US election conspiracies find fertile ground in conferences

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Omaha, Neb. – On a quiet Saturday at a hotel in Omaha, about 50 people gathered in a ballroom to learn about the election.

The subject was not voter registration campaigns or the training of volunteer poll workers. Instead, they paid $25 each to listen to panelists lay out conspiracy theories about voting machines and rigged election results. In language that sometimes relied on violent imagery, some panelists called on attendees to join in what they described as a battle between good and evil.

Among those present was Melissa Sauder, who traveled nearly 350 miles from the small western Nebraska town of Grant with her 13-year-old daughter. After years of combing through websites, listening to podcasts and reading reports in conservative media, Sauder wanted to learn more about what she sees as serious issues with the integrity of US elections. .

She can’t help but believe that voting machines are manipulated even in her home county, where then-President Donald Trump won 85% of the vote in 2020.

“I just don’t know the truth because it’s not open and apparent, and it’s not transparent to us,” Sauder, 38, said. “We trust people who trust the wrong people.”

It’s a sentiment now shared by millions in the United States after the relentless attacks on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election by Trump and his allies. Nearly two years after that election, no evidence has emerged to suggest widespread fraud or manipulation, while state-by-state reviews have confirmed results showing President Joe Biden won.

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Even so, the attacks and the lies had an impact: A 2021 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that about two-thirds of Republicans say they don’t think Biden was legitimately elected.

Events like the one that took place on August 27 in Nebraska’s largest city are one of the reasons.

Billed as the Nebraska Election Integrity Forum, the conference brought together some of the nation’s most prominent figures pushing conspiracy theories that the last election was stolen from Trump through widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. It was just one of dozens of similar events that took place across the country for much of the year.

For eight hours with only a brief lunch break, attendees were inundated with election plots, complete with graphics and slideshows. Speakers talked about tampering with voting machines or systems that store voter rolls, ballot box stuffing, and the massive number of votes cast by deceased people and non-US citizens — all theories that have been debunked.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or tampering with election materials that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 election, in which Biden won both the popular vote — by more than 7 million people nationwide. country – and the tally of the Electoral College. Numerous official reviews and audits in the six battleground states where Trump contested his loss confirmed the validity of the findings. Judges, including some appointed by Trump, have dismissed numerous lawsuits making various allegations of fraud and wrongdoing.

All of this was ignored, speaker after speaker telling attendees that the machines are rigged and the elections are stolen. One of the headliners at the event was Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, who said he’s spent some $20 million of his own money since 2020 trying to prove that slot machines to vote have been manipulated during this election and remain susceptible to falsification.

That any technology is vulnerable, including voting machines, is undisputed. State and local election officials across the United States have focused on improving their security defenses with help from the federal government.

But Byrne and some of the other speakers said they believed the government had been corrupt and could not be trusted. In his remarks, he complained about those who say fraud didn’t happen in 2020 and journalists who report it, calling them “voter fraud deniers.”

Another keynote speaker at the Omaha event was Douglas Frank, a math and science teacher from Ohio who traveled the country to engage with community groups and meet with local election officials offering to review and to analyze their voting systems.

He had harsh words for some of those overseeing state-level elections.

“I like to tell people that we have bad secretaries of state,” Frank said. “We have a few in our country, and it’s a bit like World War II – when the war is over, we need to have Nuremberg trials and we need to have platoons of execution, okay? I’m looking forward to the tryouts, okay? »

The crowd cheered.

State and local election officials have faced a barrage of harassment and death threats since the 2020 election. their replacements do not seek to meddle in elections or tamper with voting systems.

Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state from Kentucky who criticizes those who spread conspiracy theories, said attacks last election year were focused on candidates or political parties, but are now targeting the electoral administration.

“There are a lot of really bad actors here trying to undermine trust in a system. It’s dangerous,” he said.

The Omaha conference was sponsored by the American Citizens & Candidates Forum for Election Integrity, which has held more than a dozen such rallies since the 2020 election.

Speakers urged those present to take action. This includes getting to know their local election officials and the local sheriff, and volunteering to be poll watchers for the November general election with the goal of reporting any activity they believe may be fraudulent.

Omaha resident Kathy Austin said she recently submitted her name to serve as a poll clerk but did not hear back. She is convinced that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

“I hadn’t really been involved in politics before the 2020 election,” Austin, 75, said. That started to change after seeing posts alleging voter fraud on social media.

“Then I talked to different people,” she said. “And the more I learned about it, the clearer it became that there was a problem.”

Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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