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Some who think 2020's election was stolen are going door-to-door to audit the results

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Your vote is secret, but the fact that you voted in an election is typically public record. So some people who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen have tried to audit the results themselves by going door to door in neighborhoods all across the country. As NPR's Miles Parks and Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland report, canvassing is part of a controversial movement to push Americans to uncover widespread fraud that has not been proven in their own communities.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Last year, two men came to Michelle Garcia's door.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: One had a clipboard and a baseball cap on. The other wore a blue collared shirt and a lanyard.

PARKS: They wanted to know how she cast her ballot. Here's a snippet of their interaction recorded by Garcia's front door camera. You can hear them say they're working to verify the 2020 election results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're doing a voter verification project.

MICHELLE GARCIA: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We’re working off the city voter list, and we want to just ask a couple questions about the 2020 vote.

GARCIA: OK.

PARKS: Garcia, who lives in Pueblo County, Colo., says the two men asked her all sorts of questions, all pointing back to the baseless idea that the 2020 election was stolen.

GARCIA: His specific questions were, did you vote by mail-in ballot? How many times have you voted? He wanted to know who I voted for, who I supported. How do I know that it wasn't changed? And a lot of it was targeted at the clerk and recorder's office and that it was fraudulent.

BIRKELAND: She told them she'd never had any issue with voting and didn't want to discuss her personal voting record.

GARCIA: They were very aggressive. There was no boundaries with their ethics or with civility. They will push until you give an answer.

BIRKELAND: A few hundred miles west in Mesa County, Anne Landman was cooking dinner when three women knocked on her door.

ANNE LANDMAN: They just said they were canvassing, surveying and asked if I voted in the last election. And I said yes. And they said, did your husband vote in the last election? And I said, yes, he did. And they said, OK, thank you very much.

BIRKELAND: She says the women weren't aggressive, but she still wondered why they were at her door.

LANDMAN: I asked them as they were turning to leave - I said, who is this for? And they said, the election integrity project, which I hadn't heard of.

PARKS: Technically, the group is called the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, which, to be clear, is not affiliated with the U.S. government or any elections office. The group's training documents also say they wanted canvassers to be unbiased and to only verify publicly available data.

BIRKELAND: We've heard that many people welcomed the canvassers trying to uncover voter fraud. But after her interaction, Landman, who's a Democratic activist, says she was annoyed when she read about the group's motivations. It's not clear if these canvassers were affiliated with the ones who came to Michelle Garcia's door, who said they were with a local group.

PARKS: We should point out that in the two years since the 2020 election, numerous paper ballot hand counts, audits and court cases across the country have confirmed the election results. But a constellation of these sorts of groups, where regular people go out in their neighborhoods and try to find the fraud themselves, have popped up across the country since 2020.

REBECCA KELTIE: When the puzzle pieces don't fit together, it makes you wonder. And if it's important to you, you'll look into it.

BIRKELAND: That's Rebecca Keltie. She was a Republican congressional candidate. And we met up with her at an apartment building in El Paso County where she helped canvass last summer. Keltie says canvassers were given sheets of voting records that included a person's name, address and method of voting - all public information in Colorado - though it's not clear why they were sent to certain locations and neighborhoods and not others.

KELTIE: I'm not quite sure the criteria that they use to say, OK, these votes were in question, but they were in question.

PARKS: No one knows exactly how common this sort of fraud-motivated canvassing has become around the country. The group in Colorado put out a report this spring indicating volunteers with the organization knocked on close to 10,000 doors in just four counties here. And officials in other Colorado counties and a number of other states say it's happening there, too.

BIRKELAND: The 2020 election wasn't close in Colorado. Still, the state has become a hotbed for election misinformation. Most Colorado counties use voting systems from Dominion, which has become a target of right-wing conspiracies and is headquartered in Denver. Another example - Mesa County clerk Tina Peters, who was indicted for allegedly tampering with election equipment in an effort to expose fraud. She's defended her actions.

PARKS: Then there's Shawn Smith, the co-founder of the Election Integrity Plan. He's from El Paso County. Recently, he said election officials, who he claims rigged the 2020 election, deserve to hang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN SMITH: I think if you're involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Sometimes, the old ways are the best ways. I was accused of endorsing violence. I'm not endorsing violence. I'm saying when you put your hand on a hot stove, you get burned.

PARKS: Smith's group, the Election Integrity Plan, did not respond to requests by NPR for comment. But the group's website makes it clear they're working on building a fraud-finding infrastructure. The group has published an organizing playbook so regular people everywhere can join the movement. Keltie, the canvasser we heard from earlier, said she wants there to be more scrutiny on the upcoming November election than ever before.

KELTIE: I hope it's under the tightest microscope you can possibly put it under.

PARKS: Is there a part of you that worries about - there's a lot of election workers who are quitting right now because the pressure is just so great, and they're, like, worried about their safety 'cause they're getting threats in a way they never were before. Do you worry about that microscope kind of furthering that problem?

KELTIE: No, I don't think so. I think if there is pressure and if there are threats, then that right there tells you that something - they're trying to get away with something.

BIRKELAND: And to be clear - election officials in Colorado are feeling that strain, like outgoing Republican clerk and recorder Chuck Broerman from El Paso County. He faced pushback from people who wanted to investigate the county's voting machines.

CHUCK BROERMAN: I remember after one particular meeting where there was a lot of pressure and the statement that, you know, Clerk Broerman, we'll either do this with you or through you, which I took as a threat that you better work with us or we'll make things difficult for you.

PARKS: People associated with this canvassing movement say it's all about transparency. Here's Keltie.

KELTIE: You only hide things when you're ashamed of them. So let's go out. Let's open everything up - complete transparency.

PARKS: But the Election Integrity Plan isn't being fully transparent themselves. It claims to have affidavits indicating election crimes were committed in a number of Colorado counties, including Broerman's. That's a big accusation.

BIRKELAND: But the election integrity group hasn't provided details for these supposed crimes or the affidavits referenced in its report. When we visited his office, Broerman pulled out a map of his county and a highlighter to show us some of the neighborhoods he's guessing they visited.

BROERMAN: This is, I think, the precinct - the Fillmore area, where we think there was canvassing done.

BIRKELAND: He said the group owes it to its volunteers to share whatever evidence they have. Broerman is basically certain there's a reasonable explanation for whatever anomalies the canvassers think they found.

BROERMAN: I think the volunteers that did this really want to gain better understanding and assurances. And I think you owe it to them to follow up on that data and verify that it is indeed the case and is not being used as a tool to push a particular viewpoint.

PARKS: But at this point, you may be wondering, is this sort of data collection even legal? Can just anyone go door to door asking people about how and whether they voted?

BIRKELAND: And the answer is pretty complicated.

SHERRONNA BISHOP: It's not against the law for constituents to investigate their own elections.

BIRKELAND: That's Sherronna Bishop, who helped organize canvassers in Mesa County.

BISHOP: There is no law against going door to door to figure out if people actually voted in the election that the certified data says they voted in.

BIRKELAND: And Bishop is correct, though with a giant asterisk. In an open letter last year referencing an election review in Arizona, the U.S. Department of Justice warned that certain canvassing could be voter intimidation, possibly violating the Federal Voting Rights Act.

PARKS: And some county officials got calls last summer from people who said canvassers claimed to be with the government. Here's Carly Koppes, the Republican county clerk in Weld County.

CARLY KOPPES: We started getting calls saying, what in the heck is going on? Like, why did these people come to my door? Why are they asking me about this? And they said they were giving the perception that they were with your office. And if you're giving that perception that you are a government official, it almost equates to the same as you saying that you're a police officer when you're not.

PARKS: All the canvassers we talked to said that didn't happen on their watch.

BIRKELAND: In Mesa County, the clerk's office said they answered questions for months. And according to county officials, a lot of the voters were angry at the clerk's office because they said canvassers told them their votes weren't counted. The clerk's office said that information was wrong.

PARKS: Several voting rights groups have also filed a lawsuit to stop these sorts of canvassers from continuing in Colorado after the midterm elections. They allege it's a type of voter intimidation that will negatively affect communities of color.

BIRKELAND: And U.S. Election Integrity Plan has countersued for defamation.

PARKS: Even if the voting rights groups do stop this specific practice, though, election officials say that doesn't solve the core problems that drive people to election denialism. Here's Clerk Broerman again.

BROERMAN: I think people are looking for answers. You know, I voted for candidate X. I voted for issue Y. All my friends that I, you know, live and work with and go to church with and hang out with believe like I do. So how could something be different than that?

BIRKELAND: He says for a lot of these volunteers investigating election results could be part of their search for meaning and understanding in the world. For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.

PARKS: And I'm Miles Parks in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia'sMarketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.