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Encore: Midterms election misinformation

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Over the past few weeks, the January 6 Commission has shown how many lives were upended by Donald Trump's false attacks on the American election system. Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss were election workers in Georgia during the 2020 election, and they were driven into hiding when Trump and his team falsely accused them of rigging the election.

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RUBY FREEMAN: The President of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen who stand up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.

PARKS: In the year and a half since, it hasn't gotten easier for people involved in elections. The lie that the 2020 election was stolen continues to spread. And over the past few months, I worked with NPR's investigations team to track the people who work every day to keep spreading it. The story took me to Weld County, Colo., where on a recent Wednesday morning, Carly Koppes was reading through her emails. Koppes is a Republican, and she runs the county's elections.

CARLY KOPPES: (Reading) Traitors will be exposed. These guys are going down, and you have no chance.

PARKS: Over the past year and a half, she's gotten more and more messages like that, accusing her and her colleagues of election fraud.

KOPPES: (Reading) You deserve everything coming your direction. Bless the Lord and glory to God. Isaiah 45:7 (laughter).

PARKS: A big part of that tone shift can be traced back to April of 2021, Koppes said, when a guy named Douglas Frank came to town with a presentation on election fraud.

KOPPES: It started because of, you know, Dr. Frank and his really bad data analysis. Him and his people, unfortunately, just don't know how to read election records correctly (laughter).

PARKS: Frank is a high school math and science teacher from Ohio, who's taken his election conspiracies on tour full time. When he came to Colorado, Frank took over a hotel conference room. He gave a presentation to dozens of people, including the Republican activist who posted this video of the event on Facebook.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, Boulder.

PARKS: He's pointing at a PowerPoint with charts and graphs and making a well-worn claim among election deniers.

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DOUGLAS FRANK: And up here too, up here too, right in here...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yep.

FRANK: ...You've got more people voting than you have people.

PARKS: You have more people voting than you have people, he says. That's a common election fraud myth that comes from mixing up population and voting data. And it's been debunked numerous times, including recently by a Republican-led oversight committee in Michigan. Over the past two years, the election denial movement has moved from Donald Trump's tweets to community events like that one, led by a core group of election denial influencers. An NPR investigation tracking them over the last 18 months found four in particular, with large followings, who travel widely - Douglas Frank...

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FRANK: You know, I didn't serve in the military. I didn't serve my country in that way. And so this is my tour.

PARKS: ...Mike Lindell of MyPillow fame...

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MIKE LINDELL: Now that I know we have that big of an audience, I should start talking about the election crimes, right?

PARKS: ...Retired Army Captain Seth Keshel...

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SETH KESHEL: We have a real pandemic in this country, and it is called chronic electile (ph) dysfunction.

PARKS: ...And former law professor David Clements.

DAVID CLEMENTS: This is a spiritual battle. And last point, it's the machines. It's the machines. It's the machines.

PARKS: The four either declined our request for comment or didn't respond, but we tracked their movements using social media and news reports and found that since last year's attack on the U.S. Capitol, they've appeared at at least 308 events in 45 states and D.C. The group know each other and often repeat each other's talking points, but they don't necessarily coordinate their efforts. Our investigation found that the scale and reach of the election denial movement has grown into a nationwide force beyond swing states and despite the January 6 committee's investigation and efforts to fight disinformation. Chris Krebs oversaw election security efforts at the Department of Homeland Security through the 2020 election. He says there's been a noticeable shift in strategy.

CHRIS KREBS: It's this constellation of election conspiracy theorists. Rather than going at the national level, they have kind of decentralized post-January 6 and really trying to effect change at the lowest possible level.

PARKS: But they also seem to spur action by regular people, who are inspired by their almost evangelical intimacy. Here's Clements at an election integrity event in a church gymnasium in Idaho.

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CLEMENTS: Let's say a prayer. Let's repent. Let's have an accounting for why we got into this mess.

PARKS: In Colorado, there's been a clear chain reaction since Doug Frank's visit. Take Jim Gilchrist. He's a doctor of holistic medicine in Pueblo County, Colo. He already had doubts about the 2020 election and was looking for ways to get involved when he stumbled across one of Frank's videos.

JIM GILCHRIST: I just kind of wish that there was some way of making sure the vote was counted correctly. And so Douglas Frank kind of offered a solution that we could do as citizens.

PARKS: Inspired, he started volunteering with a canvassing group, and he says he spent more than 20 hours knocking on doors in Colorado last summer. And this kind of canvassing for fraud has popped up in a number of other states as well. But the leaders of this movement don't only target regular people. NPR found that over the past 18 months, the four election denial influencers either met or appeared with at least 78 federal, state and local elected officials, many of whom will have a role in how future elections are run and certified. Here's Mike Lindell at a rally in Arizona that was attended by at least three sitting members of Congress.

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LINDELL: Our voice has gotten bigger and bigger every single day since last year, and you can't stop that. So we will get our country back, and God bless America.

PARKS: The men also worked to persuade officials to embrace voting misinformation, like one meeting last spring between Frank and staff from the Ohio secretary of state's office. Through a public records request, NPR acquired audio of the meeting, which lasted more than 2 hours. The staffers pushed back on Frank's many fraud accusations, and at one point, he responded by threatening to send unauthorized people or, as he put it, plants, into election offices.

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FRANK: We have plants everywhere that go into buildings when your machines are on and capture your IP addresses. We have those, not necessarily in Ohio, but we can arrange for that. So what - all I'm trying to point out to you is that this is coming. Be ready. And I'm not trying to fight you. Do you see that I'm trying to help you?

PARKS: The staffers in that room didn't budge, but shortly after that meeting, someone did attempt to breach an Ohio county's election network, though officials say no sensitive data was accessed. It's been a rapid rise in prominence for a group of men who, other than Lindell, were mostly unknown before the 2020 election. But now they've become influencers of a sort. They've even got merch promoting products along with election disinformation Body lotions, T-shirts, and the ubiquitous MyPillow often are part of the roadshow.

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LINDELL: Here's two pillows and some sheets, because you're going to need them to sleep at all...

PARKS: The events almost always include instructions, too. At one David Clements event NPR attended, he ended his presentation by begging people to show up at the offices of their county commissioners. They respond to fear, he told them. And maybe predictably, election officials have felt a ripple effect from messages like that. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says her office has seen a direct correlation between election-denier events and harassment.

JOCELYN BENSON: Whenever there is an appearance in which the former president or Lindell or others come out attacking our system, we know to expect an uptick in threats and add additional security as a result.

PARKS: But the people in charge of America's elections have not figured out a perfect way to fight back. That's because election denialism has grown from a political movement into something almost religious, says Koppes, the county clerk in Colorado.

KOPPES: Some of these people really, truly believe they're doing the Lord's work. But I think, you know, at the end of the day, it has - they so desperately want to believe what they're being fed, that they're using all means to justify what they're doing.

PARKS: It's become almost pointless trying to convince these sorts of voters otherwise, she says. But Franita Tolson, an elections expert at the University of Southern California, says she and Americans everywhere need to keep trying, because at each one of these events, the election denial movement pushes the U.S. closer to the brink.

FRANITA TOLSON: So I think it's a existential threat to American democracy.

PARKS: Tolson describes herself as an optimist, but she says democracy's survival isn't inevitable.

TOLSON: That's never been the case. It's always been the case for over 200 years that people have fought for this. And we just have to continue fighting.

PARKS: Ahead of the midterm elections, it's a fight that's moved out of the limelight and into hotel conference rooms, car dealerships, backyards and church banquet halls all across the country. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.