Republicans made eight attempts to breach voting systems in five states in search of evidence of a debunked conspiracy theory that voting machines flipped votes from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden, according to a Reuters investigation.
Trump allies targeted voting systems in Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. At least five of the breaches are under investigation by federal or local law enforcement. Four of the breaches forced officials to decertify or replace voting equipment due to security concerns. All of the attempts involved Republican officials or party activists who have pushed false claims about Trump's election loss.
Four voting law experts told Reuters that the extent of the breaches is "unprecedented in modern U.S. elections."
"You need to make sure that those ballots are maintained under strict chain of custody at all times," David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, told the outlet. "It's destroying voter confidence in the United States."
Surveillance video obtained by Reuters shows Republican Elbert County, Colo. Clerk Dallas Schroeder attempting to copy hard drives containing sensitive voting data. He later testified that he received instructions from a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist to make a "forensic image of everything on the election server."
Schroeder is under investigation for potentially violating election laws by Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who also sued him to try to force him to return the data. Schroeder is refusing to comply with the state and identify a lawyer who took the hard drives. His other attorney works with an activist backed by conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow.
Lindell is funding numerous groups involved in the years-long effort to try to find evidence of their bogus conspiracy theory. Lindell told Reuters he hired four members of the U.S. Integrity Plan (USEIP), a pro-Trump group that allegedly sent armed members door-to-door to investigate fraud claims in Colorado. He claimed he has spent about $30 million in total and hired 70 people in the failed effort.
"We've got to get rid of the machines!" Lindell told the outlet. "We need to melt them down and use them for prison bars and put everyone in prison that was involved with them."
The breaches appear to have been inspired by the false belief that voting system upgrades or maintenance required by the state would delete evidence of their fraud conspiracy theory. Election officials told Reuters that such updates have no impact on the preservation of past data.
But such breaches could violate voter privacy and underscore growing concerns of potential "insider threats," officials told the outlet. Griswold's office told Reuters that the data accessed by Schroeder likely included ballot images that showed how people cast their ballots.
In another Colorado incident, Lindell ally Tina Peters, the Mesa County clerk, allowed an unauthorized person to copy a "forensic image" of a voting system hard drive before sensitive passwords to access the voting system were published on right-wing conspiracy sites. Peters, who was indicted on 10 criminal counts over the breach, baselessly accused the voting machine company Dominion and Griswold of a conspiracy to destroy evidence of election-rigging.
Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell repeatedly pushed baseless claims that Dominion, in an extensive conspiracy involving China, billionaire financier George Soros, and late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, rigged the election against Trump. Dominion and Smartmatic, another voting equipment company that got dragged into the conspiracy theory despite having no ties to Dominion, have filed multi-billion-dollar defamation lawsuits against Giuliani, Powell and Lindell, among others.
Dominion told Reuters that the conspiracy theories "have been repeatedly debunked, including by bipartisan government officials."
It's unclear whether any data was accessed in another apparent breach in Michigan's Adams Township, where the key component of a ballot counting machine went missing for four days last fall before it was found at the office of a clerk who posted QAnon memes on social media. The clerk, Stephanie Scott, was stripped of her duties in October by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson after refusing to perform legally-required maintenance. She later sued Benson in February, alleging that she was unconstitutionally punished.
In another incident in Cross Village, Michigan, a woman named Tera Jackson impersonated an official from the non-existent "Election Integrity Commission" to gain access to the town's ballot-counting machine last January and tried to clone it. She ultimately pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for prosecutors dropping charges of fraud and illegal access. Three men that she worked with, including a former law enforcement officer who showed up with a bulletproof vest and a gun, gained access to a vote tabulator but don't appear to have been able to clone the drive. The men were not charged because prosecutors said they believed they were misled by Jackson.
The most recent breach was in March in North Carolina, where Surrey County GOP Chair William Keith Senter threatened to have elections director Michella Huff fired if she did not give him access to a vote-counting machine. Senter and conspiracy theorist Douglas Frank met Huff in March to claim that a "chip" inside the machine was used to rig the election. The state election board reported the threats against Huff to law enforcement.
"I'm very concerned for the voters," Huff told Reuters. "Democracy starts here. It starts here in our office."
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After the Colorado breaches, Lindell hired four USEIP members to head Cause for America, a right-wing network of election conspiracists. The group has continued to search for evidence of fraud despite coming up empty since 2020.
"I have over probably 50 to 70 people that I pay, that all they're doing is on this election," Lindell told Reuters. "I guess Cause of America would be a little piece of that."
Griswold accused the election conspiracists of seeking to suppress opposing voters.
"These threats are being fueled by extreme elected officials and political insiders who are spreading the Big Lie," she told Reuters, "to further suppress the vote, destabilize American elections, and undermine voter confidence."