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‘People have gotten sucked into a lot of lies’: Experts say elections are secure, even as Republicans make baseless claims to the contrary

An election ballot is placed in ballot box outside of the Spokane Public Library on Nov. 7, 2016, in downtown Spokane. Experts say baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen are threatening American democracy.   (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
An election ballot is placed in ballot box outside of the Spokane Public Library on Nov. 7, 2016, in downtown Spokane. Experts say baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen are threatening American democracy.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

In the early morning on Nov. 4, 2020, Donald Trump stood at a lectern in the White House and told a throng of cheering supporters he’d won the presidential election.

“We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the election,” Trump wrote on Twitter hours earlier. “We’ll never let them do it.”

Trump hadn’t won and provided no evidence to support his claims of fraud.

In the following weeks and months, state and federal courts dismissed dozens of cases filed by the Trump campaign and its supporters that alleged fraud and election law violations. The president’s own Department of Homeland Security called the 2020 election the most secure in U.S. history. Attorney General Bill Barr said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome.

The election wasn’t stolen, experts say.

“This is all organized as a fraud by Donald Trump and his folks and it’s just not true,” said Ralph Munro, a Republican who served a record five terms as Washington Secretary of State from 1981 to 2001. “People have gotten sucked into a lot of lies.”

Cornell Clayton, a Washington State University political science professor and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy, said allegations that the 2020 election was rigged shouldn’t be taken seriously.

“The problem with suggesting there are two sides to the debate is it assumes there are two sides that have evidence,” Clayton said. “There’s no evidence behind these objections that have been raised and we should have full faith and confidence in our election system.”

Still, Trump continues to say he was robbed. Millions of Americans believe him. According to a January 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center, 75% of Trump voters incorrectly think he received “the most votes cast by eligible voters in enough states to win the election.”

Prominent officials at the national level have parroted Trump’s claims that fraud is rampant in the American election system. Local politicians and GOP leaders have expressed doubts about election integrity, too.

Two Eastern Washington legislators, 4th District Reps. Rob Chase and Bob McCaslin, support a proposal to audit Spokane County’s 2020 election and review the entire election process. McCaslin is running for county auditor against Democratic incumbent Vicky Dalton.

A Spokane County Republican Party subcommittee is behind the push to review the county’s elections. The group met with the county commissioners in June to ask for a third-party audit, but the commissioners said only the Secretary of State had the authority to grant the request.

“What is everyone trying to hide? Where is transparency?” the committee wrote. “How can we restore confidence when there is so much evidence supporting the idea that our election system has been compromised?”

Matt Hawkins, the county GOP’s state committeeman, said his group doesn’t have any evidence of voter fraud. Still, he said he no longer trusts the integrity of local elections. They’re susceptible to fraud, he said, adding he believes electronic elections equipment is insecure and vote counting should be done by hand.

Hawkins’ group wants to meet with the county commissioners a second time to discuss a canvassing report it wrote in collaboration with the Washington Voter Research Project, an effort led by conservative activist Glen Morgan. That report argues the county’s voter registration records are inaccurate, although it provides none of the names or addresses that could support its conclusions.

The county commissioners aren’t interested in having another sit-down unless the GOP subcommittee can support its findings with evidence.

“The commissioners have said if it’s just to present these claims without any factual data to be presented at the meeting, then you can bring that up in a public forum,” Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley said. “But as far as taking time out of an agenda, they weren’t prepared to do that.”

Munro and other Washington elections experts acknowledged the election system isn’t perfect and there’s always room for improvement. But they all stressed election fraud is exceedingly rare.

“Show me some examples of where there’s some fraud or some sort of problem,” Munro said. “You have every right, if there’s an example of that, to go before a judge and make sure it’s looked at. I commend citizens for that. Don’t make wild accusations and just make a fool of yourself.”

Republican Sam Reed, a Lewis and Clark High School graduate who served as Washington Secretary of State from 2001 to 2013, said he believes all of the unsupported allegations are damaging the public’s trust in fair elections.

Reed said he’s followed Hawkins’ group closely in recent months and strongly condemns its actions. If the members are going to say the system is compromised and voter registration records are poorly maintained, they can’t withhold their evidence, he said.

“I find it rather shocking that these people are making these allegations, yet are unwilling to turn them in so they can potentially be documented as true or not true,” Reed said. “That’s totally irresponsible of them; I don’t think we can possibly condone that. As a Republican, as a longtime Republican activist, I’m appalled at this.”

How does the system catch fraudsters?

Since 2020, many Republicans have said voting by mail is more susceptible to fraud than voting in person.

Munro and Reed, who both worked to expand voting by mail, said that’s not true. Reed said when he oversaw Washington elections, more ballots were cast illegally at polling sites than through the mail. Human error becomes more of a problem when voting in person, he said, noting that recounts showed vote-by-mail counties were more accurate.

Both of the former secretaries of state said Washington does a good job preventing fraud.

Dalton, the Spokane County auditor, said the state’s signature verification process works well.

Elections staff are trained to detect forgeries. Dalton said getting an illegal ballot through the system is difficult.

“Signatures are not that easy to forge,” she said.

If a criminal knows someone isn’t going to vote, intercepts their ballot and knows how to forge their signature, then they’d have a good chance of casting an illegal vote, Dalton said.

But that combination of factors is rare. She said she could think of one example. A son stole his father’s ballot and forged his signature. The father told the auditor’s office, which passed the case to the county prosecutor. Dalton said it was a clear example of fraud, but there wasn’t enough evidence to take the case to court.

Washington has ways to prevent people from voting in multiple states, too, Dalton said.

The Evergreen State is a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center. That voter registration database, which includes records from 33 states, helps identify when people move or die.

For instance, if a Spokane resident moves to Alabama, Alabama can let Washington know. Washington can contact the individual to confirm they’ve moved and update the voter rolls. Dalton said in every midterm or presidential election, the database catches about six to 12 people trying to vote in both Spokane County and another state.

Reed said he never encountered a large, coordinated fraud effort during his time in office.

The most common type of fraud was perpetrated by widows and widowers, he said. Spouses would sometimes vote on behalf of their recently deceased loved one.

Family members sometimes break the law, too, Reed said. He recalled catching a mother who had signed the ballot envelopes for her children and husband.

“We caught her,” Reed said, and “sent her to the sheriff because that’s fraud.”

Cybersecurity

In the world of 2020 election conspiracy theories, cybersecurity conspiracy theories are especially common.

Many who believe Trump won the election say they fear electronic election equipment is too susceptible to outside manipulation and can’t be trusted to count votes accurately.

The machines that scan, record and count ballots are secure, Reed and Munro said.

But despite assurances from elections officials, many continue to question the security of election equipment.

Stephen Prochaska, a University of Washington graduate student who researches misinformation and disinformation, said many Americans who believe the 2020 election was stolen don’t believe elections officials.

“They’re just deciding that the Secretary of State is no longer the trustworthy source,” Prochaska said, adding that many election fraud proponents routinely cite unreliable news sources such as the Gateway Pundit and the Epoch Times.

Hawkins said he believes Spokane County’s election equipment has a “high propensity” to be compromised.

“The elections equipment must be connected to the Internet,” he wrote in a letter last week to the Spokane County Canvassing Board, the three-member board that certifies county election results and includes representatives from the county commission, prosecutor’s office and auditor’s office.

If the equipment is connected to the internet, it can’t be secure, Hawkins said.

The equipment isn’t connected to the internet, though.

“They are standalone systems,” Reed said. “We do not have any that are connected to the internet. A person couldn’t hack in and change vote counts and all that, which has been alleged throughout the country.”

Dalton explained that the county’s tabulators scan ballots. Images of those ballots are captured by a laptop. The laptop creates files and stores them on a server. None of those three machines is connected to the internet.

When it’s time to upload election results to the Secretary of State’s website, county staff slide an encrypted flash drive into the laptop. That flash drive, which can only be used once, is then carried out of the room and placed into a computer that is connected to the internet.

Tampering with the results on the Secretary of State’s website wouldn’t matter, Dalton said. What matters is the data on the server and the paper ballots.

Changing the data on the server would be incredibly difficult, Dalton said. It couldn’t be done remotely.

Even if someone had the right passwords, broke into the room undetected and somehow modified the data on the server, they’d have to get past even more safeguards and dupe post-election audits to influence an election.

“While something may be theoretically possible, there are a lot of controls in place to prevent that type of access and activity,” Dalton said.

Hawkins’ group is also asking to have a third party physically inspect the county’s elections equipment.

That request probably can’t be granted, due to state code. Even if it were legally feasible, it’d be a bad idea, Dalton said.

“Part of cybersecurity is to not disclose all the protections that you have in place,” she said. “If we tell everybody what our defenses are, then they can work better against those defenses. There’s no point in advertising it.”


The voter rolls

The Spokane County GOP’s subcommittee has a long list of election concerns, but it’s especially focused on voter registration records.

Hawkins’ group recently completed a joint canvassing effort with the Washington Voter Research Project.

That organization obtains voter registration records through public records requests. Hawkins said those lists are then analyzed for potentially suspicious registrations.

After whittling down the voter rolls so only the flagged registrations remain, volunteers head to the streets and start doorbelling.

The final canvassing report claims to have found more than 1,000 “anomalies” in Spokane County’s voter registration records. Hawkins said each anomaly is an instance in which the voter rolls differ from the accounts of the residents at a flagged address.

Alene Lindstrand, a Republican who helped compile the report and ran for auditor in 2014 against Dalton, said the anomalies point to one conclusion: The voter rolls aren’t clean.

But the report provides no evidence to support its conclusions. Hawkins and Lindstrand said they may never give Dalton the names and addresses that would allow her to look into the alleged anomalies.

Dalton said the canvassing report relies on some faulty assumptions.

First, the canvassers used registration records from November 2020, she said. By the time they were knocking on doors, the information was well out of date. Between 20% and 25% of the county’s voter records change every year, Dalton said, mostly because people move. Dalton also pointed out that the Washington Voter Research Project has provided similar reports to King, Clark and Thurston counties. Those reports included names and addresses, which allowed elections officials to look into the anomalies. It turned out they were legitimate voter registrations, Dalton said.

“Our experience is that as we go through and research these, often what appears on the surface to be the case is not the case,” Reed said.

Many of the purported anomalies were military registrations, Dalton said. Citizens serving in the armed forces can maintain a Washington address while living elsewhere.

“Oftentimes you’ll get multiple voters registered at the same address because the individual is in the military, so he or she is mailing in a ballot overseas but they also have an address here,” Clayton said. “That kind of thing isn’t really a concern, but in the mind of those who want to raise issues, that’s what they focus on.”

Keeping the voter rolls up to date isn’t easy, Reed said.

“It’s never going to be perfect,” he said. “We’re dealing with human beings. In offices, there are people who obviously can make errors, typos, whatever. It happens, but it happens in a way that isn’t nearly as drastic as what these folks are saying in Spokane County.”

County auditors use death notices, driver’s license information, newspaper obituaries and other sources to keep the voter rolls as up to date as possible.

Dalton said voters rarely update their registration when they move. In theory, anyone who moves is required to change the address on their driver’s license. If a driver does that, it automatically updates their voter registration. People can also update their registration online.

“Voters have a responsibility to help keep our voter registration records up to date,” Dalton said.

Damaging democracy?

Political polarization may be fueling baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“As we get more polarized, you don’t talk to people with different views than you,” said Kevin Pirch, a political science professor at Eastern Washington University. “You’re going to live in your own bubble, I’m going to live in my own bubble. It becomes harder for reality to penetrate.”

Disputing the results of the 2020 election has almost become a requirement for being a prominent member of the Republican Party, Pirch said. He noted that politicians who say otherwise have, in many cases, been defeated in primary elections by Trump-backed candidates.

Only two of the 10 GOP members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 have a chance at winning reelection: Central Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse and California Rep. David Valadao.

Clayton said it’s incredibly difficult to convince doubters that American elections are secure.

“It doesn’t really matter how much evidence you mount to debunk the conspiracy theory,” he said. “You can’t really change the minds of these types of folks when it’s really about their identity.”

Sowing doubt about the integrity of elections could cause irreversible damage to American democracy, Clayton said.

“Just look at the Jan. 6 insurrection,” he said.

Pirch explained that every democracy shares two fundamental components.

“One is you need to have free, fair and open elections,” he said. “And two, you need people to believe those elections are free, fair and open.”

Democracies can only survive when political losers concede elections and allow the winners to govern, Clayton said.

“That did not happen in 2020, obviously,” he said. “Donald Trump said the exact opposite.”

Clayton said he can only see one way to restore faith in elections.

“The way this gets resolved is ultimately with those officials in the Republican Party who are respected by the base coming out and saying there’s no reason for concern, our elections are fair and clean,” he said. “That’s the only way it changes.”

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