SUAMICO, Wis. (AP) — Kim Pytleski could barely sleep the night before. She replayed the PowerPoint slides in her head, packed her notebook and took a deep breath.
The clerk from a rural Wisconsin county north of Green Bay was preparing for a public meeting to explain the election process to residents. She didn’t know who she would encounter. Would some in the audience deny the results of the last presidential election? Would the conversation get combative? Most importantly, would she get through to anyone?
They were questions Pytleski never expected to ask herself when she started the job in Oconto County more than 14 years ago. But since then, election conspiracy theories have taken root in the rural, heavily Republican county in northeastern Wisconsin. It’s among large swaths of the country where distrust of voting and ballot-counting, fanned by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, maintains a stubborn grasp.
Pytleski, who was born and raised in the county, hears conspiracy theories nearly everywhere she goes: Democrats are paying people to stuff ballot boxes with illegal votes, absentee voting allows rampant fraud, voting machines are hacked by foreign powers such as Russia or China. She receives skeptical letters and emails.
Election denialism, she said, “has gotten its hold on it.”
For elections officials and grassroots democracy groups in the presidential swing state, it has been an uphill fight to combat the doubts and the people who continue to spread them. They describe grappling with an almost faith-like pull of conspiracy theories perpetuated by online misinformation and far-right figures.
Still, they press on, taking on the issue one community event and one conversation at a time, hoping for a half-step forward.
“This state is vital, and it’s ground zero in this fight to save our republic,” said Reid Ribble, a Republican who represented the area in Congress until 2017 and is an adviser to the nonprofit Keep Our Republic. The group is holding town hall-style forums throughout Wisconsin hoping to restore faith in elections and has plans to do the same in two other states that will be pivotal to next year’s presidential race, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The group’s efforts come as paranoia around elections has gained a persistent foothold across the country, especially in rural areas. That’s led to attempts to ditch voting machines in favor of less accurate and efficient hand counts, threats of violence against election workers and the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Polling from last summer by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 22% of Republicans have high confidence that votes in the 2024 presidential election will be counted accurately, compared to 71% of Democrats, while a solid majority of Republicans continue to believe President Joe Biden’s election win was illegitimate.
Wisconsin has been an epicenter of the efforts to undermine faith in elections. The state supreme court, then with a conservative majority, came within one vote in 2020 of overturning the presidential results, and Republicans in the Legislature later launched a partisan investigation seeking evidence of widespread fraud. That probe that eventually landed before a judge who declared that it had uncovered “absolutely no evidence of election fraud.”
With Coke cans and paper plates stacked with Pepperoni pizza slices, about 50 community members piled into a fire station on a recent evening in Suamico, a town of 13,000 that borders Oconto County on the shores of Lake Michigan, just outside Green Bay.
Flanked on either side by U.S. and Wisconsin flags, a panel of local officials brought together by Keep Our Republic walked attendees through the election process, from how voting equipment is tested to the process of certifying the results.
“We’re arming people with facts,” said Kathy Bernier, state director of the nonprofit group, which emphasizes that it is nonpartisan. “The best way to help people understand is to bring the experts to them and connect with them like this. Then they can spread that information to their own friends, family and neighbors.”
Bernier, a Republican former state senator, broke with her own party to criticize those who disseminate false election claims, drawing pushback from her fellow Republicans across the state. The event in late September was the second in a series she is planning to combat election doubts and conspiracy theories in Wisconsin. The groups plans to expand its efforts into Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“I’ve been yelled at more times than I can count,” Bernier said. “People have sent out press releases chastising me. But I’m going to stand my ground because the truth is on my side, and this work needs to be done.”
She and others were flooded with questions from residents during the Suamico town hall: How are absentee voters being vetted, are ballot drop boxes secure, what’s the difference between voter registrations and ballot request forms, are dead people and undocumented immigrants voting? A meeting scheduled for three hours stretched to five as residents lingered until 10:30 at night.
“I can’t say for sure that we changed hearts and minds, but they were engaged, that’s for sure,” Bernier said.
The forum didn’t seem to budge several of those who showed up and have become deeply skeptical of the election process.
One attendee, 79-year-old Mary Verheyen, said she trusted the election officials at the event but that it didn’t make “any difference at all” in her trust in the system as a whole.
“I believe the people here think like I do and are doing their jobs,” she said. “That doesn’t mean everyone is.”
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Christine Fernando, The Associated Press