Conspiracy pushers target races for local election posts

Oct 24, 2022, 9:19 PM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 3:09 pm
Democrat Paddy McGuire, incumbent Mason County auditor, center, talks with voters during before a "...

Democrat Paddy McGuire, incumbent Mason County auditor, center, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

SHELTON, Wash. (AP) — Sixteen candidates for local office circled around the atrium of the municipal building on a recent night in Shelton, a logging town near the southern crook of Puget Sound. One by one, they sat at tables of inquisitive voters for what was dubbed “candidate speed-dating.”

As Auditor Paddy McGuire, a Democrat, navigated the room, he was bombarded with questions from voters, some of whom have spent the past two years marinating in paranoia about the 2020 presidential election. Were there illegal immigrants on the county’s voting rolls? What sort of surveillance was used to make sure the drop boxes where voters can deposit mail ballots are secure? Did he illegally delete election data?

One table ahead was Steve Duenkel, a retired Boeing worker and Republican who is challenging McGuire for the office that oversees elections in Mason County, population 66,000. He told voters that mail-voting, which Washington state has used for decades, was inherently risky and that they couldn’t be certain of who actually wins the election next month until there was further verification, like an audit.

A veteran election official who put off retirement this year because of what he sees as the risk Duenkel’s challenge presents, McGuire is incredulous at the campaign against him.

“It’s just hard, as somebody who grew up, as I said, believing in democratic values, that I’m being challenged by somebody who doesn’t believe that our elections here, locally or nationally, are free and fair,” McGuire said. “Particularly here in Mason County, where his party wins a lot more elections than my party does.”

Election conspiracy theorists such as Duenkel are running for Congress, governor and secretary of state positions that oversee elections in state after state around the country. But an unknown number also are running for one of the 10,000 positions nationwide that administer local elections and oversee the people who actually hand out ballots, tally votes and report results.

There are as many as 1,700 elections this year for those offices, or for positions which then appoint election administrators, according to Democratic strategist Amanda Litman, whose organization is targeting those races. That creates a dizzying patchwork of places where election conspiracy theorists can penetrate the country’s voting system.

“You’re not going to know where the vulnerability will be,” said Litman, whose group Run for Something has announced an $80 million effort over three years to recruit and support Democratic local election officials. “They can come from any direction, in any state.”

Conspiracy theorists who parrot former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election already have made inroads in local election administration. In Macomb County, Michigan, the office hired someone to recruit poll workers who had protested against Democrat Joe Biden being declared the state’s presidential winner. In Nye County, Nevada, the county commission pushed for the election office to hand-count ballots rather than use more reliable machines, leading one clerk to quit — only to be replaced by someone who falsely contended that Trump won the election two years ago.

The most prominent example is in western Colorado’s Mesa County, where Republican clerk Tina Peters faces multiple felony charges for her role in an alleged illegal download of voting machines’ data — data that ended up on election conspiracy theory websites.

Peters has pleaded not guilty to the charges and contends she is the victim of political persecution. She’s not charged with the actual download and distribution of the data from a voting machine, which was technically not a crime in Colorado at the time. The Democratic Legislature made it one in a voting bill inspired by the case.

During the speed-dating forum, McGuire warned that the number of Peters-like election deniers running for local auditors in the state may mean the Legislature there needs to adopt a similar measure to make it a felony. Duenkel, in contrast, sponsored a local screening of a movie made by Trump supporters that portrays Peters as a heroic whistleblower.

Reached by phone before the forum, Duenkel told a reporter he was “busy” and hung up. He did not respond to text messages afterward.

The two are the only men running for Mason County auditor, the local position that oversees elections. Due to the state’s unusual top-two primary system, the county’s voters already cast ballots for each of them in a head-to-head contest in August, with both advancing to the November election.

McGuire finished ahead of Duenkel, but by only 308 votes.

Just around the southern arm of Puget Sound from the state capital of Olympia, Mason County is the sort of largely rural community that was once solidly Democratic and is now increasingly Republican. Trump won it twice, besting Joe Biden by 4 percentage points there in 2020.

The cavernous lumber mill that looms at the end of Shelton’s modest downtown was once locally owned and filled with nearly 1,000 union workers. It has since been bought by a multinational corporation and employs fewer than a-third of its original workforce. Much of the county’s aging population lives outside town, in scenic nooks and crannies tucked into the evergreens.

An Olympia native, McGuire moved to Mason County from Washington, D.C., in 2014, planning to retire to a house surrounded by five acres of forest on a wooded peninsula. He had worked in Democratic politics in Oregon in the 1990s before bailing out of the campaign world and becoming Oregon’s deputy secretary of state in 2000. He helped the state become the first in the nation to send every voter a ballot in the mail. He later went to Washington to help run the Pentagon’s mail voting program for military personnel stationed overseas.

But in 2018, the county’s auditor decided to retire, and asked McGuire if he’d run for her spot. He did and won with little controversy. He moved into an office on the second floor of the county building where he kept a collection of voting memorabilia, including a vial of chads from the disputed 2000 Florida presidential election.

Then came the pandemic and Trump’s reelection campaign. The president cast doubt on mail voting, which is universal in Washington, and began to claim the election was being stolen from him before voting even finished. Citing the pandemic, McGuire limited the number of observers of the vote count in the 800-square-foot county voting office. He installed a video feed so people could watch remotely, but that didn’t satisfy his critics.

“Voting, to me, is one of the fundamental rights of an American citizen,” said Lindy Martinez, a retired cook. “If somebody is going to make it feel, like it is or isn’t, like you can’t see” how your vote is counted, she said, “then where’s my rights?”

As Trump falsely protested his loss with rumors and vague allegations that would fuel the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, Martinez became more suspicious that something untoward had happened in her county. She joined a group called the Mason County Voter Research Project that went door to door, checking whether voters who cast ballots in 2020 actually lived where they were registered.

The group was headed by Duenkel. It issued a report claiming that it found 441 “anomalies” in the voter rolls, including possible votes by a dead person. But McGuire said the vast majority of the cases the office knew about or were simply erroneous. Only about 67 of the 44,000 voters had possible issues. A Seattle television station retraced the group’s steps and found numerous errors in its report, including the allegation that a dead person voted.

At one of the first tables he sat at during the “speed-dating” event, voters challenged Duenkel about the television station’s report.

“They disputed some of the findings, but in the end they had to agree there were some things that couldn’t be explained,” Duenkel said.

The issue dogged him as he moved around the room.

“It feels like you’re talking about pocket change,” Chris McGee, a 63-year-old retired carpenter and self-identified liberal, told Duenkel when the candidate touted his door-to-door investigation.

“Small numbers matter,” Duenkel shot back, noting that a recent city council race had been decided by five votes. “Think of it as if it were your bank account, and your bank said, ‘Fifty dollars, what’s the big deal?'”

Duenkel repeatedly told voters he was not claiming “fraud.” But, at one table, after Duenkel described the purported “ghost voters” he said his door-knocking had uncovered, Marisa Kaneshiro, a legal assistant, responded incredulously, “You just alleged fraud right here!”

Another voter dropped in front of the candidate a copy of the local weekly newspaper with the headline “State Rebuts Duenkel Claims.”

At one point, Duenkel seemed to argue that repeated wins by Democrats in the reliably blue state were partly responsible for conservative skepticism about voting.

“There are a lot of people who have lost confidence” in election security, Duenkel lamented. “They are seeing outcomes they don’t believe in.” That, he added, “is a subtle form of voter suppression.”

McGuire faced pushback from voters, as well. At one table, several voters asked about security surrounding drop boxes — only one in the county has a video camera filming it. McGuire argued that the existing sensors, like motion detectors, were as good as they could do right now. Minutes earlier, Duenkel had earned nods and smiles criticizing drop box security.

“I’m not excited about drop boxes, I think that’s fodder for misuse,” Leslie Skelly, a 75-year-old retired restauranteur and a Republican at the table said afterward. He added that “I liked them both,” but is leaning toward Duenkel.

Other voters at the table slammed McGuire over limiting observers during the 2020 count.

“I am proud of the fact that none of my staff got sick,” he said.

At a final table, one woman confronted McGuire, unspooling a complex, jargon-laden story about a voting machine update after 2020 that she claimed deleted election data.

“Why haven’t you told the people about the deletion of the web activity logs?!” she demanded as the moderators rang a cowbell, signaling the candidates had to move to the next table.

McGuire seemed baffled by the charge. “Well, you know about it,” he said as he left.

Beanpole thin and gregarious, McGuire chatted amiably with attendees long after the event finished. Duenkel, more compact and soft-spoken, in a navy suit without a tie, shook several hands but left sooner.

Outside the building, Barbara Weingarden, a 51-year-old dietary worker who described herself as politically “non-denominational,” said she was confused by Duenkel’s intimations of voter fraud.

“Steve was bringing that in from Seattle, or other metro areas,” she said, adding she was sure there was no cheating in her county. “We’re a small community.”

___

Associated Press coverage of democracy receives support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

___

Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              Republican Steve Duenkel, Mason County auditor candidate, center right, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. Duenkel, a retired Boeing worker is challenging Auditor Paddy McGuire for the office that oversees elections in Mason County. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Democrat Paddy McGuire, incumbent Mason County auditor, center right, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Republican Steve Duenkel, Mason County auditor candidate, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. Duenkel, a retired Boeing worker is challenging Auditor Paddy McGuire for the office that oversees elections in Mason County. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Paddy McGuire, Democrat incumbent Mason County auditor, left, shakes hands with his election opponent Republican Steve Duenkel, right, before a candidate forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. Between is Mason County Comissioner Sharon Trask. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Democrat Paddy McGuire, Mason County auditor, ponders a question during a video interview, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Democrat Paddy McGuire, Mason County auditor, laughs while showing his collection of election memorabilia he has in his office, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash.. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Democrat Paddy McGuire, Mason County auditor, talks with a resident Sandra Nielson while canvassing for the upcoming election, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Ballot drop box outside of the Mason County auditors office is seen behind a voter registration banner, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. Washington is an all-mail voting state. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              The sealed box containing the tabulated test ballots after a logic and accuracy test that is done in all Washington counties is displayed Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Marie Stevenson Mason County election superintendent, places the scanned test ballots in a box that will be sealed during the logic and accuracy test that is done in all Washington counties, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Susan Blankenship, assistant election administrator, left, and Marie Stevenson Mason County election superintendent, right, check accuracy of the results of the test ballots during the logic and accuracy test that is done in all Washington counties, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Democrat Paddy McGuire, incumbent Mason County auditor, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Republican Steve Duenkel, Mason County auditor candidate, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. Duenkel, a retired Boeing worker is challenging Auditor Paddy McGuire for the office that oversees elections in Mason County. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
            
              Democrat Paddy McGuire, incumbent Mason County auditor, center, talks with voters during before a "candidate speed-dating" style forum, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

AP

Associated Press

Reports say 2022 was good for Nevada casinos, Vegas tourism

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The year 2022 was good for gambling and tourism in Nevada, where winnings at casinos statewide set calendar year records and Las Vegas visitor tallies nearly reached levels before the coronavirus pandemic. “Las Vegas enjoyed a robust recovery trajectory across core tourism indicators in 2022,” the regional Convention and Visitors Authority […]
16 hours ago
Elliot Morehead, 16 of Sioux Falls, tells a House Health and Human Services committee Tuesday, Jan....
Associated Press

S. Dakota lawmakers push bill to bar transgender youth care

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A state House committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth in South Dakota. Supporters argued a bill barring youth from accessing puberty blockers, hormones and surgery would protect adolescents from irreversible damage, while opponents argued it only blocks them from becoming their authentic […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

GM conditionally OKs $650M Nevada lithium mine investment

RENO, Nev. (AP) — General Motors Co. has conditionally agreed to invest $650 million in Lithium Americas Corp. in a deal that will give GM exclusive access to the first phase of a mine planned near the Nevada-Oregon line with the largest known source of lithium in the U.S. The equity investment the companies announced […]
16 hours ago
FILE - Travelers wade through the line to drop off bags at the Southwest Airlines check-in counter ...
Associated Press

Lawmakers aim to raise penalties for US airline disruptions

Senators who want to impose tougher penalties when U.S. airlines strand or delay passengers say they finally might be able to turn their ideas into law because of outrage over debacles like the one at Southwest Airlines in December. Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts said Tuesday they will again offer […]
16 hours ago
FILE - President Joe Biden, right, at the top of a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss le...
Associated Press

Biden, McCarthy, once breakfast mates, wrangle over US debt

WASHINGTON (AP) — Not so long ago, Joe Biden and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy used to talk things over at breakfast in Biden’s vice presidential home at the Naval Observatory. Biden was intent in those days on “keeping up relations with the opposition party,” as he writes in his memoir, and the new House majority […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Vermont lawmakers mull bills to protect abortion providers

Vermont lawmakers are taking testimony on a pair of bills that aim to protect health care workers who provide abortions and gender-affirming health care in Vermont from legal and disciplinary action from states that limit or ban those practices. The bills were introduced seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and […]
16 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Fiesta Bowl Foundation

Celebrate 50 years of Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade magic!

Since its first production in the early 1970s, the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe has been a staple of Valley traditions, bringing family fun and excitement to downtown Phoenix.
...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet can improve everyday life

Quantum Fiber supplies unlimited data with speeds up to 940 mbps, enough to share 4K videos with coworkers 20 times faster than a cable.
Conspiracy pushers target races for local election posts