How Election Deniers Became Mainstream—and Are Weaponizing Tech

Election deniers are mobilizing their supporters and rolling out new tech to disrupt the November election. These groups are already organizing on hyperlocal levels, and learning to monitor polling places, target election officials, and challenge voter rolls. And though their work was once fringe, it’s become mainstreamed in the Republican Party. Today on WIRED Politics Lab, we focus on what these groups are doing, and what this means for voters and the election workers who are already facing threats and harassment.

Leah Feiger is @LeahFeiger. Tori Elliott is @Telliotter. David Gilbert is @DaithaiGilbert. Write to us at [email protected]. Our show is produced by produced by Jake Harper. Jake Lummus is our studio engineer and Amar Lal mixed this episode. Jordan Bell is the Executive Producer of Audio Development and Chris Bannon is Global Head of Audio at Condé Nast.

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Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Leah Feiger: Welcome to WIRED Politics Lab, a show about how tech is changing politics. I’m Leah Feiger, the senior politics editor at WIRED. Today, we’re going to talk about how election deniers are mobilizing their supporters and rolling out new tech to disrupt November. And what that means for voters and the election workers already facing threats and harassment.

Catherine Engelbrecht: We’re going to be engaged. We are going to understand the process and the lawful approach to the electoral system. And we’re going to have options to continue to hold to those truths. We’re not going to back down.

Leah Feiger: That was Catherine Engelbrecht. She’s the founder of True the Vote, a group that’s been effectively trying to disenfranchise voters for more than a decade. This recording is from a webinar that she led about organizing local activist groups to challenge election officials. They do this by falsely claiming that voter rolls are filled with phony registrations, and the group really became a big deal after 2020 when claims of election fraud exploded. Now along with a bunch of other similar groups, they’re hosting training sessions about how to organize on a hyperlocal level. They’re learning to monitor polling places, target election officials, and deploy IV3, a software tool that allows people to challenge voter rolls. Joining me today from Cork, Ireland, to talk about all of this is David Gilbert. David is a senior politics writer at WIRED who just published an article all about True the Vote and groups like them this week on David, you sat through two whole True the Vote webinars. How was it?

David Gilbert: It was interesting, and I think after about five minutes when Catherine Engelbrecht started talking about how prayers could make ice particles look more beautiful, I knew I was in for an interesting time.

Leah Feiger: Oh, I’m so glad you sat through all of that for us. Yeah. What exactly do they want? What does True the Vote want here?

David Gilbert: True the Vote is coming from a place where they fundamentally believe that elections are broken and they’re rigged, and they’re fraudulent. What they really want is they want voter rolls to be cleaned up and they want their supporters to help them in cleaning up those voter rolls.

Leah Feiger: Why do groups like True the Vote care so much about these voter rolls? What specifically is drawing them to this issue?

David Gilbert: Voter rolls are the lists of registered voters that each state or local jurisdiction maintains of the people who are able to vote in upcoming elections. So they’re very important in maintaining them and keeping them clean as the phrasing goes, is very important. But what True the Vote believe is that voter rolls across the country, particularly in swing states, are filled with fake or phony voters and they believe that their mission is to go out and find these fake voters and challenge them and get them removed from voter rolls.

Leah Feiger: But these “fake” voter registrations, they aren’t actual problems, right?

David Gilbert: No. Like cleaning and maintaining voter rolls and registrations is difficult because people die, people move. It’s a job election officials have to do constantly and keep them updated, and obviously there are going to be people who slip through the cracks and people who move who never inform election officials that they’ve moved. So there will be people on the voter list who shouldn’t be there. But the vigor is infinitesimally small and it is not a significant number that it could impact the outcome of any election.

Leah Feiger: But they’re focusing on it anyway. Let’s talk about exactly what they’re doing. What was in these webinars? What are they telling these local activists to do? Let’s get into it.

David Gilbert: So True the Vote, as you said, has been around for over a decade. Catherine Engelbrecht founded the group back in 2009 and she was a Tea Party activist at the time. And ever since she’s effectively been saying the same thing, that there are real issues with fraud related to voter rolls. And so when 2020 happened and that narrative suddenly became mainstream orthodoxy for the GOP because of Trump’s pushing of those false claims, she suddenly was propelled to the center of this universe of conspiracy theorists along with her close collaborator, Greg Phillips, who built the software tools that True the Vote uses or True the Vote supporters use. And so they suddenly became these kind of infamous figures and they were involved in the 2000 Mules conspiracy theory that was created by Dinesh D’Souza.

Archival audio clip: True the Vote has the largest store of election intelligence for the 2020 elections in the world. No one has more data than we do.

David Gilbert: It was their information that was at the heart of that movie which was widely debunked. They were involved in mass voter challenges in Georgia, 384,000 voter challenges in Georgia.

Leah Feiger: That is just so many. They are really in the thick of it.

David Gilbert: Yeah. And they were hyped by pretty much everyone from Trump on down in the Republican Party because their data appeared to back up the claims that Trump was making. This time around in 2024, they believe the problem is even greater. And so what they’re doing now is they are mobilizing the supporters and the network that they’ve built up over the last four years to go out and to start challenging votes on a case by case basis, and that’s what the relaunch of their IV3 platform is all about.

Leah Feiger: So who’s using the software and how does it work?

David Gilbert: So this software is designed for individuals. So when a user who is subscribed to IV3 logs on, what they see is basically the voter roll that has been imported from their local jurisdiction, and they can search for an address or for an individual if they have already got concerns about someone or somewhere in particular. But what they also get is a list of suspicious accounts.

Leah Feiger: Quote, unquote?

David Gilbert: Yeah, exactly. So they get to log onto that and they can go through all those suspicious accounts and without any real proof that there is something suspicious about them. They can click challenge on that. They get a automated challenge to that voter created, which they can then send to their local election official. And it’s really a automating and supercharging the ability to make these voter challenges.

Leah Feiger: That’s terrible. I mean, that’s so dangerous.

David Gilbert: And the big problem is that it’s based on the US Postal Service’s database and there’s numerous reasons why that is not reliable.

Leah Feiger: Well, what happens when this obviously and very predictably identifies someone incorrectly? What happens? What happens to the voters that are caught up in this? What happens to the election workers that are dealing with these requests?

David Gilbert: The big issue is that it just floods election officials with requests. So they have to then go through this very long and deliberate process of trying to figure out if the person that has been challenged is actually still living at the address that they’re registered at. That takes about four or five years. So that obviously is another issue that True the Vote has because they feel that because it takes so long. The Democrats or the elites or whoever they believe is behind this are going to be able to push forward their agenda in that space of time. But of course, those measures are in place for a reason. It’s because the right to vote is such a core part of being a US citizen and the idea that you should be removed from a voter role just because some random person with access to this IV3 tool decides that you are not who you say you are. It’s incredulous that that could even happen, but that’s exactly what they want to happen.

Leah Feiger: I mean, this sounds like it’s going to be such a mess come November. And there’s a lot of other election denial groups out there that are doing similar things.

David Gilbert: Yeah, voter rolls is just an issue for pretty much every major election denial group out there because that will then give them the ability to make the claim once an election doesn’t go their way that, “Oh, it’s because the voter rolls weren’t cleaned.” There are other groups who are pushing forward similar tools to IV3. Like a Georgia-based group who has produced one called EagleAI or spelt EagleAI which effectively does the exact same thing as IV3. And the county in Georgia has actually signed a contract with that company to use that to clean their voter rolls and maintain their voter rolls, which is really disturbing to someone in an elected official position has decided that this is how they should manage their voter rolls.

Leah Feiger: Right. I mean so many voter rights groups have advised against these uses of EagleAI in particular, a missing comma before like a suffix has led to eligible names being removed. Right?

David Gilbert: Exactly. That’s what it comes down to. It comes down to the most minor of formatting inconsistencies that make a claim that they shouldn’t be on the register. There are checks and balances in place, which mean you can’t just push a button and someone has their voter removed, but as we’ve seen in Georgia with EagleAI, if a county is contracting with this company, then maybe that is something that will happen down the road because we’ve constantly seen how Republican lawmakers across the country have brought forward legislation in the last four years to undermine voting rights in all sorts of different ways.

Leah Feiger: We have to talk about the America Project. That features former national security adviser, Mike Flynn.

David Gilbert: Yeah. I suppose Mike Flynn is a figure that a lot of people may have not heard of for a while because obviously he was Donald Trump’s national security adviser for a couple of days at least. And then he got caught lying twice to the FBI about his communications with a Russian ambassador, and he resigned or was fired or resigned before being fired or however it played out. Ultimately, he got pardoned by Trump. And then ever since the 2020 election when Trump lost, he has become the figurehead of the election denial movement.

Leah Feiger: He’s everywhere.

David Gilbert: He is never not appearing on a podcast or speaking at a conference. He’s currently on a national tour promoting his own movie, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can’t wait to watch because it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Leah Feiger: I’m looking forward to your reviews there. What exactly is the America Project doing?

David Gilbert: So the America Project is an effort to kind of, once again, like all these other election denial groups, push the narrative that US elections are rigged and fraudulent, all based on absolutely nothing, just so we’re clear. What the America Project is central to that is Mike Flynn’s claim that local action equals national impact. What that means is that he wants people on every single committee, on every single school board, in every single county across the country, pushing this narrative on behalf of him, on behalf of the GOP, on behalf of Trump, and thereby creating this kind of network effect where if everyone is doing it at the same time, then it is going to have a major impact on the elections overall.

Leah Feiger: There are so many of these groups and they feel way more organized than in 2020. And 2020 was bad.

David Gilbert: They are without a doubt way more organized. Most of these groups … So True the Vote has been around for a long time. Most of these groups have kind of formed based on the claims that have been spread from the top, from the likes of Mike Flynn, from Trump himself, from Steve Bannon. They formed in each state and counties. Some of them are really local, some of them are national networks, and they have tens and thousands of millions of followers in some cases. And the America Project is one such group who has not only got a network of people on a very local level, they’re also deeply connected to the GOP at a national level. I have to remind myself even that they’re not fringe groups anymore. These groups are—

Leah Feiger: Right. They’re mainstream. They’re officially mainstream. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about this institutional support. We’ve now gone through all of these different groups that are clearly working to disenfranchise voters and undercut the legitimacy of elections, but this movement has also taken hold at the highest levels of the GOP. I mean, the Republican National Committee has been made over in the image of election deniers.

David Gilbert: On the America Project webinar that I was listening into last month, right at the end, one of the organizers apologized to everyone that was listening because they had hoped to have Christina Bobb appear on the webinar. And for those who may not know who Christina Bobb is, she is a former presenter with the One American Network, the far-right One American Network.

Leah Feiger: And a former Trump lawyer.

David Gilbert: Because of that, she, when Trump kind of remade the RNC, he also appointed Christina Bobb to head up their election integrity efforts, which is incredible given her history of boosting election conspiracies. And so the America Project was saying that they had spoken to the Republican National Committee and they said that she was willing to join another webinar in the future. So that just gives you a little insight into just how connected these groups, which many still call fringe, but are really, really central to the broader efforts being pushed from the top down by Trump and Flynn and are being pushed out then at a local level across the country.

Leah Feiger: When we come back, David and I are going to talk with WIRED staff writer Vittoria Elliott about the impact of all of these groups on voters and election workers today.

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