peters went on to promote pro-Trump conspiracy theories and seek the GOP nomination for Colorado secretary of state in 2022’s primaries. (A day after she lost the primary, Peters was charged with 10 crimes tied to the data breach.)

Some of the IT specialists involved in these efforts then turned up in Arizona in its state-senate-sponsored post-2020 review led by Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based IT firm. Its CEO, Doug Logan, contributed to ASOG’s report on Antrim County and was among the IT “experts” who went to Coffee County. In Arizona, he repeatedly raised doubts about the presidential election in the state’s most populous county. In September 2021, Logan announced that Biden won, but his team did not provide evidence showing that his IT squad had accurately recounted votes.

The Trump activists spent months claiming the presidential election was stolen. Many became fixtures—along with their false narrative—on pro-Trump media after the election and remain so today. In contrast, the responses by state and county authorities that initially defended their voting systems, and subsequently investigated and rebutted the accusations, drew less coverage.

Notably, the governmental responses cited and explained the procedural errors by county election managers before and after 2020’s Election Day—errors that were exploited and contributed to a disinformation juggernaut. These investigations also laid the groundwork for prosecuting rogue election officials, and possibly their partisan collaborators, for the illegal data breaches.

Mesa County’ Peters, for example, now faces 10 misdemeanor and felony charges. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who Trump lobbied to “find votes” in an infamous telephone call that was recorded, has authorized a “computer trespass investigation” by state police in Coffee County. Michigan is investigating Antrim County’s unauthorized election data breaches.

But behind the stolen election allegations, which continue in Trump circles, and slower-moving criminal accountability, is a troubling trend that recurs in every election cycle. In a handful of counties, local election managers do not properly set up or operate their computers, giving election-deniers a propaganda vehicle.

These mistakes may be the exceptions, not the rule, across America’s 8,000-plus election jurisdictions. However, they are not “minor clerical errors,” as The Times characterized. They are errors at the start, and at the heart, of counting votes.

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Mesa County, Colorado. How Trump’s data gurus weaponized human errors, ignored public reports and private advice they were mistaken, and kept repeating lies.

Independent Media Institute___________________

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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