The election denial movement is now going door to door
DENVER — Last fall, two men knocked on Michelle Garcia's door. They wanted to talk about voting.
One was carrying a clipboard and wearing a baseball cap. The other wore a blue collared shirt and a lanyard.
She said at first she thought nothing of it, as it's not uncommon for candidates or political parties to canvas her neighborhood in Pueblo, Colo.
But the men at Garcia's door weren't part of a get-out-the-vote effort. They were part of a growing national movement by regular people to try to root out alleged fraud in America's elections.
"We're doing a voter verification project. ... We're working off the city voter list and we wanted to ask a couple questions about the 2020 vote," said one of the two men, in a video recording from Garcia's front-door camera.
They wanted to know whether she cast her ballot in person or by mail.
"His specific questions were, 'Did you vote by mail-in ballot? How many times have you voted?' He wanted to know who I voted for, who I supported," Garcia recounted in April. "'How do I know that it wasn't changed?' And a lot of it was targeted at the [county] clerk and recorder's office and that it was fraudulent."
Garcia told them she'd never had any issues and didn't want to discuss her personal voting record.
"There was no boundaries with their ethics or with civility. They will push until you give an answer. They are very intimidating." She added: "It's not a question of, 'Do you think that this was done? How do you feel about it?' It is, 'We know that this is done. How do you know it wasn't?' "
In the more than 18 months since the 2020 election, no widespread fraud has been found anywhere in the United States. Yet these sorts of controversial efforts, where everyday Americans are galvanized by a steadfast election denial movement to try to uncover voter fraud in their own communities, are growing.
The data they yield isn't considered credible by election experts, and the door-to-door nature of the interactions is raising concerns about voter intimidation.
"These groups claim to be 'election integrity groups' and nothing could be further from the truth — they're undermining public confidence in our elections with no proof of anything," said Matt Crane, a Republican former county clerk and now executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. "What they're doing is making it so much harder for those of us who are actually serious about election integrity, and trying to identify and close gaps in our processes, to get that kind of work done."
10,000 doors in Colorado
Three hundred miles west of Pueblo, in Mesa County, a deeply Republican part of Colorado, three women came to Anne Landman's door on a summer evening last year.
"They just said they were canvassing, surveying, and asked if I voted in the last election," she recalled. "And I said, 'Yes.' And they said, 'Did your husband vote in the last election?' And I said, 'Yes, he did.' And they said, 'OK, thank you very much.' "
Landman, a well-known Democratic activist in the area, said the women weren't aggressive but she still wondered why they were at her door. She later read about the group and said she was annoyed that she had answered their questions.
The volunteer organization at Landman's door was the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, which began in Colorado after the 2020 election — and is not associated with any government entity or election office. It's not clear if the canvassers who visited Landman were affiliated with the ones who came to Garcia's door, who said they were with a local group.
The U.S. Election Integrity Plan put out a report this spring saying volunteers with the organization knocked on nearly 10,000 doors in just four Colorado counties — El Paso, Weld, Pueblo, Douglas — and officials in other counties, including Mesa, say canvassing was done there as well. Several other states have also seen canvassing efforts.
Election denial influencers have been traveling the country working to motivate people to do these sorts of citizen investigations.
Douglas Frank, a high school teacher turned full-time election conspiracy theorist, visited Colorado in April 2021 and held an event in a hotel conference room. After he was done "proving" the 2020 election was full of fraud, using a methodology that has been widely debunked by experts, he implored people to take action.
"Go knock on some doors!" he said.
A hotbed of election conspiracists
The 2020 election wasn't close in Colorado, a state Joe Biden won by about 13 percentage points. Still, the state has become a hotbed for election conspiracists.
Most Colorado counties use voting systems from Dominion, a Denver-based company that has become a target of right-wing misinformation.
Another high-profile conspiracy case involves Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, a Republican who was indicted earlier this year for allegedly tampering with election equipment and for misconduct in an effort to expose fraud in the 2020 election. She's facing 10 state charges and an ongoing criminal investigation, though she says her actions were intended to promote confidence in her county's voting procedures and were legal.
Shawn Smith, the co-founder of the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, is a prominent proponent of false theories that the 2020 election was stolen. He's from Colorado Springs and has come under scrutiny for some of his comments, including claims that he had evidence of criminal conduct by Colorado's secretary of state, Jena Griswold, a Democrat.
"And I think if you're involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang," he said to loud cheers and applause in a video of an event obtained by Colorado Newsline. He added, "Sometimes the old ways are the best ways."
Smith then claimed he was not endorsing violence, but "when you put your hand on that hot stove, you get burned and you ought to see it coming."
Neither Smith nor the USEIP responded to interview requests by NPR.
The "tightest microscope" possible
One volunteer for the organization said the intrusive questions Garcia faced in Pueblo weren't the norm. Volunteers are not supposed to ask who a person voted for or push to get answers. They're just supposed to verify publicly available information.
"We don't care how you voted," said Rebecca Keltie, a former GOP congressional candidate. She went out with USEIP for a day last year to an apartment complex in Colorado Springs and said the effort went smoothly and most people were happy to talk. She said she's not sure why the canvassers were sent to certain locations, but that the votes were "in question" based on a formula determined by leaders of the group.
"When the puzzle pieces don't fit together, it makes you wonder," she said. "And if it's important to you, you'll look into it."
Keltie said she would like there to be more scrutiny of the 2022 election than ever before.
"I hope [this election] is under the tightest microscope you can possibly put it under," she said.
But that focus from conservative activists has led to increased threats to county clerks and other election workers and staff just for doing their jobs.
Colorado has tried to address the issue with a new law that makes it illegal to publish election officials' personal information publicly — a practice known as "doxxing" — and allows those workers and their immediate families to remove their private information from open records requests.
But when asked about the increase in threats to election officials, Keltie said she supports the intense level of scrutiny these officials often face.
"I think if there is pressure and if there are threats then that right there shows you they are trying to get away with something," she said.
Election officials in Colorado, including outgoing Republican Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman from El Paso County, are feeling that strain. Broerman faced pushback from people in his county who wanted to investigate the county's Dominion voting machines. There was also a push to replace the machines altogether.
Broerman said he remembers one particular meeting where he was facing a lot of pressure.
"And the statement that, you know, 'Clerk Broerman, we'll either do this with you or through you,' which I took as a threat that you better work with us or we'll make things difficult for you," he said.
Accusations, but no data
People associated with this canvassing movement see it as all about transparency.
"You only hide things when you're ashamed of them," Keltie said. "So let's go out. Let's open everything up, complete transparency."
However, the U.S. Election Integrity Plan hasn't been entirely transparent itself. Broerman and other local election officials say it's been frustrating to try to understand the allegations from the group because they haven't seen any of the underlying evidence, despite repeatedly asking for it.
For instance, USEIP claims to have affidavits indicating election crimes were committed in a number of counties, including Broerman's. But the group hasn't provided details for these supposed crimes, or the affidavits referenced in its report.
Broerman said he has an idea about some of the neighborhoods he's guessing canvassers visited in his county, and said he's almost certain there would be a reasonable explanation for any anomalies the canvassers think they've found.
"I think the volunteers that did this really want to gain better understanding and assurances," he said. "And I think you owe it to them to follow up on that data and verify that it is indeed the case and it's not being used as a tool to push a particular viewpoint."
A similar group alleged last year that more than 700 dead people voted in the 2020 election in El Paso County, but after researching the claim, Broerman's office found just a single ballot that had been cast on behalf of a deceased person.
"The 'reports' of fraud individuals have released in an attempt to discredit the outcome of the presidential election results here locally are inaccurate, lack real evidence that could be examined and willfully generated misstatements about the election processes and systems," Broerman wrote in a local op-ed in May.
A legal gray area
The efforts of groups like USEIP have raised questions about whether this sort of neighborhood canvassing is legal.
"It's not against the law for constituents to investigate their own elections," said Sherronna Bishop, a conservative activist who helped organize canvassers in Mesa County. "There is no law against going door-to-door to figure out if people actually voted in the election that the certified data says they voted in."
While that is fundamentally true, legal experts say the answer is more nuanced and complicated than that.
In an open letter last year referencing a widely discredited election review in Arizona, the U.S. Department of Justice warned that certain types of canvassing could be voter intimidation, possibly violating the federal Voting Rights Act.
Another issue could be if canvassers claimed to be with the government.
Canvassers who spoke with NPR said that didn't happen on their watch. However, Carly Koppes, the Republican county clerk in Weld County, said her office started getting calls about that, wondering why her staff was at their door.
"They said they were giving the perception that they were with your office," Koppes said. "If you're giving that perception that you are a government official, it almost equates to the same as you saying that you're a police officer when you're not."
Some canvassers were also said to be spreading misinformation about people's votes. In Mesa County, the clerk's office said it answered questions for months, and according to county officials, a lot of voters were angry at the clerk's office because they said canvassers told them their votes weren't counted. The clerk's office said that information was wrong.
Several voting rights groups have filed a lawsuit to stop these sorts of canvasses from continuing in Colorado after the midterm elections. They allege it's a type of voter intimidation that will negatively affect communities of color and also impact other voter outreach efforts.
USEIP has countersued for defamation.
Even if the voting rights groups stop this specific practice, though, election officials say that doesn't solve the core problems that drive people to election denialism.
"I think people are looking for answers," said El Paso County's Broerman. "You know, 'I voted for Candidate X, I voted for Issue Y. All my friends that I live and work with, and go to church with, and hang out with believe like I do. So how could something be different than that?' "
"I think it's just man's search for meaning and understanding," he said.
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