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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, its 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 already facing threats and harassment.

Leah Feiger is @LeahFeiger. Tori Elliott is @Telliotter. David Gilbert is @DaithaiGilbert. Write to us at politicslab@wired.com. 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 Conde Nast.

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Transcript

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 hyper-local 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 wired.com. 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 Bob appear on the webinar. And for those who may not know who Christina Bob 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 Bob 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. Welcome back to WIRED Politics Lab. I’m Leah Feiger. Joining me in the studio is another writer from our politics team, Vittoria Elliott. Tori, welcome.

Vittoria Elliott: Hey, Leah. How you doing?

Leah Feiger: Great. Talk to us about the story you just published.

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah. So I think before we even start with that, we’re going to get a little bit nerdy and talk about what a FOIA is.

Leah Feiger: Love it. Let’s get there.

Vittoria Elliott: So a FOIA is a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s a letter or an email you can send to a public official to be like, “Hey, there’s government information on this. I would like it. Please send it to me, or tell me why you can’t.”

Leah Feiger: Journalists love a FOIA.

Vittoria Elliott: We do love a FOIA. We use them a lot. And FOIAs have been a really key way that election deniers have been overwhelming local government and election workers looking for instances of voter fraud. Sometimes they’re truly just digging for the same type of stuff that David highlighted in the first segment where they’re looking for names or looking for instances where ballots may have been miscounted or mishandled, and sometimes it really is just an effort to gum up the processes of government. But either way, this has been an ongoing thing and experts that I spoke to said they’re really concerned now about the addition of generative AI on top of this process.

Leah Feiger: There’s so much to unpack there. So after the 2020 election, Trump at all alleged that there had been massive voter fraud. Election deniers just started bombarding local election officials with FOIA requests.

Vittoria Elliott: Yes. And FOIAs are great, but government workers are legally mandated to respond to them within a certain amount of time. So they have this urgency to them.

Leah Feiger: Sure.

Vittoria Elliott: That can be really difficult if you’re trying to respond to a FOIA while you’re also trying to make sure an election runs smoothly.

Leah Feiger: Talk to me more about these election workers and their responsibilities here.

Vittoria Elliott: These are the people that say, “Make sure you get your mail-in ballot on time.”

Leah Feiger: Sure.

Vittoria Elliott: They’re the people who actually run the mechanics of an election. Oftentimes, they maintain a voter roll for their county or their precinct, and they’re the people who are making sure, again, that you get registered, that you can reach out to with any problems. They’re the people behind the system.

Leah Feiger: What does this all mean for 2024, and how does AI have anything to do with this?

Vittoria Elliott: Great question. Just like you can ask something like ChatGPT or Microsoft’s copilot to write you an English paper and it can spit something out for you in about a couple of seconds, you can also ask it to write a FOIA.

Leah Feiger: Dangerous or great.

Vittoria Elliott: Well, this is the problem. So when I spoke with David Levine, a former election worker, and now who’s advising elections for the German Marshall Fund, he told me that we could be looking at a really big problem.

David Levine: There have been election officials that have been overwhelmed with FOIA requests, and basically generative AI provides means by which to do it that is cheaper, faster, and easier to do. This is something that election officials have to be at least aware of and trying to plan for.

Leah Feiger: Okay. So you got to tell us you tried this out for yourself. You made a couple of FOIAs using AI.

Vittoria Elliott: I did. So I wanted to test what these chatbots would do when asked to generate a FOIA about instances of voter fraud. Google’s Gemini will not generate a FOIA for you.

Leah Feiger: Thank you, Google.

Vittoria Elliott: ChatGPT which is run by OpenAI will, so would Meta’s open source Llama 2. But I think the most interesting one was actually Microsoft’s Copilot, which responded to a very generic question with specific language that said, “Please return any instances of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election specifically.”

Leah Feiger: Yikes. Microsoft’s AI platform itself actually mentioned 2020 without you bringing it up?

Vittoria Elliott: Without me bringing it at all. I didn’t ask which election. So it could have been a state election, it could have been a local election, could have been a federal election. I didn’t say what kind of election. I didn’t say what year. I didn’t say anything.

David Gilbert: When I saw that, it was terrifying to me that it was so efficient and so well done. It was incredible. How is this issue going to be solved? Is it down to the platforms who allow people to use these chatbots, or is it going to be on the election official site? Will they going to have to implement some system where it allows them to detect if an AI is producing these FOIA requests.

Vittoria Elliott: It’s very difficult to tell when something has been generated by generative AI. There are attempts to regulate these things, and some companies do what’s called watermarking where it will tag an image or the product that’s generated so that another machine can recognize that it’s been generated by AI. So if you have sort of a machine that’s reading it’ll flag it. In text, something like FOIA that might mean using a word more frequently than it would show up in natural language, and that would alert a computer like, “Hey, this has been generated by a machine.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a human would be able to recognize that. And it also doesn’t mean that we have the technology on the government side to do that. I will say the law in Washington State, they had to change it to reroute requests to the Secretary of State’s office. They also changed the law to allow election workers to not fulfill FOIA requests that they are pretty convinced come from a bot or from a machine. But again, if you can’t tell, how can you make the legal case to not fulfill that FOIA?

Leah Feiger: Right. I want to talk a little bit about the people that are actually impacted by all of these FOIA requests, the election workers. They’re getting flooded with these requests and can’t do their jobs.

Vittoria Elliott: One expert, we spoke to Tammy Patrick, the CEO of the National Association for Election Officials said that she’s heard from election workers who are telling her, especially in smaller counties where there’s maybe only one or two people that they’re filling FOIA requests from nine to five. They’re not actually able to do their normal election duties until after work hours.

Leah Feiger: So much.

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah. It’s crazy and it’s an incredible burden on the system.

Leah Feiger: And it’s just one part of it. I mean, for years we’ve been seeing reports on election workers getting harassed, intimidated. David, you have a new piece out on how election workers are faring in 2024 already. Talk to us about it. Talk to us about everything else going on.

David Gilbert: I think one official summed it up by saying they’re exhausted. They’re kind of putting on a brave face and saying they’re going to be ready for 2024 just because that is what they have to do. Underneath that kind of bravado, there is definitely, when you speak to them, a sense that that last three years has been a huge, huge challenge. Everything stems obviously from the disinformation that we’ve seen around the 2020 vote and the direct impact of that is obviously the threats and the intimidation that these election officials have faced. But there’s indirect results as well. People’s health has suffered. People have resigned. They can’t fill positions. There’s been budget shortfalls because the money has had to go to secure election offices around the country. So I think overall, there’s been a huge impact on the election system in the US over
the last four years.

Vittoria Elliott: And in some cases, election workers themselves are in the positions of having to dispel disinformation in the course of their jobs, and they’re the front lines of debunking.

David Gilbert: Yeah. The election officials feel like they have to, or at least some election officials feel it’s their job to meet us head on. I spoke to Stephen Richer in Arizona who’s one of the most prominent people doing this, who uses his Twitter quite a lot to debunk information. Some of his tweets have gone viral, but lots of them haven’t and a lot of it is just consistent day after day shooting down complete lies about how the election system works, which is it must take a huge toll. He says himself, when he reads his replies to his messages, it just oppresses him about the state of the country and what people believe about elections today.

Leah Feiger: And the impact on him is undeniable. I mean, I have to read this quote from your interview with him. It’s right in front of me. He says, “Our main facility is a fortress now. We have gates up around the clock. We have badge access around the clock. We have general security outside of our facility. And because we have an election going on right now, we have additional security, additional barriers, additional patrols.” This is from the primary, right?

David Gilbert: Yeah. This isn’t even the actual election. This is from the Arizona primary. So it’s quite incredible talking to these people. They talk in sometimes militarized terms about what their elections look like now. And that’s just such an incredible way to think about what is the basis of any democracy. And it’s incredible how quickly it’s got to this point.

Leah Feiger: It’s terrifying. Are election officials worried this is going to continue getting worse this year?

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah. And they’re leaving their jobs? A really interesting report that just came out this week from the Bipartisan Policy Center actually found that basically since 2020, there’s been a near 40% turnover rate. That is so much in election officials. And just for comparison because I have the chart here. In 2012, that was 28%. So they’ve seen more turnover than historically we’ve ever seen. So that means that you’re going to have new people in these jobs. Hopefully they get filled. They’re going to have new people in these jobs who are dealing with all the pressures that David and I have looked at in a really important election year.

David Gilbert: I think that institutional knowledge part of it is something that, fair enough, someone leaves their job and can be replaced. And in some cases they have processes in place where they can quickly learn what to do. But in other states and other counties, because it’s different than every one, they don’t that. So I think the knock-on effect of this loss of institution knowledge won’t really be known until long after the 2024 vote.

Leah Feiger: How does this impact voters? What will this look like in November? What could this look like in November?

David Gilbert: While speaking to secretaries of state across the country for this piece, they were all very positive about how the vote would go. They said that despite everything, the institutions will remain and that the election will be run properly and run on time. And we saw in 2020, it was declared the most secure US election in history. So they’re backing up on that. But I think voters, it’s very hard to tell how they will feel about this election, whether the amount of disinformation, the amount of noise, the amount of hate that’s being spread will impact whether they think it’s worked voting. Will the people who have been listening to disinformation for the last four years think, “Well, what’s the point? Voting, it’s just going to be stolen anyway.” So they’ll stay at home. Which could backfire on the people who are actually spreading the disinformation.

Leah Feiger: We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about our favorite conspiracies of the week. Welcome, back. We spend a lot of time talking about conspiracies and disinformation at the WIRED Politics Desk, and we don’t always have time to get into all of it during the show, but for this segment, we will. Our guests are bringing conspiracies that they’ve been following all week, and I’ll be picking my favorite. Tori and David, are you ready?

Vittoria Elliott: I’m ready.

David Gilbert: I’m ready.

Vittoria Elliott: And I think David should go first.

David Gilbert: Okay. It’s an eclipse conspiracy.

Leah Feiger: Thank goodness.

David Gilbert: There are a lot to choose from. But during the eclipse, one of the major conspiracies relates to the fact that CERN’s large Hadron Collider which fires subatomic particles around a massive ring at near speed of light. That was going to be turned on at the exact same moment that the eclipse was going to happen, which—

Leah Feiger: Spooky.

David Gilbert: … you know that is, fair enough, interesting if you are—

Leah Feiger: Notable, at the very least.

David Gilbert: Yeah. So that was taken on and before the eclipse happened. It was like, “Oh, they’re going to open a portal to hell.” Because this was linked to-

Leah Feiger: Amazing.

David Gilbert: … an interesting fact that on the 8th of April, I think 1804, the occultist called Alastair Crowley, he’s an English occultist and writer. He is pretty famous in the conspiracy world.

Leah Feiger: Oh, yeah. He lived in New Orleans for a while.

David Gilbert: Yeah. So he made contact on the 8th of April in 1804 with a demonic entity called Aiwass or something like that. So people thought, obviously the large Hadron Collider is also going to make contact with a demonic entity called Aiwass. That didn’t happen, we don’t think. But what did happen, sadly, was the death of Peter Higgs. Peter Higgs is the scientist who the Higgs boson was named after. So he died at the same time as the eclipse happening. So obviously his death then was taken on by conspiracists to suggest that something nefarious was happening. I think it was summed up best by Biff Donne on Twitter who said, “God Particle,” which is the misleading name for the Higgs boson, especially because Peter Higgs is an atheist and hated the name God’s Particle. But anyway, “God Particle man of Higgs Boson dies during the eclipse as CERN fires back up. Is this suss enough for you? Yes?” So that tweet got 600-

Leah Feiger: Is it suss enough for you?

David Gilbert: 650,000 views on Twitter. So that’s my favorite conspiracy this week because it just shows that these guys just can make everything go on forever.

Leah Feiger: Tori, what do you got?

Vittoria Elliott: So mine isn’t super highly circulating, but I always am slightly entertained by the resurfacing of QAnon drops, which was-

Leah Feiger: Wait, those don’t happen anymore?

Vittoria Elliott: Well, they still recirculate on Telegram on the days.

Leah Feiger: Sure, sure.