how-one-of-trump’s-loudest-voices-on-voter-fraud-is-splintering-idaho’s-gop

Last summer, Idaho officials received demand after demand to investigate extraordinary claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

In a state where former President Donald Trump won by more than 30 points, people claimed a vast conspiracy cheated the former president out of an even greater margin of victory. Almost all the emails referred to theories promoted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said. Lindell, people claimed, had proof of major malfeasance — if only someone would look into it.

By that point, Lindell, who rose to prominence on the right as a close Trump ally, was traveling the country promoting Trump’s stolen election lie and spending, he said in a recent interview, more than $30 million of his personal fortune trying to unearth fraud with the goal of eliminating the use of voting machines nationwide. He created a website outlining claims about each state, including a chart devoted to Idaho’s election results that Houck, a Republican, found concerning, even if the claims sounded unlikely.

With the backing of his boss, Republican Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, Houck embarked on an inquiry tailored to Lindell’s allegations  — which found them to be totally without merit.

“It used to be that we worried predominantly about counter information and disinformation, misinformation coming from China, Russia, Iran,” Houck said in an interview months after the investigation’s conclusion. “And now we have to add to that list concerns about disinformation that’s produced domestically. That’s very unfortunate.”

Image: Voters wait in a long line to vote in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 3, 2020.
Voters wait in a line to vote in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 3, 2020.Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman via AP file

Across the country, election officials have had to contend with a vocal election-denial movement that has targeted the results not only in places President Joe Biden narrowly won but in states and counties Trump carried overwhelmingly. As states like Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have or are conducting probes into the 2020 results, Idaho’s investigation was unusual, if not unique, in how it aimed to directly counter the claims of one of the movement’s most outsize figures. 

Yet Idaho’s work combatting Lindell only seems to have made supporters of his fraud narrative angrier, Houck said, and has set the stage for midterm battles along fault lines Republicans are contending with nationwide.

Houck had been running in the GOP primary for secretary of state — a contest that included multiple candidates willing to embrace the fraud claims pushed by Lindell, Trump and others — but withdrew in December.

“You’re starting to see it fracture the party into different schisms when you start defining the primary by whether or not 2020 was corrupt,” Houck said. “And when that’s a binary answer of yes or no that measures that, that’s problematic.”

Debunking Lindell’s claims

A chart on Lindell’s website — which does not make clear the origin of its data — claims Trump won Idaho by an additional 70,000 votes and that the count was electronically manipulated. An “analysis” claims that the vote total in each of Idaho’s 44 counties was off by about 8 percent.

Red flags about the validity of the chart were immediately obvious, Houck said. In Idaho, seven of the 44 counties do not even use electronic voting machines, so there were no machines to manipulate. 

Still, Houck’s office decided to manually count the ballots in two of Idaho’s smallest counties — Camas and Butte — as well as manually recount the ballots in eight of the 32 precincts in Bonner County, a medium-size locale in the state. Between the three counties, it found an error rate of roughly 0.1 percent. 

In January, the Republican state officials demanded Lindell remove the claims from his site in its cease and desist letter and demanded he pay the cost of the probe — about $6,500.

“Your chart is false,” the secretary of state and attorney general wrote in the letter.

The chart remains up Lindell’s website. In an interview with NBC News, Lindell made it clear he would not stop talking about Idaho’s election and said he was not persuaded by the secretary of state’s findings. Nor was he moved by the fact that seven of the counties do not use electronic voting machines. 

Saying Idahoans “should be in an uproar,” he claimed such manipulation could happen when the official tallies are uploaded online, while also floating, without citing proof, the possibility that the paper ballots might not be real.

“There’s so many variables you need to find out about and you don’t know,” Lindell said, arguing that the Idaho review was invalid. “Neither do I. I got better things to do than deal with some cease and desist from Idaho. I’m not going to cease and desist. I’m out here to help our country and it’s not going to happen.”

“If they got a couple of little counties where there were five people in the county and they know all five voted, good for them,” he added. “I’m telling you, they need to do a whole forensic audit of the whole state.”

Idaho is not the only state Trump overwhelmingly won that has had to debunk claims pushed by Lindell. In Oklahoma last fall, a state Trump won by more than 32 points, the state election board secretary, Paul Ziriax, a Republican, said in a letter to the state House and Senate that his investigation found Lindell’s claims about his state to be “entirely without merit.” 

In some cases, Idaho’s investigation seems to have made believers in Lindell’s claims more angry.

“We’ve received two types of responses back to the office,” Houck said. “One has been: ‘How dare you attack a patriot like Mike Lindell.’ On the flip side [others] said: ‘Thank you for standing up to Lindell’s narratives.’

“I’ve had counties that have had individuals come into county commissioner meetings and threatened the entire county commission that they were going to be unseated,” he continued. “And if they couldn’t do it through bureaucratic means, then they’re going to do it through physical means, to a point where I’ve had counties that have requested assistance in funding to put additional security measures into their county buildings, just to secure the election office from physical threat.”

As far as further enforcement actions against Lindell, including compelling him to pay for the review, Houck said that would be up to the state attorney general, Lawrence Wasden. A spokesman for Wasden said there were no new developments to share.

Possible midterm impact

Across the country, Republican candidates are grappling with how to handle the claims in primary races. Some are embracing them wholeheartedly in an effort to outflank their rivals while others, keen to put their focus on other issues, have emphasized passing new voting laws or limiting the use of mail-in balloting without making much reference to the 2020 results.

In the overwhelmingly red state, Idaho’s primary elections hold far greater significance than the November general election. And there’s no shortage of Republicans battling ahead of the May primary contest, including over the fraud claims.

Trump has endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s challenge to sitting GOP Gov. Brad Little in a contest that has included McGeachin seeking to undermine Little when he leaves the state by issuing rogue executive orders he has rescinded upon his return.

Meanwhile, Trump has yet to endorse anyone in the secretary of state contest, and Denney, who has served two terms, is retiring.

Houck, who said he plans to continue working in the elections field, said he dropped out of the race in part because of the threats he said he faced from people angry with how he’s handled Lindell’s claims. 

“I did not want to subject my family to the kinds of threats we were starting to see over this issue,” he said. “I had someone actually approach my daughter in a threatening manner over this issue. She’s 17. That’s out of line.”

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