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How Donald Trump’s ‘big lie’ continues to shape GOP campaigns in Idaho elections

UPDATED: Thu., April 28, 2022

By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

When two candidates for Idaho secretary of state said President Joe Biden lost the 2020 election, it likely wasn’t a surprise to voters closely following the Republican primary races in Idaho.

Sen. Mary Souza, of Coeur d’Alene, and Rep. Dorothy Moon, of Stanley, have campaigned for months on President Donald Trump’s “big lie,” that the election was stolen from him.

During this year’s legislative session, both lawmakers proposed sweeping changes to election laws based on perceptions that Idaho’s elections aren’t secure. And they’re sticking to that narrative in their campaigns to run Idaho’s elections.

They’re not alone.

A slate of candidates who have cast doubt on election security are running for executive offices in Idaho, including governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Some advocate overturning the 2020 result – a few have actually tried.

More than 20 Republicans outside Idaho who deny the 2020 result are running to oversee elections in their state, according to an analysis from NPR.

Experts maintain that Idaho elections are secure. Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto said he still has qualms with the way the 2020 election was handled in other states. But Idaho has “good laws” and “good county clerks that follow those laws,” he said.

“I think this has been over-politicized and that we’re trying to fix a problem we don’t have in Idaho, or other states,” Yamamoto told the Idaho Statesman by phone.

Competing views on election integrity

In recent months, competing views on the 2020 election, and whether voter fraud exists in Idaho, have emerged in the campaign for secretary of state. The discourse crescendoed Tuesday during a debate between Moon, Souza and Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, who are each vying for the GOP nomination.

McGrane was the only candidate to say he believes Biden won in 2020. But he hedged his answer by sympathizing with concerns about fraud in other states.

“One of the big things I want to do as secretary of state is make sure that Idahoans feel confident that when they drop their ballot in the ballot box that your vote will count,” McGrane said.

McGrane’s views on the “big lie” weren’t as clear before Tuesday. A February campaign email with his signature espoused “horrors that were happening elsewhere” on election day in 2020. “Vote counts ‘magically’ changing, transparency nowhere to be found, and massive piles of ballots suddenly appearing from big cities that changed whole states from red to blue before our eyes,” the email said.

A campaign consultant in Utah wrote the email, McGrane told the Idaho Statesman in a recent phone interview. McGrane said he didn’t approve the message before it went out and he was “shocked” by it. Now he approves all campaign emails, he said.

“I don’t believe that the narrative in the campaign email is correct or accurate,” McGrane said. “It’s definitely one of the lower points in terms of the campaign. My opponents have pushed the narrative that Idaho’s elections are insecure and broken and shouldn’t be trusted. And as someone who’s personally worked on the elections here in the state, I want voters to know that their votes count, that our system is secure.”

Republican-led audits and other investigations found no evidence of anything close to widespread voter fraud in 2020.

An Associated Press investigation found 473 questionable ballots in battleground states disputed by former President Donald Trump. Biden won those states – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – by a combined 311,257 votes. Those cases could not alter the election outcome even if all the questionable ballots were votes for Biden (they were not), and even if those ballots were counted (in most cases they were not), the AP reported.

David Levine, former Ada County elections director and current elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., wrote a recent Idaho Statesman editorial expressing fears the secretary of state’s office could be weaponized to interfere in elections on behalf of partisan interests.

In a video call with the Statesman, Levine said candidates “who can’t tell a free and fair election from a rigged one” and continue to maintain the 2020 election was illegitimate are “unfit for public office.”

“A core concept of democracy is being able to run an election in a nonpartisan manner that is fair and is transparent, that is secure and accurate, and presuming that there is no evidence to the contrary, accepting the legitimate results,” Levine told the Statesman. “And if you cannot do that, if you cannot clearly demonstrate that, then one can fairly wonder whether you can be trusted to either administer or oversee free and fair elections.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared in December 2020 that the U.S. Justice Department uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election. Officials from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency called the election the “most secure in American history.” Several audits by private groups and government agencies came to the same conclusion.

Idaho conducted an audit of three counties after Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow who has promoted conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from Trump, claimed on his website that all 44 Idaho counties were victims of voter fraud. The Idaho secretary of state’s audit found a 0.1% margin of error in the three counties’ election results. Nearly 64% of Idahoans voted for Trump.

Still, election fraud claims persist. Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running for governor, has called for a forensic audit of all 50 states’ 2020 tallies. Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who is running for lieutenant governor, proposed a bill this year to ban ballot boxes for fears that they were tampered with – not in Idaho, but in other states. Idaho Attorney General candidate Art Macomber criticized incumbent Lawrence Wasden for declining to join Texas’ losing lawsuit to overturn election results in four battleground states that went for Biden. The lawsuit, which Wasden called unconstitutional, was tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bills based on false election fraud claims

Moon not only backs Trump’s narrative about his defeat, but she has also spread unverified claims of election fraud in Idaho. At the start of the 2022 session, the Stanley lawmaker claimed, without offering evidence, that Idaho counties in past elections have ignored or overcounted absentee ballots.

In the subsequent months, Moon pushed a bill to overhaul Idaho’s election rules by eliminating election-day voter registration, banning student IDs for voter identification and outlawing the use of affidavits when a voter doesn’t have ID at the polls – affidavits allow voters without photo ID to swear on their identity, which is later verified by election officials.

Her goals appear to be based on a fundamental mistrust in the government’s ability to conduct fair elections. During a March debate in Kootenai County, Moon criticized a bill co-sponsored by Souza that would have directed county clerks to train volunteers who help nursing home residents fill out ballots. Moon called the proposal “government-sponsored ballot harvesting.”

“I do not trust the government because you never know which administration is in place,” Moon said Tuesday when asked about her previous comments. She also quickly claimed that she would be nonpartisan as secretary of state. “Even though this should be a nonpartisan position in all regards, even though we are elected as Republican, I know that once I step into that office I will be working to make sure that everything is uniform and a level playing field for everyone,” she said.

Souza proposed similar legislation, also unsuccessfully, that would have tightened voter ID laws, eliminated affidavits and restricted who can drop off absentee ballots for another person, an attempt at preventing “ballot harvesting.” Souza also tried to ban ballot boxes, which were popular in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a recent phone interview, Souza told the Statesman she does not believe there is “significant voter fraud” in Idaho. Instead, she targeted preventative measures to fix “vulnerabilities” in election security that she says were exposed in other states during the 2020 election.

“Even if we don’t have fraud right now, it is coming, and it’s all around us, and we need to make sure we have a safe system,” she said during Tuesday’s debate.

Souza described her philosophy this way: She and her husband once realized they left their garage door open overnight. Nothing was stolen, but they were sure to close the door from then on.

“You don’t leave the door open every night after that,” she told the Statesman. “You close it because you know that something bad might happen. And you know that closing the door increases your security against that. That’s what we have to do with our election system.”

Misleading perceptions plague county clerks

Election experts say overhauling election laws based on perceived threats is counterproductive and creates undue burdens for election officials, who already face accusations of fraud based on disinformation.

Idaho County Clerk Kathy Ackerman said people frequently come to her office “up in arms” about something happening in another state that they saw on the internet or in the news.

“And they are convinced, absolutely convinced, that that same process happens in Idaho,” Ackerman told the Statesman by phone. “That whole mindset, that because it happened in another state, it’s happening here, it’s so hard to outrun.”

Clerks say they try to be proactive about transparency to combat disinformation. Canyon County hosts demonstrations of its tabulation equipment and process.

“I’ve been going around, talking to various groups, and trying to get the message out that we don’t have a problem here,” Yamamoto said.

Clerks say improvements can be made to Idaho’s election security. Ackerman said the state can improve voting assistance in nursing homes and care facilities – but recent proposals by lawmakers were burdensome, she said. Ackerman and Yamamoto said they’re backing McGrane in the election.

Policy proposals based on perceived threats can often create more problems than they fix, said Levine, who specializes in electoral infrastructure and administration in the U.S. and abroad.

“When there are actual vulnerabilities in elections, even if they’re just perceived vulnerabilities that aren’t supported by evidence, there are solutions that don’t have to make it harder to access the ballot,” Levine told the Statesman.

Levine said there has been, since 2020, a shift in American electoral politics. While political parties have always debated changes to election laws, they were usually confined to times before ballots were cast, he said.

Now, “every part of the election process is fair game,” Levine told the Statesman in a video call. “And part of the reason for that is because bad faith actors are seeing vulnerabilities that, if they can successfully exploit, can give them a better chance of getting their desired outcome,” he said.

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