Conservative activists striving to prove the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” still believe an obscure Northern Michigan community holds the key to unraveling an international conspiracy.
An election night error in Antrim County – which temporarily showed Donald Trump losing the historically Republican county – continues to fuel unproven allegation of voter fraud eight months later. This weekend, promoters of fraud claims and QAnon conspiracy theories are holding a summit in Antrim County to share ‘evidence’ amid a national push for forensic audits of voting machines and ballots across the United States.
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is the scheduled keynote speaker for Saturday’s event at Friske’s Farm Market in Ellsworth. Lindell, who faces a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit over his claims of rigged election machines, recently predicted Trump will be reinstated as president in August.
There is no legal mechanism to reverse President Joe Biden’s victory. John Pirich, a retired attorney who represented Trump in a 2016 election lawsuit, said there’s zero chance Trump will be reinstated. The Michigan Bureau of Elections conducted statewide audits already and released a report in April. Michigan’s certified results show Biden won the state by 154,000 votes, a difference of 3 percentage points.
“It’s just spinning a fairy tale out of an event that is over with and done with,” Pirich said.
The campaign is doomed to fail but appears to have a political function: keeping Trump supporters fired up in the lead up to 2022 elections.
Allegations of voter fraud are often repeated at rallies attended by Republicans running for governor and state offices. Staunch Trump supporters in the GOP are trying to purge Republicans who appear disloyal to the former president.
“I think it speaks to the fact that the debate inside the Republican Party isn’t over,” said David Dulio, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University. “It does keep the base engaged, but it does so in a way that keeps them tied to Trump.”
The efforts have some support among elected officials and GOP insiders. Marian Sheridan, grassroots vice-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, encouraged supporters to sign affidavits demanding a statewide “audit.”
Affidavit forms circulating online are addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who has said there is no evidence that widespread fraud changed the election’s outcome. This week, a Senate committee advanced “election integrity” bills aimed at restoring trust after the contentious election.
In Antrim County, human error caused an inaccurate unofficial count before being fixed in the official results. Trump was initially reported to have lost in Antrim County, but final results show he won there with 9,748 votes to Biden’s 5,960.
A detailed analysis by J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor and co-chair of Michigan’s Election Security Advisory Commission, found votes were miscounted due to the mishandling of last-minute ballot design changes. County staff neglected to remove bad data before publishing updated results on Nov. 5, causing another round of reporting errors that were corrected in the final results.
“Although vulnerabilities in election technology are well documented, the Antrim County incident was not caused by a security breach,” Halderman wrote. “There is also no credible evidence that it was caused deliberately.”
Trump and his allies seized on the mistakes, arguing it showed votes were purposefully miscounted. A hand recount, official statewide audits and Halderman’s 54-page analysis explained the mistakes and reaffirmed the results, but Antrim County is still tied to stolen election theories.
Trump touted a lawsuit filed by Portage Attorney Matthew DePerno, which sought to force a new audit of the Antrim County results. The former president issued a statement last month touting “bombshell” findings in the case, but it was dismissed one week later.
Judge Kevin Elsenheimer, a former Republican state lawmaker, ruled that a statewide post-election audit completed by the Michigan Secretary of State satisfies a state law that allows voters to request audits. Elsenheimer determined there is no legal right to the kind of audit sought in the lawsuit.
The ruling ends one of the last legal challenges to the presidential election.
So why is Antrim County still so important? Patrick Colbeck, a former state lawmaker who has spent months promoting various allegations, argues proving fraud in Antrim County would unravel a plot to deny Trump a second term.
Standing on a float bearing Trump’s name in large letters, Colbeck told a crowd in May that the election was a “coup.” Colbeck called Biden an “illegitimate” president.
“If Antrim County unpeels and gets decertified, and we see the same things happening in Antrim County in all the other counties in the state of Michigan, that means that the entire election in Michigan should be decertified,” Colbeck said. “If you see the same things happening in Michigan in Georgia and Pennsylvania and Arizona, then guess what, those elections should be decertified as well. Guys, do not give up hope.”
Dominion Voting Systems sent Colbeck a letter in April demanding that he retract false claims about their election machines. Attorneys from Dominion claimed Colbeck solicited $1 million through his “disinformation campaign.”
Dulio, the political science professor, said Antrim County remains relevant because it seems like “low hanging fruit” for people who want to believe the election was stolen.
“I think it’s easy to point to that and to try to use it as a way to continue that story,” Dulio said.
Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science who studies public opinion and elections at the University of Michigan, said election fraud narratives persist because they’re reinforced by elected officials.
“They are in fact being responsive to a constituency, so they are giving voice to a point of view which they know runs counter to reality, but they’re doing it because there’s an audience for it,” Hutchings said. “It’s a reflection of what’s going on nationally, there is a constituency for this big lie.”
Trump’s supporters are pushing for review of voting machines and ballots across the country inspired by an audit in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Arizona’s Republican-controlled state Senate hired four firms to conduct another audit of the county.
Trump called for the Republican-majority state Senate in Pennsylvania to do the same. However, Democrats have said the audits will only serve to sow misinformation.
Pirich called the audits “nothing more than a publicity stunt.”
“The people who are doing them don’t have the qualifications, the expertise, the background or the experience,” he said. “They’re looking to slant things. The reality is, the election is over.”
Commissioners in Antrim and Cheboygan counties — which both overwhelmingly voted for Trump — have debated the merits of ordering additional audits. The Michigan Bureau of Elections sent letters to both counties saying they can’t order “forensic audits” of voting machines.
Last month, the Antrim County Board of Commissioners voted 5-4 against conducting a “full complete forensic audit” of the 2020 election. Commissioner Dawn LaVanway, who introduced the motion, acknowledged that the board lacks the ability to order a forensic audit but said the motion was in response to constituent concerns.
LaVanway has shared posts from Colbeck’s blog on social media and promoted a fundraiser for DePerno’s lawsuit last December. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Commissioner Karen Bargy argued it’s disingenuous to ask for an audit if it’s not within the board’s power. Bargy said it “adds to the confusion” surrounding what happened in Antrim County.
Antrim County residents debated the election during the public comment portion of recent board meetings. Speakers at a May 6 meeting alternated between residents who expressed concern about election lies and others who called for the county clerk’s resignation.
Antrim County Board Chair Terry VanAlstine, who voted against conducting a forensic audit, declined to talk about how the election controversy has affected the community.
Local clerks from at least four townships in the county wrote letters to the board asking commissioners not to give into “conspiracy theories” about Dominion Voting Systems.
Lou McKinney, an Antrim County resident who did not vote for Trump, said she’s worried that Dominion will sue the county.
“There are a lot of us that are pretty frustrated that we are in the spotlight for something that didn’t happen,” she said in an interview.
McKinney was among a group of residents who asked the board to ignore calls for more audits. She said Antrim County has become a hotbed for QAnon conspiracies and extremist groups.
The Michigan Conservative Coalition organized a rally outside the Antrim County administrative building on the eve of Elsenheimer’s ruling. Randy Bishop, chairman of the Antrim County Conservative Union, posted a photo of the crowd, which showed several men wearing Proud Boys attire.
Leaders of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, are facing federal charges for allegedly planning the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C.
The guest list for the June 5 event in Antrim County includes a slew of right-wing figures known for making inaccurate and controversial claims.
Michigan conservative groups are advertising the event online, encouraging people to “make the pilgrimage to ground zero” of the supposed election conspiracy. Tickets were sold for $20 to support DePerno’s legal fund.
DePerno announced Wednesday that he will not participate “due to the new focus of this event.” DePerno’s statement, published to his social media account and website, did not provide any specific details about how the event changed. He did not respond to a voicemail left by MLive.
DePerno’s statement came after the guest list was expanded to include right-wing commentators like Vandersteel.
Vandersteel has discussed the possibility of a second Civil War on her blog. In a blog post published a week after Biden was inaugurated, she wrote that Trump is a “wartime president.”
“Concession is not an option as the blood will be shed either way,” Vandersteel wrote. “The Patriots are ready to fight to defend this Republic and sadly with a concession it will be at the hand of our own military.”
The event will also feature Melissa Carone, who was called as a witness by Rudy Guiliani during a state oversight committee hearing and is running for a state House seat; Kristina Karamo, a poll challenger in Detroit who is running as a Republican for secretary of state; and Joe Flynn, the brother of Trump’s first national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Hutchings, a political science professor, said it’s probably too late to convince many Trump supporters who still believe the election was unfair. The issue will likely shape Republican primary races in upcoming elections, he said.
“People in general, Americans or otherwise, are surprisingly adept at convincing themselves that two plus two equals five,” Hutchings said.
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