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Election fraud conspiracy theories find a friendly audience at CPAC

NBC News logo NBC News 3/1/2021 Jane C. Timm
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After two days of talking about voter fraud at the biggest conservative conference of the year, a woman asked a pair of Republican election attorneys speaking on a panel: What are we going to do about the voting machines that switched thousands and thousands of votes?

The crowd applauded, but Republican attorney Charlie Spies shook his head.

“I may get booed off the stage for this, but I have to say that’s simply not true,” he said, prompting shouts from the crowd. “There is just zero evidence that’s true."

It was a rare reality check for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a weekend summit dominated by false and baseless claims about election fraud and capped with a 90-minute, lie-filled speech by former President Donald Trump who declared the 2020 presidential race rigged.


Spies, who worked for Republican Senate candidate John James in Michigan last year, repeatedly pushed back against the wildest claims. His comments earned him heckles and ribbing from another panelist, but they underscored the fault line the GOP faces as it moves forward as a party while still entertaining — even celebrating— Trump’s lies that the election was stolen.

False election claims were central to the Orlando conference, where panelists and speakers repeatedly claimed that the dead voted, fraud changed the outcome of the election, and the American people had been sold out by everyone from the Democrats to judges to lesser Republicans.

Speakers rallied in support of restrictive voting laws — which Republican lawmakers have advanced in dozens of states — and urged attendees to work to defeat H.R. 1, a voting rights bill Democrats have introduced in the House.

During a panel on Friday, Jesse Binnall, a campaign attorney who sued in Nevada over Biden's win, alleged 42,000 double or multiple votes that state.

"Mail-in voting is just ripe for fraud," he said.

Challenging the 2020 election's outcome was also a major applause line throughout the four-day event.

Even Sen. John Hawley, R-Mo., was lauded by a crowd on Friday after he referenced his role in challenging the Jan. 6th congressional tally of the 2020 election results — where five people died as a result of a pro-Trump riot at the Capitol.

Trump finally appeared late Sunday to deliver his first speech since leaving office last month, a clear crescendo of the long weekend.

During a 90-minute address that frequently revisited his most worn conspiracy theories about voting, he declared the election unconstitutional, illegal, and a "con job," teasing that he might come back for a 2024 bid.

"This election was rigged and the Supreme Court and other courts didn’t want to do anything about it," Trump said.

He falsely claimed that there were more votes than people in Detroit and Pennsylvania (demonstrably false claims) and called for a blitz of election reforms that he argued would have allowed him to win.

"We should eliminate the insanity of mass and very corrupt mail-in voting," he said. "We must have voter ID."

Trump's election fraud claims got all the more confusing when he started boasting about the successes of down-ballot Republicans, which he said had won on his "coattails," as if the fraud had somehow only affected the top of the ticket.

That tension touched on a key issue Republican leaders will have to address as they look ahead to future elections: How do you mobilize voters to go to the polls they believe will not properly count their votes?

Republicans in Georgia had to reckon with this question earlier this year after GOP turnout for the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs fell short of the November contest, according to TargetSmart. Both seats flipped blue.

Election conspiracies are becoming a financial liability, too: Voting companies have launched a series of billion-dollar lawsuits in recent weeks against conservative media figures and outlets.

The quandary also appeared to weigh on the heckled Republican lawyer, Spiers, on Saturday. He reminded CPAC attendees that mail voting hadn't been an issue for Republicans for years before the 2020 race. In fact, he said, Republicans used to win more mail ballot votes than Democrats.

"The deal is, early voting is not going away," he said. "We've gotta take advantage of that and telling people not to vote early is cutting your nose off to spite your face, it doesn’t work."

He offered a solution, one that united him with other panelists — and much of his party.

"We change the system, make us super confident in it," he said. "Then encourage people to vote using the laws that we have."


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