Key figures in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election have thrown their weight behind a slate of Republican candidates for secretary of state across the country, injecting specious theories about voting machines, foreign hacking and voter fraud in campaigns that will determine who controls elections in several battleground states.
The America First list includes more than a dozen candidates who falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump. It grew out of meetings held by a conspiratorial QAnon leader and a Nevada politician, and quietly gained support from influential people in the election denier movement – including Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, and Patrick Byrne, the former leader from Overstock.com. which has funded public forums that promote candidates and theories on electoral vulnerabilities.
List members won party endorsements or are competitive candidates for the Republican nomination in several states, including three — Michigan, Arizona and Nevada — where a relatively small number of ballots have decided presidential victories. And in Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the secretary of state, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is aligned with the group, easily won his gubernatorial primary last month.
The candidates present their races as a fight for the future of democracy, the best chance to reform a broken electoral system – and to win an election.
“It doesn’t matter who is running for the assembly or for governor or whatever. It doesn’t matter who counts the vote for this election,” Rachel Hamm, a longtime California primary candidate, said Tuesday at a forum hosted by the group earlier this year.
But even in losing races, the slate left its mark. As they launch calls for votes and on social networks, the candidates sow lies and fictions in the political discourse. Their status as candidates amplifies the claims.
Information disseminated under the guise of electoral reform, particularly automatic vote manipulation, threatens to corrode Americans’ faith in democracy, said John Merrill, Republican Secretary of State in Alabama. “What you’re doing is you’re encouraging people not to have faith in the electoral process and people are losing faith.”
In private weekly calls that last for hours on Friday mornings, the candidates discuss policies and campaign strategy, sometimes joined by fringe figures who have pushed schemes to keep Mr. Trump in power. In 11 states, the group has sponsored public forums where prominent activists unfold complex conspiracies about vulnerabilities in voting machines.
The races for secretary of state were once sleepy affairs, dominated by politicians who sought to demonstrate bureaucratic competence, rather than fierce partisan loyalty. But Mr Trump’s attempt to overturn the results – including his failed attempt to pressure Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes to undo his loss – has put the power of the office under the spotlight.
Since its inception last year, the America First list has grown from a handful of applicants to a peak of around 15. Many are unlikely to succeed. On Tuesday, Ms. Hamm will compete for the top two nominees in California, and Audrey Trujillo, who is running unopposed in New Mexico, will land her GOP nomination. Neither candidate is favored to beat Democratic opponents in their solidly blue states.
But America First candidates could be competitive in at least four battleground states: Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Two of them have already scored primary victories in those states: In Michigan, Kristina Karamo, a rookie Republican activist who rose to prominence challenging the 2020 results there, won her party’s endorsement in of a convention in April, practically securing his nomination in August. The winner of the Republican primary for Governor of Pennsylvania, Mr. Mastriano, was involved in an effort to prevent President Biden’s 2020 statewide electoral votes. He said he wanted to cancel all registrations on the electoral rolls and forcing voters to re-register.
One of the leading contenders in Nevada’s primary next week is America First slate organizer Jim Marchant. The former state assemblyman and another candidate won the endorsement of the state’s Republican Party Central Committee, giving them a boost before voters head to the polls June 14. The group’s candidate in Arizona, Mark Finchem, is one of the leading candidates and the top fundraiser in the primary race.
Mr Marchant said he was asked to launch the coalition by anonymous people close to Mr Trump. The project gained momentum in the spring of last year, after Mr Marchant attended an activist meeting organized by a man known in QAnon circles as Juan O’Savin, according to the account. from one of the people involved in the group. .
Major figures from the election denier movement were attracted. In May 2021, when Mr. Marchant hosted a one-day meeting in a suite at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, Mr. Lindell appeared briefly from a distance. Shortly after, the group met again at a distillery in Austin, Texas, according to two people who attended the meeting.
The host of this session was Phil Waldron, a retired army colonel and one of the leading proponents of a hacking theory involving communists, shell corporations and George Soros, the Democratic financier. Mr. Waldron is perhaps best known for circulating a PowerPoint presentation that recommended Mr. Trump declare a national emergency to delay certification of the 2020 results. The document made its way to the chief executive’s inbox. White House cabinet, Mark Meadows, and is now part of congressional investigation in the deadly riot at the Capitol on January 6.
The group has released a platform that calls for a switch to paper ballots, the elimination of mail-in voting and the “aggressive cleanup of voter rolls”.
For several months, the hard core has been recruiting new candidates. About 25 people, including some of the candidates and people seeking to influence them, join the weekly conference calls, according to some of the candidates who have been recruited. The group discusses campaigns and policy ideas, including how to move to manual counting of all ballots – a notion that election experts say is impractical and can lead to mistakes and cause chaos.
“It’s surprising to have statewide candidates, multiple candidates for a very important statewide position, running on a deeply inconsistent policy,” said Mark Lindeman, a election expert at Verified Voting, a nonprofit election security organization.
Mr. Byrne, who has spent millions on the discredited “Audit” of votes in Arizona, was particularly interested in the sponsorship of public forums. He pledged to spend up to $15,000 on each event and donated about $83,000 to a political action committee controlled by Mr. Marchant.
In an interview, Mr Byrne said he was primarily interested in spreading ideas about “election integrity and how it needs to be fixed” rather than promoting specific candidates for election.
“I see them as gatherings of very concerned citizens,” Mr Byrne said.
At a forum in Dallas, speakers gave lectures meant to demonstrate the weaknesses of the US voting systems. Some have issued dire warnings about the forces they believe are manipulating the system, including Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Soros, Democrats, Communists and establishment Republicans.
“They’ve taken the ability to cheat globally,” said Lara Logan, a former CBS reporter who hosted the event.
Tina Peters, an America First contestant in Colorado, attacked the “mean, nasty people” she faces. Ms Peters, a Colorado county clerk, is facing arraignment related to allegations she tampered with election materials, and a judge barred her from overseeing this year’s election.
Ms. Peters and her attorney did not respond to a request for comment. His campaign said his legal troubles amounted to a political witch hunt.
Other speakers included Russell J. Ramsland Jr., a Texas businessman whose company produced a widely circulated report that Mr. Trump and his associates presented as evidence of fraud. The report, which focused on results in a Michigan county, was later debunked by state Senate Republicans.
Mark Cook, a technology consultant who worked for Mr Lindell, also spoke to the group, telling them that “this system is controlling our freedom”.
In a statement to The New York Times, Mr Cook said he hoped his work would “make our electoral system more accurate, more transparent and more understandable to the public”.
Mr Lindell told The Times he got involved because he believed ‘most’ secretaries of state were corrupt and should all be replaced.
“They let our country be taken over by computers,” he said.
Some of the candidates aired similar ideas during the election campaign. In Nevada, Mr. Marchant has called for the Dominion’s voting machines to be decertified and urges the use of paper ballots in a state that began allowing vote-counting machines in 1951. “Your vote has no not counted for decades,” Mr. Marchant said. during a debate in February, according to the Nevada Independent. “You didn’t elect anyone.
In a Facebook interview in March, Ms. Trujillo, the candidate from New Mexico, claimed that US voting systems “are no better than any other communist country like Venezuela or any of these other states where our elections are manipulated. She called the 2020 presidential election a “coup”.
And in Arizona, Mr. Finchem filed suit in an attempt to ban the use of voting machines in the November election. Mr. Lindell says he is funding the lawsuit.
Mr. Marchant, Ms. Trujillo and Mr. Finchem did not respond to requests for comment.
Alyce McFadden contributed to the reports and Alain Delaqueriere contributed to the research.