'The Big Lie': Election-Deniers Are Running To Control Voting : Consider This from NPR A year since the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, the belief in 'the big lie' is now mainstream. And in states around the country, that belief is driving people to run for public office, where they would oversee elections this year. NPR's Miles Parks reports. Here's his complete report on where election-denying candidates are running to control voting.

And NPR's Tovia Smith reports on why 'the big lie' is still so hard to dispel.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

'The Big Lie' Lives On, And May Lead Some To Oversee The Next Election

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You can't love your country only when you win. That is what President Joe Biden said today in a speech marking one year since the attack on the U.S. Capitol.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You can't obey the law only when it's convenient. You can't be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies.

CHANG: Lies about the election, Biden pointed out, have not abated in the last year. And in fact, as we told you earlier this week, belief in them has only grown. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that a majority of Republicans and just over a third of all voters believe that voter fraud helped Biden win the presidency.


BIDEN: So at this moment, we must decide, what kind of nation are we going to be? Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm? Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed rule of the people? Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth but in the shadow of lies?

CHANG: Lies about 2020 now threaten to influence elections this year and beyond.


MARK FINCHEM: What we're experiencing right now is a form of tyranny that is insidious.

CHANG: That's Mark Finchem, a Republican Arizona state representative and Trump supporter who was at the U.S. Capitol a year ago. He snapped some photos but says he did not go inside. You're hearing him speak just weeks before that day at an event with Rudy Giuliani in Arizona.


FINCHEM: You ain't seen nothing yet because...


FINCHEM: ...When Satan wants to extinguish a light, he will stop at nothing.

CHANG: And this year, Mark Finchem is running to be Arizona's secretary of state. That means he would oversee elections there if he won, and he's not alone. An NPR analysis of this year's secretary of state races found at least 15 Republican candidates running across the country who questioned the legitimacy of President Biden's 2020 win.


FINCHEM: So be on your guard, put on the full armor of God and be prepared to fight.


CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - the lie that gave rise to January 6 isn't just alive and well. It is driving a new generation of state and local politicians to seek office. We'll look at who they are, their message and why it's so hard to convince some voters that message isn't true. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Thursday, January 6.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. When we talk about election deniers running for state office, we should be clear that election denialism has already led to major policy changes at the state level. More than a dozen states enacted laws last year making it harder for people to vote. And now a new NPR analysis shows more and more people who believe former President Trump's election lies are running for offices that control the voting process. We just told you about one of them in Arizona, Mark Finchem. Here he is at a rally back in October.


FINCHEM: Ladies and gentlemen, the secretaries of state in every state are the key role to protect election integrity.


FINCHEM: Please support your secretaries of state.

CHANG: Protect election integrity. In that context, it was a reference to widespread voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. Miles Parks, who covers voting for NPR, has been looking into more of these secretary of state races. We spoke this week.


CHANG: Hi, Miles.


CHANG: All right. OK. It's usually the secretary of state - right? - who oversees voting in...

PARKS: Right.

CHANG: ...Each state. And I know that you've looked at secretary of state races all over the country. Tell us what you found.

PARKS: To be frank, I found a lot of election deniers running for positions of power in voting. So this year, 27 states will hold elections for their states' secretary of state position. And in basically half of those races, there's at least one Republican running who either questions the legitimacy of Joe Biden's win in 2020 or outright says the election was stolen from Donald Trump. And I should say that, obviously, is false. There's been no evidence to support that that's come out over the last 14 months, and courts and audits across the country have confirmed the election results. But it's still happening because former President Trump is encouraging it. He still talks about the importance of getting people in these local offices at his rallies. And he's endorsed three of these candidates so far in Michigan, Arizona and Georgia - all swing states he lost in the election by narrow margins.

CHANG: Right. All right. So these people have declared that they are running, but, of course, they will need to win a primary and a general election to actually hold office. Can you just explain, what effects could they have on voting in a state if they do win?

PARKS: It really varies by state. But in most places, they could decide things about funding. They could decide things about outreach to voters - you know, whether voters are going to get information about vote-by-mail ballots, for instance - all sorts of things. It's typically not as simple to say, you know, if a partisan actor gets elected to win these positions they can just stop the other party from voting. But they definitely have mechanisms to tilt the system. And in 2020, we saw a number of people in these positions act as a sort of backstop against Trump's misinformation and in some cases flat-out refused to do what Trump was asking them to do. I talked to for Franita Tolson about that. She's an election law expert at the University of Southern California.

FRANITA TOLSON: One of the reasons why Trump's attempt to overturn the 2021 election failed is because there were state officials who refused to substantiate his claims of fraud. These folks really are gatekeepers.

PARKS: I asked her for a one to 10 level of concern on this trend and democracy as a whole, and she said 50.

CHANG: Fifty - wow. OK. Well, what specific races are you watching at the moment?

PARKS: The biggest one I'd say is Georgia, where the incumbent brad and Brad Raffensperger, who listeners might remember - he had that famous phone call a year ago where Trump asked him to basically find enough votes in Georgia to swing the state, and he refused. He's running against two different candidates who think the election results in Georgia should not have been certified. One of them, Representative Jody Hice, has already been endorsed by Trump, and he voted in Congress on January 6 not to certify the results.

CHANG: This feels kind of like a change - right? - voters paying more attention to these down-ballot statewide races. Is that your sense?

PARKS: Definitely. I mean lots of voters even five years ago probably wouldn't have been able to name their secretary of state.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah.

PARKS: I talked about that actually specifically with a former election official from Idaho David Levine who's now a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

DAVID LEVINE: For a long time in this country, when people have voted or looked on the ballot for who to support, they assumed that anyone that they've considered on the ballot has supported democracy.

PARKS: Unfortunately, he said, we're at a point where voters can no longer make that assumption.

CHANG: That is NPR's Miles Parks. Thank you, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you so much.


CHANG: And you can find more of Miles' reporting on this, including a complete list of the candidates for state office that we mentioned, at the link in our episode notes.

By now we're used to hearing about the big lie in a political context. But in a way, it's more powerful than just some political argument. It appeals to something else - something deeper, something more basic, and that is voters' sense of identity - this notion that they are somehow the victims of an injustice. And as NPR's Tovia Smith explains, that's not the kind of argument you can talk people out of - at least, not very easily.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Even though countless courts, commissions, committees and clerks, including Republicans, have all concluded the election was not stolen, the NPR/Ipsos poll shows two-thirds of Republicans and just over one-third of all voters still cling to the false claims that voter fraud helped President Biden win.

JERRY: Oh, of course. In the realm of possibility, just there is no way this guy got 81 million votes. It's not possible. It's not possible.

SMITH: This man Jerry (ph) from Wisconsin asked that his last name not be used because he says he doesn't want to be targeted by what he calls those wacky liberals.

JERRY: I kind of think liberalism is a mental disorder. It's kind of like it's lost all grasp of common sense and logic.

SMITH: He'd be the first to admit it, Jerry says, if he was wrong about the election being stolen. But he insists nothing has or will convince him that he is wrong.

JERRY: There is no complete 180. It just won't happen.

SMITH: That kind of intractability however isn't stopping folks around the nation from trying to reach their loved ones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I get frustrated and angry at my dad. I've always thought of him as so intelligent. But he's being misled.

SMITH: Support groups like this one are filling up with people struggling to reach those who've fallen deep down the rabbit hole of disinformation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I want things to go back to the way they were.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And I want to see my mom. I want to see my mom.

SMITH: The participants asked that their full names not be used, to protect their family members from retribution and so as not to jeopardize their reconciliation. One of them, 37-year-old Shannon (ph) from Colorado, is trying to patch things up with her mother who was at the Capitol during the insurrection and will barely listen to evidence that the election was not stolen.

SHANNON: I've brought up all kinds of information, and she dismisses it immediately.

DIANE BENSCOTER: Yeah. That's extremely painful. I'm sorry.

SMITH: Diane Benscoter, a former cult member who leads the group, generally advises Shannon that trying to prove her mom wrong will likely cause her to just dig her heels in further. Instead, she says, just keep her close and watch for little cracks of doubt that might signal an opportunity. You need to tread lightly, Benscoter warns Shannon, with anyone who's so all-in on the big lie.

BENSCOTER: Yeah. As time goes by, what happens is it becomes not just your political view, it is your identity. And so when someone confronts you, you're telling them who they are as a person is bad and wrong. And so on a psychological level, you have to keep in mind that what's being threatened is their very identity.

SMITH: Indeed, being a red or a blue these days or a fervent Trumper or anti-Trumper has become a kind of mega-identity, as it's been dubbed by Johns Hopkins University poli sci professor Lilliana Mason. Partisan identity, she says, has become so fully fused with cultural, religious, racial, gender and geographical identity that it's super high stakes for people to break with their party or party line.

LILLIANA MASON: To feel like they are losing those all sort of wrapped together, that's a devastating psychological harm. And people tend to react to that with a lot of not only anger, but really defensive mechanisms.

SMITH: So, Mason says, no recount is going to be convincing to those Trump supporters clinging to the myth that their side didn't actually lose.

MASON: They've sort of had this entire, you know, fever dream where, you know, Trump is really stoking these ideas of, no matter what anybody else tells you, I'm telling you you're a winner. And that feels great, right? That's just, like, the most primitive human, you know, instinct is to follow the good feelings, not the bad feelings.

SMITH: It's also all too human, experts say, to dig in on a position that's seen as a moral one. Our NPR/Ipsos poll shows 70% of Americans believe the nation's in crisis and at risk of failing. So instead of just quarrelling about tax policy, for example, many partisans are engaged in what they see as an existential fight between good and evil, with each side believing they're saving democracy or saving America. Mason's research shows a clear majority of Republicans now see Democrats as a serious threat to the nation and downright evil. Democrats also feel that way about Republicans to a slightly lesser degree, but they're catching up.

JOSHUA TUCKER: We've now gotten to the point where you dislike the other party even more than you like your own party.

SMITH: Political sectarianism is what NYU politics professor Joshua Tucker calls it. He says such intense animus makes partisans impervious to facts and averse to compromise. But unfortunately, Tucker says, candidates like Trump have little political incentive to stop spreading their stop-the-steal storyline. The more inflammatory they are, the more rewarded they are.

TUCKER: There's a kind of vicious cycle here which, in itself, is fed by the nature of the electoral system in a lot of the United States.

SMITH: Politicians would have different incentives, Tucker says, if, for example, presidents were chosen by popular vote instead of the Electoral College system or if legislative districts were less gerrymandered and more competitive.

FRANKLIN RUFF: What you have to get is people that are willing to go against their own party in order to say, hey; could you give me better choices?

SMITH: Kansas Reverend Franklin Ruff, a Black pragmatic conservative, as he calls himself, did exactly that. He's a lifelong Republican who's in sync with most the party's principles, so it's not about trashing the GOP, he says. It's about rescuing it from the grip of pro-Trump extremists. When he couldn't bring himself to vote for Trump, he voted for neither party. And in the 2018 gubernatorial race, he voted for the Democrat.

RUFF: Because I felt that she was the best candidate for the state, and the person running against her was a mini-Trump.

SMITH: Moderate Republicans are hoping for more of that kind of crossover. They're aiming for voters like Joe Horcher, a lifelong Republican from Kentucky who's also had it with the big lie and the GOP.

JOE HORCHER: The Republican Party changed, and there are a number of times I've thought about tearing my card up and sending it to Mitch McConnell, telling him to stuff it.

SMITH: Ultimately, if more and more voters feel that way and fewer and fewer politicians peddle the big lie, that may be what finally creates those little cracks of doubt among the voters who've been buying it.

CHANG: That's NPR's Tovia Smith.


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