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Election denialism has evolved into a sprawling nationwide force that's gone local

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right. For weeks now, we've been hearing from the January 6 committee about the efforts to subvert democracy using false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new NPR investigation that's out today explores how election denialism has evolved into a sprawling, nationwide movement.

MARTINEZ: NPR voting correspondent Miles Parks is here to discuss the new findings. So what'd you find, Miles?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: So we found a real shift, A. For most of 2020, misinformation about elections was really headquartered in Donald Trump's Twitter account. But now the baton has sort of been passed to this core group of what you might call election denial influencers. These are people who've spent the last 18 months building large followings, claiming things like they found formulas that show how the 2020 election was rigged and things like that. Of course, these sorts of claims have all been debunked many times by paper ballot hand counts, by audits, even by former President Donald Trump's own attorney general, Bill Barr. But still, these voter fraud evangelists have spent the last year and a half meeting with groups of concerned citizens in backyards, in hotel conference rooms, in car dealerships, all across the country spreading the gospel of voter fraud.

MARTINEZ: All right. So tell us about these people and where they've gone.

PARKS: They've really been everywhere. Our investigations team tracked them using social media data and local news reports to map this out. And we found a core group that appeared at more than 300 events across the country traveling to almost every single state. Here's sound of one of them, Seth Keshel.

SETH KESHEL: Now I will say this - I went to 46 states in 2021, most of them beginning in June when my Telegram channel took off. Somebody named Donald J. Trump put me out a few times and then things changed in my life.

PARKS: NPR also tracked MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, as well as two other election denial influencers named Douglas Frank and David Clements. Now, this would be one thing if these were just events to just keep the lie alive that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. But they're not. These events often end with actionable items, things like telling people to go knock on doors in their neighborhoods to find election fraud. An NPR editor attended one meeting with David Clements, where he told the audience to go to the offices of their county commissioners. They respond to fear, he told them.

MARTINEZ: Wow, respond to fear. Now, you also have found throughout their travels they met with a number of lawmakers. Tell us about that.

PARKS: Yeah. So we found that over this time, these 18 months, they met or appeared with at least 78 lawmakers at the federal, state and local level. Many of these people will have a role in how future elections are run and even certified. Some of these lawmakers were already sympathetic to these sorts of claims, but others were skeptical. It's clear that part of this strategy is to get an audience with people who decide how voting works. These people also met or appeared with more than 100 candidates who are running for election at some level of government this year.

It's worth noting, A, that this reporting really confirms what we've been seeing on the ground for the last two years, that this fervor about fraud in this portion of the right is not going away as we head into midterms, you know. And as I talked to local election officials, they're really struggling with how to counter. And I talked to the secretary of state of Michigan, for instance, who said that each time there's an election denial event in Michigan, her office receives an uptick in threats and harassment.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Miles Parks. You can hear more on this investigation tonight on All Things Considered. Miles, thanks a lot.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.