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How election conspiracies cast a shadow over GOP, Washington state midterms

Oct. 6, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 6, 2022 at 11:41 a.m.

By Jim Brunner The Seattle Times

VANCOUVER, Wash. — On a Thursday night in early September, 500 people paid $15 to hear an ex-Army captain and a high school math teacher regale them with tales of secret algorithms and suspicious voting trends.

Clicking through slides on an overhead screen, Seth Keshel, the ex-military officer from Texas, and Douglas Frank, the bow-tie sporting Ohio teacher who advocates “Nuremberg trials” for elections officials, spread the lie that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, was the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Mixing dead-voter jokes, Bible verses and Founding Fathers’ quotes with ballot data, Keshel and Frank portrayed a 2020 election corrupted by a vast and secret conspiracy that is simultaneously readily exposable by looking at public election results.

Their assertions, honed at hundreds of appearances across the country — including several in Washington — have been debunked by elections experts as complex-sounding statistical mumbo-jumbo. But the duo found a receptive audience in Southwest Washington, where the crowd applauded their calls to abolish vote-counting machines and mail ballots.

The well-attended weeknight event underscores how the election denial movement, encouraged by Trump after his loss, has increasingly permeated mainstream Republican thought, echoed in Washington state by leaders of some county GOP organizations and candidates for Congress.

For some, any election that doesn’t go their way is now suspect. In recent weeks, the head of the state Republican Party’s election integrity committee has alleged without evidence that even the recent August primary for secretary of state was rigged.

The effects of this persistent election denialism are likely to be felt in November as fraud narratives continue to be blasted out online — eroding trust in the very cornerstone of American democracy.

“We’re expecting to see even more rumors and misinformation in 2022 than we did in 2020. … It has metastasized into a world view about how things work,” said Kate Starbird, director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, which studies viral misinformation and co-published an exhaustive study last year on how Trump’s false claims about the election, stoked by online influencers, led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Nationally, election deniers are on the November election ballot in half the races for governor, and more than a third of the races for secretary of state and attorney general, according to States United Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group devoted to protecting free, fair and secure elections.

A cadre of traveling authors, speakers and filmmakers have made it their mission to spread election misinformation.

Frank, known as “Dr. Frank” in reference to his doctorate in chemistry, who has by his account traveled to 43 states, claims without proof that voting machines were hacked in nearly every county in the U.S. He claims to have discovered an algorithm showing how phantom votes were distributed to rig the election.

Frank portrays himself as a crusader in a battle between good and evil, quoting Proverbs in telling the Clark County crowd the U.S. is “groaning” under the rule of wicked tyrants and likening the election denial movement to a patriotic Christian revival. “It’s exploding all over the country, because people are waking up,” he said.

In an interview at the event, Frank repeated his calls for “Nuremberg trials” — a reference to the post-World War II prosecution of Nazi war criminals — for elections officials he says have committed treason, suggesting they be hauled before military tribunals outside the civilian court system after a “war” for the country is settled.

“I always say you have to win the war first. Then you can have the Nuremberg trials, and then you have the hangings, or the prison sentences, or whatever,” he said.

Keshel’s claims are in some ways more mundane, relying on charts of historical election results and turnout trends to assert that Biden’s 2020 vote totals are not believable. He then displays fake totals he claims are more realistic, asserting that Trump won the swing states and might have even carried Washington, which has not voted for a Republican for president since 1984.

“It is incredibly hubristic to say ‘I have a model, and reality deviates from my model — therefore reality is wrong,’” said Justin Grimmer, a political science professor at Stanford University, co-author of a 2021 paper examining and debunking statistical claims purporting to show fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

“Both Keshel and Frank’s statistical claims are simply unsurprising, even if they accurately report some correlations or election trends. In fact, neither Keshel nor Frank actually ever establish that they have a test to diagnose fraud,” Grimmer added.

The 2020 election was not stolen. Joe Biden won with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232, and received 7 million more votes nationally, according to the certified results in all 50 states. That outcome has been confirmed by official reviews and audits in battleground states. Judges, including some appointed by Trump, have dismissed numerous lawsuits brought by the ex-president and his allies claiming fraud or other irregularities.

But the Clark County event, organized by a group called Patriots United, shows that many Republicans continue to embrace doubts or outright denial of the results.

The gathering at the RV Inn Style Convention Center, north of downtown Vancouver, had the feel of a small political convention, with tables set up with flyers promoting local candidates and a slew of proposed ballot initiatives.

Among those on hand: Trump-endorsed congressional candidate Joe Kent, who also has denied Biden’s victory and said he wants the U.S. House to investigate the 2020 election if Republicans take a majority; candidates for Clark County sheriff; and a challenger seeking to unseat longtime county Auditor Greg Kimsey.

Mike Terry, the event’s organizer and emcee, said his goal was to get more citizens engaged in watchdogging local elections and government. “None of us are interested in changing the past. We’re interested in preserving the future,” he told the crowd.

Still, Terry, a former minor league baseball umpire who publishes community magazines, said he believes the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and that Biden’s vote totals were inflated.

“I find it so hard to believe that people were excited about Joe Biden. Nobody showed up to see him. It’s not 80 million people for sure,” Terry said in an interview.

Terry said he and other activists in Clark County have brought information about alleged wrongdoing to the local sheriff, trying to get him to seize ballots from 2020 to launch “a forensic audit to make sure that election turned out the way we were told.”

Todd Rudberg, 54, who lives in Kettle Falls, Stevens County, flew across the state to attend the event, and said he’s not sure if fraud occurred, but he’s now determined to do his own investigations.

“I don’t understand how our election system works. I think there is potential to screw around with it. And so my quest over the next year is going to be to find out: Is there any validity to what they’re saying?” he said.

Such questions or doubts have become a motivating force for many Republicans.

In a July poll co-sponsored by The Seattle Times, one third of Republicans in Washington said they believed there was major fraud in the 2020 election and that Trump definitely won. Another 39% of Republicans said there was some fraud and that Trump might have actually won.

In a predictable consequence, some Republicans are now crying fraud in other races that don’t go their way.

Bill Bruch, chair of the Skagit County Republicans, who also leads the state GOP’s 70-member election integrity committee, has spent recent weeks claiming the primary results for secretary of state were manipulated.

Washington voters are set to elect someone other than a Republican as secretary of state for the first time since 1960 after Democrat Steve Hobbs and nonpartisan candidate Julie Anderson placed first and second in the primary.

The general election shutout for Republicans is easily explainable. Three GOP candidates split the vote roughly evenly, ruining the party’s chances even though their combined vote share of about 34% exceeded Anderson’s second-place showing of 13%. A fourth candidate, Tamborine Borrelli, a litigious election conspiracy theorist who ran as an “America First” Republican, also snared about 5% of the vote.

Those results were certified in all 39 counties, and no formal challenge or evidence of fraud has emerged. Still, Bruch insists the election was likely crooked.

“I would not bet my life that the whole thing was rigged. But I can tell you right now, I would bet a whole lot of money. I believe the secretary of state race was manipulated based on this data right here,” he said in an interview at the Skagit GOP’s offices in Burlington.

He pointed to a chart of the vote totals over time, alleging the vote distribution is suspicious because the relative vote shares of the candidates stayed fairly constant as the ballots were counted.

At Bruch’s urging, state Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, repeated those theories at the recent “Moment of Truth Summit” in Springfield, Missouri, convened by MyPillow magnate Mike Lindell, one of the country’s most prominent backers of outlandish 2020 conspiracy theories.

“Look at those parallel lines. That’s not human behavior, that’s controlled,” Klippert said at the summit, showing slides of the election results.

Bruch supported state Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, in the secretary of state primary. But Wagoner has not joined Bruch in disputing the outcome. He attributes his loss to the late entry into the race of Mark Miloscia, a former Republican state senator.

“If there was any stealing in the secretary of state’s race, I think it has more to do with Republicans not being smart and diluting the vote,” Wagoner said.

State Republican Party Chair Caleb Heimlich, who tapped Bruch to lead the party’s election-integrity committee, said the main thrust of the group has been to organize and train election observers.

Heimlich said he had not examined Bruch’s claims about the 2022 primary, but stressed “he does not speak for Republicans in Washington state or the state Republican Party” on such matters. Heimlich generally has defended the accuracy of Washington’s elections and the state GOP has not challenged the results.

The state GOP is, however, formally supporting the candidacies of congressional candidates Kent and Doug Basler, who have each signed on as plaintiffs in conspiracy-laden lawsuits, still pending in federal court, which baselessly claim that more than 400,000 votes in Washington’s 2020 elections were flipped, added or removed.

Some Republican leaders say the constant talk of election conspiracies is backfiring on the party.

Cary Condotta, a former state representative who chairs the Chelan County Republican Party, called claims of widespread fraud in Washington “a bunch of crap” and “just crazy” in an interview.

“The people who believe it kind of make us look foolish,” he said, adding that conspiracy theories are causing some conservatives not to vote, “because they think they’re going to get cheated anyway.”

Even Chris Gergen, the campaign manager for unsuccessful gubernatorial and congressional candidate Loren Culp, recently lamented the obsession with election fraud.

“Turnouts are very low. The Republican rhetoric about ‘it’s rigged’ has demoralized their own base and now people have stayed home. Republicans, get your s*** together,” he wrote on Twitter.

That comment was circulated with eye rolls by some in GOP circles, given Gergen and Culp’s loud claims that Culp’s 545,000-vote loss to Gov. Jay Inslee in the 2020 election was the result of fraud. Culp refused to concede and filed a lawsuit over the election but withdrew it after Attorney General Bob Ferguson threatened to seek sanctions for frivolous legal claims.

In an interview, Gergen said he still believes that election was “not on the level,” but said Republicans continuing to claim “all the elections are rigged all the time” is “a very dangerous thing.”

Even GOP candidates who do not wholeheartedly embrace election denial have nodded to the persistent belief in such theories among the party’s base.

For example, Tiffany Smiley, the Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, claimed on her campaign website earlier this year that the 2020 elections “raised serious questions about the integrity of our elections.” After advancing past the Aug. 2 primary, that statement was scrubbed in what her campaign said was a refresh of the site.

Smiley also appeared last month at a Yakima County Republican Party fundraising dinner, where the featured speaker was Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative activist behind the film “2000 Mules,” which asserts a massive ballot stuffing operation in swing states swayed the election for Biden. The film’s claims, based on cellphone geotracking data, have been rejected as unconvincing by technology experts. The county party paid more than $16,000 in speaker fees, book purchases and a film showing for the event, according to Public Disclosure Commission filings.

Democrats blasted Smiley’s sharing of a stage with D’Souza as disqualifying for a Senate candidate.

“That’s really troubling that she would stand with this nut case, one of the most obnoxious purveyors of election denial,” said Kevin Hamilton, a Seattle attorney who has represented Democrats in election disputes across the country, including the 2020 recount in Georgia. “The fact that you have this from the Republican Party even in a blue state like Washington, that shows the depth of the infection and how widely it’s spread.”

Elisa Carlson, a Smiley spokesperson, said in an email the campaign has no control over other speakers invited to GOP events.

“It’s not mutually exclusive to have concerns about election integrity while also acknowledging that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected President of the United States — something Tiffany has been 100% consistent on throughout the campaign,” she said.

Smiley, however, has at times declined to say Biden was legitimately or fairly elected, including during a CNN interview in which she was asked repeatedly to say so.

Carlson accused Democrats of hypocrisy, pointed to a Murray statement questioning “irregularities” after the 2004 presidential election, and to a CNN interview in which Murray defended Democratic PAC funding of extreme, election-denying Republicans in some states as part of a strategy to prop up candidates deemed weaker in general election matchups.

Sam Reed, the former Republican secretary of state, who worked in elections administration for 35 years, said he’s saddened by the proliferation of election conspiracy theories within his own party.

“It’s just pure fantasy,” he said. “It’s just so important that people regain trust in the system.”

His advice to people who don’t trust the vote-counting: Go to the county auditor’s office and ask for a tour of the ballot verification and counting process.

“My experience is most people are blown away. They had no idea at all the security steps that are taken.”

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