Key Tactic In Trumpian Election Subversion: Breaking Into Voting Machines To Find ‘Proof’

TPM Illustration/Getty Images

In the ongoing war on elections, a troubling tactic has emerged over the past two years: Attempts to gain unauthorized access to election systems, including by attempting to strong-arm local officials into granting access to voting machines. 

Election conspiracy theorists and those who believe them, seeking to substantiate Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election, have in some cases taken matters into their own hands.

Now, well over a year after President Biden was sworn in and with the 2022 midterms on the horizon, there’s no sign that prominent Republican officials will stop lying about elections, forming the basis for yet more attempts to subvert democracy and steal power. 

But to do that, they need grist — fake “evidence” to fuel a modern propaganda effort of massive proportions. And for that, right-wingers propping up the Big Lie have on several occasions engaged in alleged criminal, or borderline criminal, activity to access those machines. 

The most noted example of this is Tina Peters, the leading Republican contender to be Colorado’s next secretary of state. As clerk of Mesa County, Colorado, Peters has been accused in a Colorado grand jury indictment of conspiring to bypass her office’s security protocols, including by allegedly stealing a local resident’s identity, resulting in a leak of election data that was later publicized by the QAnon conspiracy theorist Ron Watkins and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. 

Reuters on Thursday published a story detailing several more troubling examples of this dynamic. See if you can detect the pattern: 

Kiowa, Colorado

Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder was seen on surveillance video last August “fiddling with cables and typing on his phone as he copied computer drives containing sensitive voting information,” Reuters reported.

Schroeder has acknowledged publicly that he was making copies of the system’s data, which he subsequently passed on to others. He’s also acknowledged that he received outside guidance from Shawn Smith and Mark Cook, both tied to Lindell.

Dobson, North Carolina

Last month in North Carolina, as Reuters first reported, Surry County Republican Party Chair William Keith Senter threatened to have the county’s elections director, Michella Huff, fired if she did not grant him and another man access to the county’s voting machines — in contravention of state law limiting who can access those machines.

The other man with Senter was Douglas Frank, a prominent Big Lie conspiracy theorist whose central assertion amounts to “claiming that Usain Bolt was cheating because you’d averaged the results of five of his races and discovered that all of his results were close to that average,” as the Washington Post explained.

“I can’t wait to watch you fall,” Senter told Huff at one point, Reuters reported. 

Cross Village Township, Michigan

In Cross Village Township, Michigan, Tera Jackson faced felony charges — but ultimately pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor — after she attempted to make a copy of the township’s vote tabulator, in part by claiming to be from the “Election Integrity Commission.”

The story is insane: Jackson assembled a posse of three men — a local computer technician, a township trustee, and a former law enforcement officer armed with a firearm and a bulletproof vest. The trio went to the clerk’s office and were able to talk their way into accessing a ballot tabulator. A responding sheriff’s deputy arrived at the scene to find the tabulator open, with an internal computer removed and screws stripped.

“Is this a legit thing?” video showed the township clerk asking the men as she granted them access to the machine. The trio apparently thought so, later claiming that they’d been duped by Jackson.

It took months for authorities to act on an arrest warrant for Jackson, whose location was unknown. 

Adams Township, Michigan

In Adams Township, Michigan, Clerk Stephanie Scott was stripped of her duties in October after refusing to perform required maintenance on an election machine, fearing it would destroy “proof” of… something.

When county officials confiscated the town’s tabulator, they discovered it was missing a key component. An investigation is ongoing. 

This Is Just The Start!

Across the country, TPM reporting has shown multiple shady efforts around local election machines, as well as efforts to dress up meaningless internet data as nefarious-looking digital fodder.

In Michigan, right-wing Sheriff Dar Leaf had a deputy and a private investigator go from township to township, grilling local clerks on their procedures based on second-hand information that Leaf said originated with… Mike Lindell. The private investigator, according to one local report, was recommended by Stefanie Lambert Junttila, one of several attorneys sanctioned by a district judge for their work attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Lambert Junttila is also representing Stephanie Scott, mentioned above. 

One early and crucial example of this dynamic came in Antrim County, Michigan, in the days after the 2020 election, when ex-Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne flew a gaggle of operatives into the area on a private jet. The operatives managed to take pictures of vote tabulations, which were used to win a judge’s order allowing them access to election machines. Those digital images were supposed to stay with the parties of the lawsuit but they eventually showed up at the August “Cyber Symposium” on election fraud hosted by… Mike Lindell. 

In fact, Lindell frequently pops up in these stories: He’s an active supporter of Tina Peters — the data from Peters’ office was also shared at Lindell’s symposium, and Lindell later claimed then denied that he was funding Peters’ legal defense. Lindell has also hired several members of the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, an influential Colorado group that aggressively lobbied clerks across Colorado, including Schroeder, to look into lies about voter fraud. Shawn Smith, a leader in the group, has accused Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold of criminal conduct. 

“If you’re involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang,” Smith said in February. 

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