This is part seven of an eight-part series about elections and voting in Kansas.
For a segment of Kansans and Americans across the country, election night 2020 aroused suspicions that elections could be fraudulent.
As they watched on national TV, President Donald Trump saw his early leads evaporating and Democrat Joe Biden pulling ahead. It was a development that was months in the making.
Trump supporters were more likely to vote in-person and on Election Day and had their votes counted earlier, while Biden supporters were more likely to mail in ballots and thus have their votes recorded later, a dynamic that Trump seized on to question the legitimacy of mail-in voting. It hardened an emerging partisan divide even further. Mail-in ballots had taken on an increasingly significant role in voting across the country as a way to limit outbreaks of the coronavirus.
Yet the change of fortune reeked of corruption to supporters who convinced themselves that defeat was being snatched from the jaws of victory in real time. Then, Trump confirmed it for them with his speech in the wee hours of Nov. 4 in the White House East Room standing in front of a backdrop of American flags.
“This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump told the nation. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win the election.”
“I don’t believe one bit what I saw on the night of Nov. 3 was proper,” says Melissa Leavitt, a Colby resident who firmly believes that the election was stolen. The election motivated her to look closer to home and find answers to how she thought Kansas contributed to the corruption.
She didn’t have to look far. Biden had won Johnson County, a once reliably red bastion of suburban Kansas City, by 8 percentage points amid massive turnout.
“Once you learn Johnson County, in an entire century, went blue for the first time, it’s hard to even believe,” says Leavitt, who was involved in requesting a recount on the abortion amendment that Kansans overwhelmingly voted down in August. “To figure out if Kansas has fraud, you have to research and that’s when I found out how stinking complicated it all was … and how easy it was to steal a whole country. It is quite shocking.”
‘Don’t believe everything you are seeing’
Conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election have been swirling without letup for two years, fueled by Trump, his advisers and elected officials close to the former president, who say the election was rigged in favor of Biden.
The concerns are often vaguely expressed or phrased as questions. When they’re specific, they can often be convoluted or rely on coded language that can seem baffling to outsiders to their cause. But at their root, it is an intuition that something fishy is going on, leading to a profound distrust in the election system, the officials who run it, the media who report on it and anyone else who dares defend it.
That distrust has spread to include some basic voting infrastructure. Some voters have come to doubt a number of routine aspects of elections, including voting machines and their technology, drop boxes, and mail-in ballots. Voting, they fear, lacks transparency. Voters should be able to see who they voted for after an election, they say.
Now, virtually any election, even one decided by a difference of more than 170,000 votes like the abortion amendment was, can be declared suspect. A handful of Kansans from east to west have banded together to file lawsuits to root out “corruption” here.
But what they’re looking for simply isn’t there to be found, says Secretary of State Scott Schwab. In an interview, Schwab says that elections in Kansas are safe and secure, and he has proved it several times.
“We have been saying for a few years now, ‘Don’t believe everything you are seeing,’” Schwab says. “But folks come in and say, ‘Well I saw this on a YouTube video.’
“It’s not true,” he says he told them.
Contrary to showing fraud, the recent recount of votes on the abortion amendment provided strong evidence that elections are secure, Schwab says. More than 61% of the votes were recounted, and when it was done, “the winners were still winners, and the losers were still losers.
“We’ve told folks that, if we didn’t prove it before, we’ve proven it by now with that recount,” he says. “Some folks still won’t believe, because there are some people who still believe the world is flat. You are just not going to convince everybody.”
But the problem of trust in elections goes well beyond a handful of people in Kansas asking for recounts or filing lawsuits. According to several national polls, about 70% of Republicans still believe Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than 90% of Democrats believe Biden was the clear winner.
As a result, partisans tend to see the other side as being the greatest threat to democracy. As Philip Bump of The Washington Post wrote recently, Democrats think the greatest threats to democracy come from Trump and the Republican Party. Republicans say the mainstream media and Biden are the major threats. (The media is seen as the biggest threat among all voters.)
At this point, it’s become common practice for journalists to point out that there’s no compelling evidence the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Certainly some fraudulent votes were cast, but not enough to sway the outcome.
But for those who distrust the official tallies, the question isn’t “How can you prove that fraud mattered?” The question is, “How can you prove fraud didn’t matter?”
Katie Roberts, a Johnson County resident who describes herself as a working mom who loves her country, says her life changed when she was watching the returns in 2020, when it seemed to her that the vote counting stopped in the middle of the night.
“If it smells like a fish, it’s probably a fish, right?”
(Fact-checkers say that battleground states did not stop counting votes entirely and there were logical reasons why some delays occurred.)
In interviews with several Kansans to develop a deeper understanding of why they believe the state’s elections are corrupt, it’s clear that not only do they believe the 2020 election had problems but that other elections dating back to the early 2000s and the recent Aug. 2 primary were corrupt.
They say there are several reasons for their beliefs but one of their biggest concerns is voting machines. They believe private companies own the machines and the machines’ parts often are made in foreign countries, which they believe means the machines are subject to easy manipulation.
Schwab says Kansas counties own their machines outright. The counties hire a third party with no connection to the manufacturer to program the equipment and maintain it. And an independent auditor audits the results.
“They are all made in America,” he says. The problem is conspiracy theorists. “You debunk one thing, they rapidly move to the next conspiracy theory, trying to get one of them to stick.”
These doubters think that Schwab, who is running for reelection, holds the key to resolving their concerns about the machines, but he won’t answer their questions.
“Scott Schwab just wants to say everything is perfect … and nothing to see here without giving us any sort of evidence,” says Katie Roberts, an Olathe resident who sued the state this summer to stop the 2020 election records from being destroyed as required by law. “We just want someone to say ‘I understand how it looks but this is what is really happening.’ Just don’t gaslight us with words.”
Another problem is that the ballots are secret. Voters are unable to check to find out whether their votes were accurately counted because no names are attached to ballots.
“Show me the dead body,” says Mark Gietzen, a conservative political activist who helped fund the recent abortion fund recount. “The entire election system is based on secret votes. Don’t expect me to magically know … how many (votes) were valid, how many were purchased from like an election commissioner.”
For much of American history, it was very hard to keep your vote secret. But secret ballots are guaranteed in state constitutions and laws across the country. It would take an extraordinary intervention, such as a U.S. constitutional amendment, to change that. And it wouldn’t be a change worth supporting, Schwab says.
“Do you know how many people would be terrified of that? Because if you have a conservative teacher who is a member of the NEA and their ballot becomes public, they would be harassed,” he says. “Ballots were never meant to be a public record.”
Concerns about ballot boxes
A final major concern relates to ballot drop boxes and so-called “mules” or “ballot-harvesters.” The Kansans we spoke with had watched the documentary “2000 Mules,” which tells a story about so-called illegal drops at ballot boxes in the 2020 election.
The film released earlier this year depicts unnamed nonprofit companies that paid the mules to collect and deposit thousands of fake ballots in the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (There is no evidence of this, and the film has been debunked by many media outlets both liberal and conservative.) But the film is popular among those who don’t accept the 2020 election results, and Trump has given it high praise.
The skeptics interviewed by The Journal say they need answers to their many questions but aren’t getting them. They say their elected officials haven’t been responsive.
So when Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden announced early last spring that he had been investigating the Kansas 2020 election, they felt some relief.
Hayden has said his deputies are running down 200 tips alleging election fraud. But what he’s investigating is unclear. Until Hayden spoke up, no other county officials, including the Johnson County Commission and election officials, seemed to know about the investigation. Schwab and county Election Commissioner Fred Sherman have continued to say the integrity of the election process was not compromised, and after two years, there still is no evidence of fraud.
The Journal requested an interview with Hayden, but he declined. His spokesperson, Shelby Colburn, said once the investigation is complete, Hayden would be willing to discuss it.
But Hayden has spent months traveling throughout Johnson County and even to Las Vegas discussing his concerns about corrupt elections with like-minded folks.
For some concerned voters, Mike Lindell, known as the My Pillow Guy, has become a folk hero for pushing the belief that the 2020 presidential race was stolen, and to that end, he says he has spent at least $25 million advancing those notions.
Leavitt noted that Schwab and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor, say they support Trump but at the same time criticize Lindell.
“They say Mike Lindell is a fraud, everything is safe and secure, and we all need to move on, and I don’t think that is the right answer at all,” she says.
‘Minimal concerns’ in Kansas
Nevertheless, there are conservatives who remain confident in the integrity of elections in Kansas, even as they continue to harbor doubts about what’s happened in other states.
On a recent September evening, Gary and Louise Hicks, an Overland Park couple, attended a candidate forum sponsored by the Faithful Patriot, a group that “believes in defending what matters: faith, family and freedom in our community.”
When asked if they had concerns about the Kansas election system, Gary quickly responded: “I have minimal concerns about fraud in Kansas voting. We have a number of safeguards, especially in Johnson County.”
But Gary and his wife said they had real concerns about voting safeguards in other states. They both watched the film “2000 Mules.” In fact they found it so “profound,” they watched it twice.
“It’s frightening when you watch the movie,” Louise says. “It’s certainly worth your time.”
After seeing it, they said they spoke in person with Schwab.
“We heard personally and specifically from Secretary of State Schwab that he personally attests to the standards of the voting policies and standards that are in place in Kansas,” Gary says. “He is a man of the highest integrity.”
The Hicks say Schwab spoke about Kansas election safeguards to the group and was met with hostility.
According to a July article published in The Kansas City Star, Schwab was explaining why drop boxes are safe when he was interrupted by several people. They said: “That’s not true.” and “That’s garbage,”
The Hickses say some audience members did put him in the “hot spot” but he responded well to the criticism.
“It was very, very rude and was very ungrounded in what they were presenting,” Gary says. “It was a real attack on his integrity, but he was able to address their concerns.”
Schwab says he has watched the documentary and that it only addressed elections in six states and Kansas isn’t one. The film’s director is Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing activist who was pardoned by Trump for making illegal campaign contributions.
Schwab pointed out that in the film D’Souza never said drop boxes should be removed, nor did he say get rid of mail-in ballots.
In fact, in Kansas, there isn’t much of a partisan divide when it comes to using mail-in ballots. Democrats received 231,598 mail-in ballots for the 2020 general election while Republicans received 191,395. About 91% of voters in both parties returned their mail-in ballots, according to Schwab’s office. The difference between the parties was just 37,821 ballots in an election where 1,375,125 people voted. Unaffiliated voters requested 83,721 ballots and returned 71,283, an 85% return rate.
D’Souza made several recommendations to avoid election fraud – safeguards that Kansas already employs – including requiring voter ID for advance mail-in ballots and requiring voters to request mail-in ballots instead of automatically mailing them to every resident.
Also, D’Souza said mail-in ballots need to be in a security envelope and the signature verified. Kansas does that.
A focus on voting machines
Since the election, Leavitt says she has become grounded in the election process and how voting machines work. She works nights but spends her days helping older people. She knows several people like herself who are learning a lot from the 2020 election.
“There are a majority of older ladies, Christian women, who are just so upset by the state of our nation that they have really started to dig in and learn about writing (open records) requests,” she says. “Writing emails, using computers is not in the older generation. They have a huge learning curve.”
The advantage in helping retired people, she says, is they have more time to spend on election integrity issues.
“I try to help anyone who is concerned.” she says. “I tell them I’m not going to say there is fraud in your county, I’m going to show you how to find it.”
Leavitt says God led her down this path.
“I’m a mom, a child of Christ.” she says. “God called me to be involved with this. And I can’t tell you the amazing things he has put in my path since then. What an amazing experience this has been.”
Leavitt says she favors getting rid of voting machines and reverting to paper ballots because too much can go wrong with the machines. She also says there’s too much secrecy in the Kansas secretary of state’s office over voting, records and data.
“You always have risks of fraud, right? Machines just take it into this other realm that we have never had before, and (the government) can’t keep up with it,” she says.
Leavitt points to Cherokee County, where an error was found during a post-election audit of the Aug. 2 primary. A thumb drive “improperly switched votes from incumbent District 1 County Commissioner Myra Frazier to challenger Lance Nichols,” according to a news release from County Clerk Rebecca Brassart.
Nichols was declared the unofficial winner until the audit uncovered the error and Frazier was announced as the actual winner.
Brassart said she contacted the company responsible for programming the thumb drives, Lockwood Elections in Atchison, and they immediately recognized the problem. Election workers recounted the ballots to determine the winner.
Since 2019, Kansas law requires that in each county, 1% of all precincts be randomly selected with a minimum of one precinct for a post-election audit.
A document on the secretary of state’s website says Kansas counties conducted 300 postaudits and only Cherokee County reported a problem.
Leavitt says finding the Cherokee County error was serendipitous and wondered how many other thumb drive mistakes may have occurred.
“Every single person in this state should be highly alarmed at this,” Leavitt says. “Scott Schwab should have had everyone audit every race in this state based on what Cherokee County found.”
Schwab says the thumb-drive malfunction was an administrative error, and instead of proof of fraud it’s proof that the system worked. Also, he says, people need to remember election workers are volunteers who don’t make a lot of money and many believe they are providing a public service.
“They’re saying something is wrong and therefore it’s fraud,” Schwab says. “There is a difference between an error and somebody committing a crime. You know if we found fraud, people would be happy we have it. They should be happy we don’t.
“They want me to prosecute fraud, but who do they want me to prosecute?” Schwab asked. “I can’t admit to something I have no evidence of. … I mean, is there a Bigfoot?”
‘Nobody wants to investigate it’
Roberts, too, has studied the workings of election machines, and because she doesn’t believe Schwab when he says the machines are safe and he won’t respond to her questions, she believes voting should only be on paper.
This summer Roberts filed for an injunction – without an attorney – against the Johnson County Election Office and the County Commission to try to keep the county from destroying 2020 election records that were scheduled to be shredded in September. She did say she had help writing the petition from other unnamed people, including a podcaster.
Her quest failed. A judge ruled in September that she did not have standing.
“The facts of my case were never argued,” Roberts says.
The judicial system is not fair because judges are appointed by either a Republican or a Democrat, she says. And when she said she tried to hire a lawyer, “he didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
“Do you know why? Because judges can disbar them,” she says. (The Kansas Supreme Court can disbar attorneys for misconduct, after a lengthy process that includes an investigation by a disciplinary administrator and a review involving three attorneys.)
The court loss was a disappointment that Roberts is rolling with because she believes she is right. She says there is plenty of evidence regarding election fraud but no one is listening or looking.
“Here’s my point,” she says. “A lot of the fraud is sort of undetectable. I know that is a really difficult concept for people because they are saying there is fraud but you can’t prove it. However, our elected officials can’t prove (the elections) are free of fraud.”
Roberts also pointed to the Cherokee County election mixup that Schwab is calling “human error.”
“You have to assume that the public is stupid to say something like that,” she says.
“The person (at Lockwood Elections in Atchison) who programmed the thumb drive should have known there was a problem.
“So stuff is happening in kind of the background,” she says. “And it is all very cybery. Most people, even our elected officials, have no idea this is happening.”
The reason Cherokee County is important, Roberts said, is because “they wouldn’t have even known about that if that one county hadn’t been chosen at random for the post-election audit.
“The tricky part of this is that we don’t know this is happening because nobody wants to investigate it,” she says.
In a turnabout from just a few years ago, a number of Americans clearly have come to believe that trickery and elections go hand-in-hand.
Elections in years past have not been without strife. Just think Al Gore vs. George W. Bush, one of the closest elections in U.S. history and the first time since 1888 that a presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. (Trump won under those circumstances again in 2016.)
It took 35 days before that election was settled and only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. But with that ruling, there was a peaceful transition of power, America’s legacy that has existed since its very beginnings would continue.
But 20 years later, trust in elections appears to have reached a new low. Trump’s refusal to accept the results meant that power transferred in 2021 but not peacefully.
There’s the literal violence of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the rhetorical violence of vitriolic conversations on social media and even harassment of those who don’t toe the party line. News gets declared fake based on who the messenger is and not what the facts are. Many Americans have come to believe our democracy is on a precipice.
Who benefits when our increasingly bitter differences threaten democracy? And can we find the common ground necessary to counteract them? Doing so might require extraordinary determination bolstered by the kind of trust that’s currently in short supply.
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