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Election deniers have taken their fraud theories on tour — to nearly every state

Even as the Jan. 6 hearings play out, election misinformation keeps spreading. NPR tracked four leaders preaching false information about election fraud at hundreds of grassroots events nationwide.

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Seth Keshel speaks at a New Hampshire election security seminar presented by the New Hampshire Voter Integrity Group in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 19, 2021. Seth Keshel, a retired U.S. Army captain, has worked to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Seth Keshel speaks at a New Hampshire election security seminar presented by the New Hampshire Voter Integrity Group in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 19, 2021. Seth Keshel, a retired U.S. Army captain, has worked to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election. Brian Snyder | Reuters

Editor's Note: Since this story's publication, NPR has updated the data accompanying this story to more accurately reflect the number of election-related events at which each influencer appeared.


On a quiet Tuesday night in Howard County, Md., dozens of people gather in a community center and listen to Seth Keshel's 10-point plan.

"Captain K," as he's known in election fraud circles, is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, and he is walking through his go-to presentation: comparisons of vote totals from the past few election cycles, which he falsely claims prove President Biden's win in 2020 was illegitimate. His 10-point plan to "true election integrity" includes banning all early voting and requiring all American voters to re-register.

The next night, more than a thousand miles away in Minneapolis, in a small building across from a popular garden shop, roughly 60 people wait for David Clements to take the stage.

Clements, professorial in a tan blazer with a graying beard and unruly curly hair, begins his presentation with a prayer. Then he goes to the slideshow.

The audience, which appears to be all white and mostly middle-aged, occasionally gasps as he shows charts and graphs, which he claims contain evidence of widespread election fraud.

Clements ends his talk with a request to the people in the audience: Go to the offices of your local officials.

"They respond to fear," he says. "You need to hold these institutions with the contempt they deserve."

An NPR investigation found that since Jan. 6, 2021, the election denial movement has moved from Donald Trump's tweets to hundreds of community events like these — in restaurants, car dealerships and churches — led by a core group of election conspiracy influencers like Keshel and Clements.

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These local gatherings may reach fewer people than viral internet posts, but they seem to effectively spur action by regular people, who are motivated by their almost evangelical intimacy.

"It's this constellation of election conspiracy theorists," said Chris Krebs, a former Department of Homeland Security official who oversaw the federal government's election security efforts in 2020. "You can see the complexion of local politics shifting as a result. They have decentralized post-January 6th and are really trying to effect change at the lowest-possible level."

NPR monitored the election-denial influencers through events advertised on their public social media accounts, the websites and social media accounts of local organizations, events NPR attended, video footage and news reports over the past 18 months. Four prominent purveyors of voting misinformation stood out, crisscrossing the country to appear at at least 308 events in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

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NPR tracked Keshel and Clements, as well as Douglas Frank, who misleadingly claims to have discovered a secret algorithm that swings vote totals across the U.S. (his methodology has been widely debunked by voting experts), and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

The scale of their movements paints a portrait of an election denial movement that has evolved into a nationwide force, beyond just swing states — and despite the Jan. 6 Committee's investigation and efforts by voting officials at every level to combat disinformation. NPR's investigation is the first such effort to document the scope of these influencers.

"It's an existential threat to American democracy," said Franita Tolson, an elections expert at the University of Southern California. "If the numbers get big enough, it's unclear whether we will survive it."

The chain reaction

Carly Koppes, who runs elections in Weld County, Colo., says she noticed a tone shift in her county after Douglas Frank came to town.

She's reading over an email that just came in from one of her voters.

"Traitors will be exposed. These guys are going down and you have no chance..." She trails off as she scans. "You deserve everything coming your direction."

The Republican county clerk takes a long sigh.

Last summer, a group of suspicious citizens here knocked on thousands of doors looking to uncover evidence of election fraud.

"It started because of Dr. Frank and his really bad data analysis," Koppes said. "Him and his people, unfortunately, just don't know how to read election records correctly."

Douglas Frank, a former high school math and science teacher from Ohio, gives a presentation to about 100 people in the Missouri Capitol rotunda on his theories about election fraud, on Jan. 6, in Jefferson City, Mo. Frank, whose ideas have been debunked, claims to have discovered secret algorithms that were used to rig the 2020 election in favor of President Biden.
Douglas Frank, a former high school math and science teacher from Ohio, gives a presentation to about 100 people in the Missouri Capitol rotunda on his theories about election fraud, on Jan. 6, in Jefferson City, Mo. Frank, whose ideas have been debunked, claims to have discovered secret algorithms that were used to rig the 2020 election in favor of President Biden. David Carson | St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

In his former life, Frank was a high school math and science teacher in Ohio. He's moved now into touring the country spreading election fraud conspiracies full time.

He, and the other three men whose movements NPR documented, either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment for this story.

In the visit Koppes mentioned, on April 24, 2021, Frank held court in a DoubleTree hotel conference room near Denver. Dozens of people cheered as Frank pointed at graphs that he claimed showed how the 2020 election was marred by fraud (something that's been debunked many times by hand counts, audits and investigative reports across the country).

"Go knock on some doors!" Frank implored.

And many people in this Colorado community listened.

A group popped up there, dedicated to this sort of fraud-motivated canvassing, and they devoted their organizing playbook to Frank.

Jim Gilchrist, a doctor of holistic medicine in Colorado, saw an online posting of Frank's talk and volunteered to canvass with the group. He estimates he spent more than 20 hours last summer knocking on doors.

"I just kind of wished there was some mechanism for there to be a more transparent kind of way of making sure the vote was counted correctly," Gilchrist said in an interview with NPR. "Douglas Frank kind of offered a solution that we could do as citizens."

Influencing policymakers

The election denialists also frequently bump elbows with people in power.

NPR found that over the past year and a half, the men met or appeared with at least 78 elected officials at the federal, state and local levels — many of whom will have a role in how future elections are run and certified.

At least two secretaries of state, two U.S. senators, 10 U.S. representatives, two state attorneys general and two lieutenant governors met or appeared with the figures NPR tracked. More than three dozen members of state legislatures, many of whom have introduced legislation in their states that would affect how Americans cast ballots, have also appeared at events with them.

"Our voices have gotten bigger and bigger every single day since last year and you cannot stop that," said Mike Lindell, at a rally in January of 2022 attended by three members of Arizona's congressional delegation, Debbie Lesko, Andy Biggs, and Paul Gosar, all of whom voted not to certify Arizona's election results at the U.S. Capitol a year earlier. "We will get our country back."

Mike Lindell, political activist and CEO of MyPillow, speaks during a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23 in Delaware, Ohio.
Mike Lindell, political activist and CEO of MyPillow, speaks during a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23 in Delaware, Ohio. Drew Angerer | Getty Images

In some cases, the election denial influencers worked to persuade skeptical officials to embrace their claims.

In May 2021, Frank met with staff from the Ohio secretary of state's office for more than two hours.

NPR acquired audio of the meeting, which was first reported by The Washington Post, through a public records request.

The staffers in the meeting pushed back on Frank's many fraud accusations, and at one point he responded by threatening to send unauthorized people, or "plants" as he put it, into local voting offices.

"We have plants everywhere that go into buildings when your machines are on and capture your IP addresses. We have those, not necessarily in Ohio but we can arrange for that," Frank said, his voice rising. "So all I'm trying to point out to you is that this is coming. Be ready. And I'm not trying to fight you — do you see that I'm trying to help you?"

The staffers in that meeting didn't budge. But shortly after that meeting, someone did attempt to breach an elections network in Lake County, Ohio, though a state official told NPR that no sensitive data was ultimately accessed.

The four election denialists also appeared with well over 100 candidates for local, state and federal office in the 2022 primaries. Some, including U.S. Rep. Mary Miller of Illinois and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is running to be governor of Pennsylvania, have already won their party's nomination for the general election.

A fraud evolution

The highest profile of the group that NPR tracked is MyPillow CEO Lindell, a prominent and longtime Trump supporter.

Lindell says he has spent millions of dollars on his crusade, which started almost as soon as ballots were cast on Nov. 3, 2020. Sometime around March of 2021, he brought Frank into the fold and Frank's popularity skyrocketed.

"I went from being completely mum to suddenly 10 million people knowing me in about a week," he told a group in Utah last July.

David Clements talks to audience members after speaking to the Surry County board of commissioners during a presentation by several individuals that aimed to cast doubt on election integrity, urging the commission to replace existing voting machines with purely paper ballots in Dobson, N.C., on May 16.
David Clements talks to audience members after speaking to the Surry County board of commissioners during a presentation by several individuals that aimed to cast doubt on election integrity, urging the commission to replace existing voting machines with purely paper ballots in Dobson, N.C., on May 16. Jonathan Drake | Reuters

Frank often speaks at events with Keshel and Clements. Clements is a lawyer and former professor at the New Mexico State University business school who was fired for not complying with the school's COVID-19 policies. Keshel is a retired Army captain and veteran of Afghanistan.

While those in the group often repeat talking points and appear together, they don't necessarily coordinate appearances or strategy. And other than Lindell, they were mostly unknown before 2020. Now they're influencers in the movement with online followings of hundreds of thousands of people. They even promote merchandise like T-shirts, books and body lotions, along with their election misinformation.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, says they're using election fraud as a vehicle to advance themselves.

"There's no shortage of ability to access the truth about our election system, yet there seems to be a proliferation of people willing to lie about it," Benson said. "I think it's logical to conclude that they know better. And that they're knowingly spreading misinformation ... to win elections, to raise money, to gain attention and celebrity."

Benson says her office has seen a direct correlation between election denier events in Michigan and a rise in harassment toward voting officials.

"Whenever there is an appearance in which the former president or Lindell or others come out attacking our system we know to expect an uptick in threats and add additional security as a result," she said.

But she, and the thousands of other Americans in charge of elections nationwide, have yet to figure out a truly effective way to fight back and break through to the two-thirds of Republican voters who believe voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.

That's because election denialism has grown from a political movement into something almost religious, said Koppes, the Republican county clerk in Colorado.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer as he speaks at a Save America Rally in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15. Mike Lindell and three Arizona lawmakers — Debbie Lesko, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar — also attended the event.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer as he speaks at a Save America Rally in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15. Mike Lindell and three Arizona lawmakers — Debbie Lesko, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar — also attended the event. Ross D. Franklin | AP

"There's just so much that is incorrect that they just keep repeating and repeating and repeating," Koppes said. "And then as soon as I have absolutely blocked off that path with actual correct information, then they just move that goal post. And they keep just moving the goal posts. And moving the goal posts."

Between conversations with voters and research on all the separate false claims that have popped up over the past two years, she estimates she's spent thousands of hours dealing with the fallout of Donald Trump's misinformation campaign.

At this point, she says she's had to stop engaging with voters who are unwilling to listen to her.

"Some of these people really, truly believe they're doing the Lord's work," Koppes said. "But I think at the end of the day, they so desperately want to believe what they're being fed, that they're using all means to justify what they're doing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

While the January 6 committee continues to debunk claims of fraud in the 2020 elections, the lie continues to spread. NPR's investigations team tracked the grassroots effort that has been circulating false information since the attack on the Capitol. NPR's voting correspondent Miles Parks has more.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Carly Koppes runs elections in Weld County, Colo. On a recent Wednesday morning, she's reading through her email.

CARLY KOPPES: (Reading) Traitors will be exposed. These guys are going down, and you have no chance.

PARKS: Over the past year and a half, she's gotten more and more messages like that, accusing her and her colleagues of election fraud.

KOPPES: (Reading) You deserve everything coming your direction. Bless the Lord and glory to God. Isaiah 45:7 (laughter).

PARKS: A big part of that tone shift can be traced back to April of 2021, Koppes said, when a guy named Douglas Frank came to town with a presentation on election fraud.

KOPPES: It started because of, you know, Dr. Frank and his really bad data analysis. Him and his people, unfortunately, just don't know how to read election records correctly (laughter).

PARKS: Frank is a high school math and science teacher from Ohio, who's taken his election conspiracies on tour full time.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKS: When he came to Colorado, Frank took over a hotel conference room. He gave a presentation to dozens of people, including the Republican activist who posted this video of the event on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, Boulder.

PARKS: He's pointing at a PowerPoint with charts and graphs and making a well-worn claim among election deniers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUGLAS FRANK: And up here too, up here too, right in here...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yep.

FRANK: ...You've got more people voting than you have people.

PARKS: You have more people voting than you have people, he says. That's a common election fraud myth that comes from mixing up population and voting data. And it's been debunked numerous times, including recently by a Republican-led oversight committee in Michigan. Over the past two years, the election denial movement has moved from Donald Trump's tweets to community events like that one, led by a core group of election denial influencers. An NPR investigation tracking them over the last 18 months found four in particular, with large followings, who travel widely - Douglas Frank...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK: You know, I didn't serve in the military. I didn't serve my country in that way. And so this is my tour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whoo-hoo.

PARKS: ...Mike Lindell of MyPillow fame...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE LINDELL: Now that I know we have that big of an audience, I should start talking about the election crimes, right (laughter)?

PARKS: ...Retired Army Captain Seth Keshel...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SETH KESHEL: We have a real pandemic in this country, and it is called chronic electile (ph) dysfunction.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKS: ...And former law professor David Clements.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID CLEMENTS: This is a spiritual battle. And last point, it's the machines. It's the machines. It's the machines.

PARKS: The four either declined our request for comment or didn't respond, but we tracked their movements using social media and news reports and found that since last year's attack on the U.S. Capitol, they've appeared at at least 308 events in 45 states and D.C. The group know each other and often repeat each other's talking points, but they don't necessarily coordinate their efforts. Our investigation found that the scale and reach of the election denial movement has grown into a nationwide force beyond swing states and despite the January 6 committee's investigation and efforts to fight disinformation. Chris Krebs oversaw election security efforts at the Department of Homeland Security through the 2020 election. He says there's been a noticeable shift in strategy.

CHRIS KREBS: It's this constellation of election conspiracy theorists. Rather than going at the national level, they have kind of decentralized post January 6 and really trying to effect change at the lowest possible level.

PARKS: But they also seem to spur action by regular people, who are inspired by their almost evangelical intimacy. Here's Clements at an election integrity event in a church gymnasium in Idaho.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLEMENTS: Let's say a prayer. Let's repent. Let's have an accounting for why we got into this mess.

PARKS: In Colorado, there's been a clear chain reaction since Doug Frank's visit. Take Jim Gilchrist. He's a doctor of holistic medicine in Pueblo County, Colo. He already had doubts about the 2020 election and was looking for ways to get involved when he stumbled across one of Frank's videos.

JIM GILCHRIST: I just kind of wish that there was some way of making sure the vote was counted correctly. And so Douglas Frank kind of offered a solution that we could do as citizens.

PARKS: Inspired, he started volunteering with a canvassing group, and he says he spent more than 20 hours knocking on doors in Colorado last summer. And this kind of canvassing for fraud has popped up in a number of other states as well. But the leaders of this movement don't only target regular people. NPR found that over the past 18 months, the four election denial influencers either met or appeared with at least 78 federal, state and local elected officials, many of whom will have a role in how future elections are run and certified. Here's Mike Lindell at a rally in Arizona that was attended by at least three sitting members of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDELL: Our voice has gotten bigger and bigger every single day since last year, and you can't stop that. So we will get our country back, and God bless America.

PARKS: The men also worked to persuade officials to embrace voting misinformation, like one meeting last spring between Frank and staff from the Ohio secretary of state's office. Through a public records request, NPR acquired audio of the meeting, which lasted more than 2 hours. The staffers pushed back on Frank's many fraud accusations, and at one point, he responded by threatening to send unauthorized people or, as he put it, plants, into election offices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK: We have plants everywhere that go into buildings when your machines are on and capture your IP addresses. We have those, not necessarily in Ohio, but we can arrange for that. So what - all I'm trying to point out to you is that this is coming. Be ready. And I'm not trying to fight you. Do you see that I'm trying to help you?

PARKS: The staffers in that room didn't budge. But shortly after that meeting, someone did attempt to breach an Ohio county's election network, though officials say no sensitive data was accessed. It's been a rapid rise in prominence for a group who've become influencers of a sort. They've even got merch promoting products - body lotions, T-shirts and the ubiquitous MyPillow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here's two pillows and some sheets because you're going to need them to sleep at all yourself...

PARKS: The events almost always include instructions, too. At one David Clements event NPR attended, he ended his presentation by begging people to show up at the offices of their county commissioners. They respond to fear, he told them. And, maybe predictably, election officials have felt a ripple effect from messages like that. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says her office has seen a direct correlation between election denier events and harassment.

JOCELYN BENSON: Whenever there is an appearance in which the former president or Lindell or others come out attacking our system, we know to expect an uptick in threats and add additional security as a result.

PARKS: The people in charge of America's elections have not figured out a perfect way to fight back. But Franita Tolson, an elections expert at the University of Southern California, says she and Americans everywhere need to keep trying because at each one of these events, the election denial movement pushes the U.S. closer to the brink.

FRANITA TOLSON: I think it's a existential threat to American democracy.

PARKS: Tolson describes herself as an optimist, but she says democracy's survival isn't inevitable.

TOLSON: That's never been the case. It's always been the case for over 200 years that people have fought for this, and we just have to continue fighting.

PARKS: Ahead of the midterm elections, it's a fight that's moved out of the limelight and into hotel conference rooms, car dealerships, backyards and church banquet halls all across the country. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.