Jul 21, 2022 9 min read

In WA, county auditor elections become battleground for far-right election deniers

In WA, county auditor elections become battleground for far-right election deniers
Vicky Dalton, a Democrat, has served as Spokane County auditor for 24 years. She’s facing Bob McCaslin Jr., a retiring state representative with ties to fringe election deniers. (Photo by Erick Doxey/InvestigateWest)

Fueled by the false narrative that widespread fraud stole the 2020 election from Trump, election officials nationwide have been under constant attack from election conspiracists.

By Wilson Criscione, InvestigateWest

As the Spokane County auditor for 24 years, Vicky Dalton has gotten used to answering questions from election skeptics.

But since 2020, things have changed. As former President Donald Trump has amplified debunked conspiracies of widespread election fraud, Dalton, a Democrat, finds herself constantly defending the integrity of her office.

“It’s not just against my office here in Spokane, but across the state and across the nation,” Dalton says. “There are allegations being made, and I think that’s very damaging when people make allegations without knowledge, without facts and without evidence.”

Fueled by the false narrative that widespread fraud stole the 2020 election from Trump, election officials nationwide have been under constant attack from election conspiracists.

Now, many of those conspiracists are seeking control of elections offices, asking for votes while telling those same people their votes may not count. In Nevada, election denier Jim Marchant could become Nevada’s next secretary of state, overseeing the 2024 presidential election in the swing state. Here in Washington, voter fraud conspiracist Tamborine Borrelli is on the Aug. 2 primary ballot to oversee statewide elections as secretary of state.

But it’s not just statewide elections. The false voter fraud narrative is also seeping into local county auditor races, including in Washington, where three candidates aligning themselves with the country’s most prominent election conspiracists are fighting to oversee their county’s election process.

In Spokane, Dalton is facing Bob McCaslin Jr., a retiring state representative who says he wants to bring more transparency to the elections process but has ties with fringe election deniers. In 2021, he co-sponsored a bill meant to ensure “only legitimate votes” were counted in Washington. The bill, which went nowhere in the Legislature, called for a third party to audit county election results through manual hand counts of the 2020 election.

McCaslin, reached by phone several times by InvestigateWest for this article, repeatedly said he was too busy for an interview. The final time he picked up the phone, the call was dropped as soon as a reporter identified himself. His campaign failed to respond to follow-up emails.

In Mason County, northwest of Olympia, auditor Paddy McGuire is up against Republican Steve Duenkel, who wants to stop using machines to count ballots and questions the results of the 2020 election.

And in Pend Oreille County, just north of Spokane, Republican Marianne Nichols is facing Tamara Newman, a fellow Republican. Newman tells InvestigateWest that she believes Trump would have won in 2020 if not for widespread voter fraud.

The trend, both locally and nationally, threatens to undermine trust in the elections process, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

“The central concern about having these types of individuals hold elective office like county auditors is that they will perpetuate the view that our elections aren’t fair, that they’re not transparent, that they’re being rigged and you shouldn’t trust them,” Clayon said. “Democracies can’t survive when that belief takes hold in a society.”

FRIEND CIRCLE

In his eight years as a member of the state Legislature, McCaslin showed little interest in distancing himself from fringe ideas.

He voted in step with his former seatmate representing the same district, Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, who a House-commission report once found engaged in domestic terrorism. Still, once Shea was out of the Legislature, McCaslin continued to push Shea’s idea for eastern Washington to become part of a 51st state.

Bob McCaslin Jr., R-Spokane Valley, a retiring state representative, co-sponsored a 2021 bill calling for a third party to audit county election results.

Now, McCaslin is running for Spokane County auditor, riding a wave of election denialism with the Republican Party. Yet far from distancing himself from voter fraud conspiracies, he’s actively helped prominent election deniers spread their message.

In August 2021, McCaslin and seatmate Rob Chase, R-Spokane Valley, hosted a “public hearing” where Seth Keshel, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, was a scheduled speaker. Reps. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, and two other lawmakers also hosted the event.

It was one of several recent visits to Washington and Idaho where Keshel shared conspiracies about how the election was stolen. The event came days after the “Cyber Symposium” in South Dakota, which was convened by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell and attended by three Washington legislators, Sutherland, Kraft, and Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, on the taxpayers’ dime, the Seattle Times reported.

Keshel is one of several 2020 election deniers who has become famous on the far right and who spreads conspiracies at grassroots events across the country. He’s been celebrated by Trump himself after claiming the former president won several states that actually went for Biden in 2020. But political science experts have repeatedly said Keshel’s theories have no merit. His argument relies on election results differing from predictions or historical trends — not any actual proof of fraud.

McCaslin’s support for people like Keshel reflects similar support within Spokane’s Republican Party. In October, Keshel visited Post Falls, Idaho, just across the Washington border in an event hosted by Chase. Also there was Douglas Frank, a former math and science teacher, and David Clements, a lawyer and former professor. Both have been championed across the country for spreading unfounded theories of election fraud.

Spokane GOP state committeeman Matt Hawkins tells InvestigateWest that he attended the event and supported bringing the speakers to the region.

“We were aware of their work as a state team and believed if they had insights they could offer on Washington state that their participation would be valued. They have brought both national awareness and insights on our local front,” Hawkins said.

Frank claims to have unlocked a secret algorithm used to rig elections in favor of Democrats, but this theory has repeatedly been debunked. Clements, meanwhile, has pushed for forensic audits in counties all over the country.

All three speakers emphasize that action should be taken at a local level.

“Convincing a RINO [Republican in name only] legislature to decertify an entire state election is an all but impossible task,” Clements wrote in January. “But getting 2 to 3 votes from MAGA loving commissioners? Good bye bottlenecks.”

By June of this year, Hawkins and the Spokane GOP presented a petition to the Spokane County Board of Commissioners calling for a “comprehensive election system audit” of the 2020 election in Spokane.

“We’re not declaring fraud on anyone. But there is potential and risk for nefarious actors,” Hawkins said in an interview, adding that the only way to make sure there was no fraud is to do the audit.

Hawkins believes tabulation machines in Washington are connected to the internet despite the auditors repeatedly saying that is not true.

In his request for the Spokane County audit, Hawkins included links to presentations from Keshel and Frank. He then handed county commissioners a petition demanding they perform an audit of the election system “ahead of the elections for 2022” — a request which the commissioners did not have the power to grant.

Among the dozens of petition signees?

McCaslin.

‘A COORDINATED EFFORT’

For 16 years, Marianne Nichols, a Republican, has been county auditor in Pend Oreille, a heavily Republican County in northeast Washington where Trump carried more than two-thirds of the 2020 vote. She never expected that she’d be challenged for her seat by a fellow Republican in Tamara Newman.

Nichols sees these local auditor elections as an extension of a nationwide plan for a faction of the right to gain control of elections.

“It’s clear to me it’s a coordinated effort,” Nichols said.

Nichols has caught a handful of incidents of fraud in her own county during her tenure, but she doesn’t believe voter fraud is occurring on a wide scale.

Meanwhile, her opponent Newman said in an interview that Pend Oreille has “all the things in place” that could invite widespread voter fraud in the future, though she doubts it has occurred in Pend Oreille yet. She’s attended events where Keshel, Frank and Clements spoke, and she says she was part of a Zoom meeting with a subcommittee of the Washington State Republican Party where Lindell spoke. When asked if she’s been convinced by those speakers that widespread fraud stole the election from Trump, Newman said simply, “Yes.” When pressed, she pointed to the “2000 Mules” conspiracy film, the Dinesh D’Souza movie that suggests 2,000 people, or “mules,” collected illegal votes and dropped the ballots off in drop boxes in key swing states.

Newman supports more hand counting of ballots over tabulation machines, which, like Hawkins, she believes to be vulnerable to cyberattacks. She also would support removing ballot drop boxes.

Both suggestions concern Nichols. Hand counting is less accurate and more prone to human error, and having drop boxes spread out in a rural county like Pend Oreille ensures everyone can easily vote.

“It concerns me to get rid of them, now that people are used to having them,” Nichols said.

State law, Nichols said, would prevent Newman from removing drop boxes and tabulation machines — though Newman tells InvestigateWest that it “depends on how you read” state law.

Ultimately, it’s up to the Washington secretary of state to certify elections. Both Nichols and Dalton, Spokane County’s auditor, say there are checks and balances in state law, including regular audits, to prevent an ideologue from, for example, hijacking an election.

Their greatest concern, however, is what happens if an auditor fails to abide by those laws. Dalton points to Mesa, Colorado, as an example of that. There, county clerk Tina Peters, who spoke at an event hosted by Lindell, was indicted for allegedly tampering with voting equipment. She was then barred from overseeing elections in her home county by a judge.

Such a scenario in Washington could hurt the integrity of elections, Dalton said.

“Failing to follow the law brings the validity of the election into doubt,” she said. “If those processes have not been appropriately followed, then it’s up to the court to determine the outcome of the process and the remedy.”

DISTRUSTING THE PROCESS

There’s always a small percentage of the population — on both sides of the political spectrum — who believe in conspiracies about the other side stealing an election, said Clayton, the WSU political science professor.

But what’s different now is how that belief has become a central part of a major political party, Clayton said.

“To the extent that major figures in the Republican Party are embracing these theories, that’s what makes it different and what makes it more concerning and worrying,” Clayton said.  

In Washington, even Republicans who say they don’t believe the 2020 election was stolen have embraced questions about the elections process.

Caleb Heimlich, the Washington State Republican Party chairman, believes the state’s election results in 2020 were valid. At grassroots events, he reminds people of the 5th Legislative District election in 2020 between Sen. Mark Mullet and challenger Ingrid Anderson. The race was close enough to go to a hand recount, and that recount only changed the margin of Mullet’s victory by one vote.

“Should we strive to have as much integrity and confidence in our elections as possible? Absolutely,” Heimlich told InvestigateWest. “But I have always maintained that our elections are valid.”

He’s not concerned, however, about members of the party aligning with election deniers.

“I’m not concerned they’re going to meetings and listening to speakers and looking at data. I think that’s the job of a legislator,” Heimlich said. “I have not seen anything concerning to me within Republican legislators and Republican officials.”

The state party set up an election integrity committee in 2019, which Heimlich said was meant to have more “eyes on the process” and “give both sides more confidence.” That’s the committee that held a meeting hosting Lindell, along with others who deny the 2020 results, according to Newman. When asked his thoughts on the state party inviting Lindell to speak, Heimlich said he was not aware that Lindell joined a meeting but thinks everyone has a right to their opinion.

Heimlich argues questions about the process are about preserving election integrity. That’s the question Clayton worries about, too, only he worries the accusations and rhetoric from many on the right are stoking doubts about the election process, not restoring confidence in it.

Clayton is not too worried that election deniers will use the position of county auditor to hijack elections. He’s more concerned that they’ll use the position to spread more distrust in the process.

“This has become a component where, actually, a majority of Republicans believe this,” Clayton said. “And now if you have elected officials who hold office, who are responsible for running fair and clean elections and hold these views, you undermine the norms of democracy, the perception that our elections are fair and open and when one side loses, they give up power willingly.”

This has been reprinted with permission from InvestigateWest (invw.org), a news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/newsletters to sign up for weekly updates.

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