From The Grassroots To The Top Of The Ticket, Election Denial Looms Large in GOP : Consider This from NPR In Republican politics, one of the biggest issues in the 2022 election is the 2020 election. In at least 8 states so far, Republicans have picked candidates for Secretary of State who deny the results of the last presidential election. This is despite the fact that not a shred of evidence calls President Biden's victory into question. If elected, they would become the chief elections officer in their states.

In some of the same swing states where election deniers will be on the statewide ballot in November, there's another effort underway, backed by key figures in former President Trump's orbit. Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who worked on Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election, is working to mobilize an "army" of poll watchers.

NPR's Tom Dreisbach reports on what he learned from leaked audio of one of her summits.

This episode also features reporting from NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting and election security.

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

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

From The Grassroots To The Top Of The Ticket, Election Denial Looms Large in GOP

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Republican politics, one of the biggest issues in the 2022 election is the 2020 election. Take Tuesday night's primary in Wisconsin.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ladies and gentlemen, the next governor of Wisconsin, Tim Michels.

KELLY: Tim Michels won the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

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TIM MICHELS: We did it. (Laughter) Yeah.

KELLY: He was endorsed by former President Trump. And like Trump, he styles himself as a political outsider who would turn the government upside down. Though he didn't go as far as Trump, he also campaigned on the disproven idea that the 2020 presidential election may not have been legitimate. Here's Michels talking to conservative radio host Joe Giganti on WTAQ AM back in May.

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JOE GIGANTI: Try to go through, like, a little bit of a lightning round here. Tim in Appleton wants to know, do you believe the 2020 election was stolen, yes or no?

MICHELS: I have a lot of questions about the 2020 election.

KELLY: Joe Biden won Wisconsin, by the way, a result that has been confirmed by a statewide canvass, a partial recount and in federal court.

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GIGANTI: So is that a yes? They wanted a yes or no with that.

MICHELS: Well, I...

GIGANTI: Maybe.

MICHELS: Maybe, right? There was certainly a lot of bad stuff that happened. There was certainly...

KELLY: Michels' top primary opponent called the 2020 Wisconsin election rigged. The third-place candidate went further. He pushed a proposal to decertify the 2020 results and reclaim Wisconsin's electoral votes from Joe Biden. And election law experts say it's legally impossible. But at a debate last week when Michels was asked if he would sign legislation that would attempt to overturn the election, he left the door open.

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MICHELS: I'm really fired up about this. When I'm sworn in in January - it's eight months from now - I will look at all the evidence, and everything will be on the table. I'll make the right decision.

KELLY: The general election may be a very close race. Michels will try to unseat Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who has used his veto power to stop a litany of bills that would have put new restrictions on voting.

It's not just Wisconsin, and it's not just governors. In at least eight states so far, Republicans have picked candidates for secretary of state who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election. If they win, they'll be in position to oversee their state's next election. And it goes beyond elected officials. Conservatives who pushed false claims about the last election are recruiting volunteer poll watchers.

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CLETA MITCHELL: Good morning, everyone.

KELLY: Leaked audio shared with NPR and other news organizations pulls back the curtain on an effort led by one of the lawyers who worked on Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election.

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MITCHELL: We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020, and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again, ever.

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KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - from the grassroots to the top of the ticket, false claims about a stolen election are still shaping Republican politics.

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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Wednesday, August 10.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. So at least eight states are set to have Republican secretary of state candidates on the ballot who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election. Again, there's not a shred of evidence, not a scrap that calls President Biden's victory into question. But in Alabama and Michigan...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The American people are being gaslit at such a high level.

KELLY: ...New Mexico, Indiana, Nevada...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: People are excited that there's somebody doing something behind the scenes to try to fix 2020, like President Trump said.

KELLY: ...And most recently, Minnesota and Vermont, we've seen the same thing. In Arizona, Republicans nominated candidates for attorney general, Senate, governor and secretary of state who all embrace former President Trump's election lies. Kari Lake, who won the nomination for governor, made voter fraud claims in her own race, though she provided zero evidence. Here she is on KTAR.

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KARI LAKE: We are on to some things that are very suspicious and possibly illegal, and we're working on it. And I don't want to ruin the investigation.

KELLY: She has been conspicuously silent on those claims since she won. Mark Finchem, the nominee for secretary of state, is a member of the far-right extremist group called the Oath Keepers. He was at the U.S. Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, though he says he did not go inside. If he loses his race? Here's what he said at a fundraiser in June.

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MARK FINCHEM: Ain't going to be no concession speech coming from this guy.

KELLY: The fact that several key swing states could have top election officials who have embraced the lie of widespread fraud, it has voting experts terrified.

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RICK HASEN: The stakes are enormous.

KELLY: That's Rick Hasen, director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project at UCLA. He was speaking with the NPR show 1A.

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HASEN: The 2020 election could be seen as the low point in modern American democracy, or it could be seen as a test run for 2024. And I'm afraid it's likely to be the latter.

KELLY: Some election deniers have used the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen as justification to cut back on ballot drop boxes and other forms of early voting. And election experts also point to a bigger concern. Joanna Lydgate is the CEO of States United Action. That's a nonpartisan organization that's been tracking election-denying candidates nationwide.

JOANNA LYDGATE: These are the people who run our elections, who set the rules, who count the votes and ultimately who are responsible for defending the will of the people.

KELLY: And they did just that, she says, in 2020, when then-President Donald Trump tried to overturn the election.

LYDGATE: We saw all across the country the state and local officials who stood up and who protected our election and who protected our freedom to vote.

KELLY: If those officials hadn't stood firm, it could have been a disaster. Overall, States United found election deniers have lost more Republican primaries than they've won. They've tracked races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state. But Lydgate says Americans should be concerned about them succeeding anywhere.

LYDGATE: The truth is that a single election denier in a single state could throw our elections into chaos, could put our democracy at risk.

KELLY: Joanna Lydgate spoke with NPR's Miles Parks. You can find a link to more of his reporting on election denial in our episode notes.

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KELLY: In some of the same states where Trump has endorsed election deniers for office, there's another effort underway, backed by key figures in his orbit. A lawyer who worked on Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election is now trying to mobilize a volunteer army of poll watchers. Her summits have included top officials from the Republican Party, alongside at least one activist who's promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach got access to leaked audio of one of those events. Here's what he learned.

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MITCHELL: Everybody in the back, take your seats.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Back in March of this year, in a hotel just outside Harrisburg, Pa., people gather for what was billed as an election integrity summit. It was officially nonpartisan, but the audience seemed clearly pro-Trump.

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DOUG MCLINKO: OK. I got some good news. Donald Trump did not lose Pennsylvania. He did not lose...

DREISBACH: That's Doug McLinko, a county commissioner from Pennsylvania who wants to eliminate mail-in voting in the state. He said proudly that he voted against certifying the 2020 election. This event was put on by a longtime conservative election lawyer named Cleta Mitchell.

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MITCHELL: We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020, and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again, ever.

DREISBACH: If the name Cleta Mitchell sounds familiar, it's probably because of this phone call.

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DONALD TRUMP: So what are we going to do here folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.

DREISBACH: This is from January 2, 2021. President Trump pressured Georgia election officials to overturn the state's election results. Trump brought Cleta Mitchell as backup.

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MITCHELL: What I don't understand is, why wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest to try to get to the bottom, compare the numbers, to try to be able to get to the truth?

DREISBACH: According to the congressional committee investigating January 6, Mitchell had also suggested a plan to submit alternate slates of pro-Trump electors. Since then, a prosecutor in Georgia has subpoenaed her as part of a criminal investigation into Trump's efforts to overturn the election. While those investigations have been pushing ahead, Mitchell has a new position with a D.C. nonprofit led in part by Mark Meadows, Trump's last White House chief of staff. It's called the Conservative Partnership Institute.

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MITCHELL: And now I get to work on election integrity every single day.

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DREISBACH: Trump's political action committee donated $1,000,000 to the Conservative Partnership Institute, and the group appears to keep close ties with Trump campaign staffers like Mike Roman.

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MIKE ROMAN: I was on Trump's campaign. I was on in '16. I was on in '20. Hopefully I'll be on in '24, if he hires me.

DREISBACH: Like Mitchell, the House select committee investigating January 6 has subpoenaed Roman. In his case, congressional investigators said he was part of a coordinated strategy to send fake slates of pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College, a strategy that was not discussed at the event. The summit also featured figures closer to the far right.

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MITCHELL: With that, I would like to recognize Toni Shuppe, who is CEO of Audit Pennsylvania.

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DREISBACH: Toni Shuppe of Audit the Vote Pennsylvania was introduced as the leader of the state's conservative election integrity coalition. She attended the pro-Trump Stop the Steal rally in Washington on January 6 and was outside the Capitol during the riot. At this event, she led the group in a Pledge of Allegiance and a Christian prayer.

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TONI SHUPPE: ...That you will guide the leadership that is in this room to restore integrity, liberty and freedom to this great country so that you can get all the glory. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Amen.

DREISBACH: Shuppe has said that her path to activism started with a 10-part, three-hour online video that promoted conspiracy theories - from 9/11 to QAnon and the bizarre theory called Pizzagate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Pizzagate is real.

DREISBACH: In an email, Shuppe said that she did not believe everything in the video, but that it was a compelling argument that opened her eyes. I asked her about this startling moment.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Worldwide, children are stolen and sold to elite pedophile rings. The murderers then drink the children's blood, and they eat their flesh.

DREISBACH: Shuppe told me she did not know if those specific claims were true, but called it a great question. She suggested that NPR should spend some time digging into it.

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NED JONES: Well, good morning, everyone.

DREISBACH: Back at the event, the real focus was on the next election. Volunteers heard from Ned Jones, who works with Cleta Mitchell at the Conservative Partnership Institute, and he walked through part of a step-by-step guide to monitoring elections. Jones said one step involved filing Freedom of Information Act requests to local election offices.

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JONES: It does two things. It gets you information that otherwise you wouldn't get, but it puts all of them on notice that you're watching.

DREISBACH: Jones is active on social media. On January 6, Jones saw a tweet about the breach of the Capitol building and responded, quote, "it's our turn - about time." He's tweeted several times about a coming civil war. At this event, Jones' rhetoric was more muted.

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JONES: Scrutiny and exposure are the tools that we have.

DREISBACH: Keeping up the pressure on election officials was a theme throughout, though Mitchell herself stressed the importance of remaining polite, not losing your cool. A conservative activist named Christine Brim said it was important for volunteers to concentrate on heavily blue areas, like her home in Fairfax County, Va.

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CHRISTINE BRIM: Our job is not to win. Our job is to lose less badly. And when you're the blue county that can ruin a statewide vote, that really focuses what you're doing.

DREISBACH: Now, alongside these activists at the event and drawing on this volunteer energy, there were also two officials with the Republican National Committee, including the party's national director for, quote, "election integrity." They praised Mitchell as the best election law expert out here and emphasized that these volunteer poll watchers and election workers would help provide intelligence to the party war room by identifying issues that the party could include in legal challenges. Here's Andrea Raffle, the RNC's director of election integrity for Pennsylvania.

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ANDREA RAFFLE: If we can even get one Republican in every precinct, that means we have eyes in every precinct automatically. And you're there doing those official duties, making sure that everything is running smoothly in that precinct.

DREISBACH: This event in Pennsylvania is one of several across the country, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan. Mitchell has said they're building an army of patriots to monitor elections.

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MITCHELL: And with that, thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.

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DREISBACH: It's not concerning or even really unusual for political groups to mobilize volunteers to help watch the polls or ask questions of election officials. That's democracy. But experts say it is concerning when people behind the mobilization believe conspiracy theories about the last election.

Brendan Fischer is the deputy executive director of a group called Documented, which investigates the influence of corporations and wealthy people in politics. They obtained the tape of this event and shared it with NPR.

BRENDAN FISCHER: The concern is that the conspiracy theorists who see fraud around every corner are going to disrupt voting and the administration of elections.

DREISBACH: Some longtime Republicans, like David Hoppe, have also been raising the alarm about the spread of the big lie. Hoppe is a former chief of staff for House Speaker Paul Ryan and part of a group of conservatives behind a report called "Lost, Not Stolen," which debunks false election fraud claims.

DAVID HOPPE: If you start saying, gee, I was cheated, just because you don't like to lose, that undermines the system. It really does go to the heart of a representative democracy.

DREISBACH: The Conservative Partnership Institute did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. A spokesperson for the RNC said that the party works with other groups who have an interest in promoting election integrity, but they are not part of any formal coalition and are, quote, "independent of outside groups."

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KELLY: NPR's Tom Dreisbach.

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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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