FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — One by one, the presenters inside the crowded hotel ballroom shared their computer screens and promised to show how easy it is to hack into voting systems across the U.S.
Drawing gasps from the crowd, they highlighted theoretical vulnerabilities and problems from past elections. But instead of tailoring their efforts to improve election security, they argued that all voting machines should be eliminated — a message that was wrapped in conspiracies about elections being rigged to favor certain candidates.
“We are at war. The only thing that’s not flying right now is bullets,” said Mark Finchem, a Republican candidate for secretary of state in Arizona last year who continues to contest his loss and was the final speaker of the daylong conference.
Finchem was among a group of Republican candidates running for governor, secretary of state or state attorney who disputed the outcome of the 2020 election and who lost in a clean sweep last November in important political battleground states, including Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Yet deep distrust about U.S. elections persists among Republicans, skepticism fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims and by allies who have been traveling the country meeting with community groups and holding forums like the one recently just outside Nashville, attended by some 250 people.
As the nation barrels toward the next presidential election, the election conspiracy movement that mushroomed after the last one shows no signs of slowing down. Millions have been convinced that any election in which their preferred candidate loses has been somehow rigged against them, a belief that has fed efforts among conservatives to ditch voting machines and to halt or delay certification of election results.
“Voters who know the truth about our elections have faith in them,” said Liz Iacobucci, election security program manager with the voter advocacy group Common Cause. “But the people who have been led into disbelief — those people can be led into other things, like Jan. 6.”
Trump, running for the White House for the third time, has signaled that the 2020 election will remain an integral part of his 2024 presidential bid. In a recent call with reporters about a new book, Trump pointed to polls that show a sizable number of people believe the 2020 election was stolen, even though there is no such evidence.
“I’m an election denier,” Trump said. “You’ve got a lot of election deniers in this country and they’re not happy about what’s happened.”
There has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the U.S., and multiple reviews in the battleground states where Trump disputed his loss confirmed the election results were accurate. State and local election officials have spent more than two years explaining the many layers of protection that surround voting systems, and last year’s midterm election was largely uneventful.
Trump allies such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn remain prominent voices calling for a ban on voting machines. They want hand-marked paper ballots counted individually without the aid of machines by poll workers in the nearly 180,000 voting precincts across the country.
“We all have the same agenda, to get our elections fair and transparent and where they can’t be hacked,” said Lindell, who recently announced plans to form what he calls an “election crime bureau” to bring his myriad legal, cybersecurity and legislative efforts under one organization.
In an interview, Lindell said he has spent $40 million since the 2020 election investigating fraud claims and supporting efforts to ban voting machines. He said he is taking out loans to continue to fund the work.
During an “America First Forum” held last month in South Carolina, Flynn told those gathered at a Charleston hotel that they were fighting not only Democrats but fellow Republicans who are dismissive of their concerns about the 2020 election.
“Our Republican Party, they want to move on,” Flynn said via video conference. “And frankly, the American people are not going to move on.”
An investigation by the AP and the PBS series “Frontline” last year examined how Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, was traveling the country spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and vaccines as he builds a movement based on Christian nationalist ideas. He relies in part on groups such as The America Project and America’s Future.
The America Project was launched in 2021 by Patrick Byrne, founder of Overstock.com. Byrne said elections remain a top priority for the group, though it also will focus on border issues. Asked how much he’s planning to spend ahead of the 2024 election, Byrne told the AP, “There is no budget.”
“I have no children, no wife,” he said. “There’s no point in me saving it for anything.”
Recently filed tax forms do not detail where the group’s $7.7 million in revenue came from that year, but Byrne and Michael Flynn’s brother, Joseph Flynn, told the AP that most of it came from Byrne himself. The group reported giving $2.75 million to Cyber Ninjas for a partisan and much-criticized review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix.
Michael Flynn is now focused on the nonprofit group he leads, America’s Future, and other projects, according to his brother. That group reported raising $2.3 million in 2021 and paying out $1.2 million in grants, including just under $1 million to Cyber Ninjas.
Others who have been central in the effort to raise doubts about the accuracy of elections also have been active this year. Among them is Douglas Frank, an Ohio math and science educator, who said on his social media account that he met with various groups in six states in January, seven states in February and planned to be in eight states in March.
At the Tennessee forum, Kathy Harms, one of the event organizers, took the stage to talk about why she is fighting to get rid of voting machines.
“I don’t do this for me. I would rather just be a grandmother at home,” said Harms, who lives in the county where the conference was held. “I have granddaughters I do this for because I want them to have what I have. I don’t want a banana republic.”
Presentations by people who work in information technology claimed election officials have little security knowledge or experience.
One of them, Mark Cook, walked attendees through the voting process, pointing out potential threats and playing a video he said was of an “Iranian whistleblower” accessing U.S. voter registration data to fraudulently request and submit military ballots.
Cook said the video had some “real components to it” and “could be legitimate.” He did not mention that an influx of duplicate military ballots would be readily apparent because election workers log each person who casts a ballot, meaning a second ballot that appears to be cast by the same person would be caught.
“There are thousands of ways to exploit these systems,” Cook said, dismissing security steps taken by election officials as a “shell game” and “smoke and mirrors to distract us.”
Election officials acknowledge that vulnerabilities exist, but say multiple defenses are in place to thwart attempted manipulation or detect malicious activity.
“Election officials and their partners understand that the goal isn’t to create a perfect election system, but one that ensures that any attack on the election system doesn’t exceed the ability to detect and recover from it.” said David Levine, a former local election official who is now a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Among those listening to the presentations at the Tennessee conference was Luann Adler, a retired educator and school administrator who said she has lost confidence in elections after reading articles and watching videos online about voting machines. She has been advocating in her community to ban voting machines and limit voting to a single day.
Serving as a poll worker last year, Adler said, she did not observe any problems. Still, the experience did not change her mind.
“As we have seen today, a machine can be manipulated,” Adler said. “I’m not pointing the finger at any individual or any community as being nefarious, but I don’t trust the machine.”
Associated Press writers Michelle R. Smith in Providence, Rhode Island; Nicholas Riccardi in Denver; and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
Christina A. Cassidy, The Associated Press