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The Nevada Independent

“Big Lie” looms over Nevada’s legislative primaries

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
Bert Johnson
Bert Johnson
Election 2022GovernmentLegislature
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Editor’s Note: This is part of ongoing coverage created through a partnership between KUNR Public Radio and The Nevada Independent focused on the influence of the baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by massive voter fraud, popularly referred to as the “Big Lie.” 

The first public hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection included a video interview with convicted Capitol rioter Robert Schornak.

“What really made me want to come was the fact that I had supported Trump all that time,” he said in a video played during the Thursday night hearing. “I did believe that the election was being stolen and Trump asked us to come.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, Schornak joined thousands of other supporters of former president Donald Trump as they broke into the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Five people died and four police officers later committed suicide as a result. 

The violence that day was motivated by Trump’s “Big Lie,” a series of false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against him through massive voter fraud. There is no evidence of voter fraud in an amount that would meaningfully change the 2020 election results, but the pervasive and continued rhetoric of a “stolen” election has continued — two-thirds of GOP voters surveyed in an NPR/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this year agreed that “voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.” 

Embracing the “Big Lie” is common among top-level Nevada Republicans running in 2022 — from U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, who fronted the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn Nevada’s 2020 presidential election off of unfounded claims of voter fraud, to secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, who has aligned himself with far-right activists seeking to end early voting and decertify electronic vote machines. Marchant declared to attendees in a debate earlier this year that “your vote hasn't counted for decades.”

But down the ballot, lies about the 2020 election and the security of Nevada’s election system have also continued to fester.

An analysis by The Nevada Independent and KUNR found that 16 candidates in about a third of state legislative primaries have publicly cast doubt on the election process, or expressed their support for the “Big Lie” — a substantial number that experts warn could be a sign of growing support for fringe movements and anti-democratic sentiments.

The Nevada Legislature on the final day of the 81st session, Monday, May 31, 2021 in Carson City. During the legislative session, state lawmakers made the widespread distribution of mail-in ballots permanent for elections in the Silver State. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Jacob Deaville, a Republican running for northwest Las Vegas’ Assembly District 37, echoed false allegations made by members of Trump’s re-election campaign in a Facebook post just four days after the 2020 election.

“This appears to be the first presidential election where widespread voter suppression/tampering/fraud will effect [sic] the outcome of the election,” he wrote. 

Libertarian candidate Mindy Robinson, who is running in Assembly District 35 (Las Vegas’ Southern Highlands area), shared a CBS news article on Facebook in mid-February last year about the U.S. Supreme Court declining to take up legal challenges mounted by Trump and the GOP. The nation’s highest court did not review the challenges because they would not have changed the results of the election and relied heavily on speculation and unproven accusations, among other reasons

“The Supreme Court won’t even look at voter fraud cases,” she said. “The people need to take our government back NOW because this is what tyranny looks like.”

Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, warned continued support of the “Big Lie” could prove dangerous for future elections and transfers of power.

“Your democracy, your respect for the Constitution, and the rule of law has vaporized,” Lokken said. “This is how every democracy ends, and it doesn't end well.”

Down-ballot legislative elections typically see less engagement, so a smaller pool of voters can have a greater say on state policies, as the 63 members of Nevada’s Legislature set policy influencing elections administration, which can include voter identification laws and mail-in balloting.

Over the last four years, Democrats have controlled all three branches of Nevada’s state government, passing bills expanding mail-voting access, allowing for same-day voter registration and automatically restoring voting rights to convicted felons released from prison. They have also blocked a long list of Republican election proposals, including requiring voter identification, from gaining any legislative traction after being introduced.

But legislative races are more likely to be affected by a possible red wave in the wake of rising inflation, high gas prices and President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings — meaning a growing number of legislative candidates embracing the “Big Lie” could wield substantial power over the state’s election system if control of either legislative chamber were to flip to Republican control in a battleground state which has not been reliably tied to either major party.

Once elected, candidates promoting the “Big Lie” could also be less responsive to the needs of their constituents, according to Mike Rothschild, an expert on conspiracy theories and the author of The Storm Is Upon Us.

“Who are these people loyal to? Are they going to be loyal to the people who voted for them?” Rothschild asked. “Or are they going to be loyal to the vast conspiracy that they are becoming part of, with Trump at the head of it?”

Growth of the “Big Lie”

Trump’s baseless assertions of voter fraud came long before Biden’s 2020 electoral victory,  going back to the 2016 election. Once he was in office, his claims were adopted by QAnon, which began in obscure online forums in 2017 but crossed into the mainstream over the course of Trump’s presidency. 

The movement asserts that Trump is fighting a Satanic cabal of pedophilic Democrats and wealthy elites – which is based on a centuries-old antisemitic myth used to justify violence against Jewish communities in Europe. 

QAnon’s followers have taken their false and dangerous beliefs to extreme lengths. Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot by a police officer while breaking into the Speaker’s Lobby during the storming of the Capitol, was motivated by her belief in QAnon

Rothschild says the pandemic – and the mass anxiety and isolation that came with it – enabled QAnon to take root among people who were desperate for a sense of community. The conspiracy was helped along by high-profile conservative figures, including Trump himself

As a result, Rothschild says QAnon’s belief system has become fully enmeshed in the Republican mainstream, with certain elements gaining prominence, such as the “Big Lie,” while others quietly exist in the background.

“Now, it's like, if you're not fully ensconced in conspiracy theories, you're gonna have a hard time getting off the ground,” he said. “If you are just a mainstream conservative who wants lower taxes and stronger national defense, but you also believe that the election was fair and Trump actually lost, the party wants nothing to do with you.”

Before the 2020 election, Trump used his campaign speeches to falsely claim that mail-in ballots can be accepted without signatures and that Republicans likely wouldn’t be sent mail-in ballots, but dogs and dead people would. He called poll results indicating he was tied with Biden “fake” and said, “the only way we’re tied is if they screw around with the ballots, which they will do, in my opinion.”

According to Rothschild, that rhetoric was a deliberate, steady drumbeat that prepared Trump supporters to reject the final results, growing alongside the QAnon movement.

“So when Trump lost, it was easy for him to come in and say the election was stolen,” Rothschild said.

Trump, Nevada and “fraud”

In the days following the 2020 election, but before Nevada was called for Biden, the Trump campaign announced a lawsuit looking to stop the tally of what the campaign called “improper votes” and alleging “irregularities” in the election process. 

Though Biden ultimately won Nevada by 2.39 percentage points, or 33,596 votes, representatives of the Trump campaign filed another lawsuit in mid-November of that year, contesting those results. Almost a month later, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled against the campaign, saying their claims of voter fraud were baseless.

“Contestants did not prove … that any illegal votes were cast and counted,” he wrote in the order. “Reasonable doubt is one based on reason, not mere possibility.”

The state Supreme Court upheld the order on appeal, about two weeks after it certified the state’s election results and granted the six electoral votes for Biden. Legal defeats did not dampen the cries of voter fraud — the state Republican Party in mid-December held an illegitimate ceremony purporting to pledge the state’s electoral votes to Trump, submitting spurious election documents to the secretary of state’s office, Congress and the National Archives.

Three months later, Nevada Republican Party leadership delivered four boxes of what it claimed was evidence of nearly 123,000 fraudulent votes cast in the 2020 election to the secretary of state’s office. 

One month later, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office determined the concerns “do not amount to evidentiary support for the contention that the 2020 general election was plagued by widespread voter fraud.”

The failure of the challenges still has not quelled the election denial movement. Since the certification of the election, secretary of state hopeful and former Assemblyman Marchant and other 2020 election deniers have attempted to shift voting processes at the local government level. 

In March, Marchant led election deniers in a tour of rural county commissions, calling on county leaders to end the use of voting machines owned by Dominion Voting Systems — a company central to many unfounded conspiracy theories about the 2020 election — and use hand-counted paper ballots instead. At least three counties agreed to make such a switch, despite warnings from elections experts that hand-counting of ballots would only inject uncertainty into the election process. 

Though Washoe County also received a proposal for sweeping election changes from Commissioner Jeanne Herman, including a move to almost all paper ballots, the commissioners chose to drop it.

Alongside the attempts to shift voting practices, federal officials are preparing for backlash against legitimate election returns. A year out from the Jan. 6 insurrection, a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that about one in three Americans believe that “violence against the government can at times be justified”⁠— which The Post characterized as the largest share of respondents to hold that view in the last two decades. As a result of ongoing tensions, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin on Tuesday, warning the threat of extremist violence may grow in the coming months and “several high-profile events could be exploited to justify acts of violence.”

Election deniers, election doubters

Legislative candidates who have expressed support for the "Big Lie" fall into different camps. Some – especially those who have already served in the Legislature – strike a careful balance of amplifying disinformation without explicitly endorsing it.

In a December 2020 Facebook post, Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) who is running unopposed for re-election, complained of “potential election fraud.” 

“No one is happy!” she added. 

Others are less subtle. They explicitly refer to false narratives about the election, such as conspiracy theories surrounding Dominion Voting Systems, which has sued the Trump campaign for defamation

Robinson, the Assembly candidate for Las Vegas’ District 35, spoke to protesters in Washington D.C. the day before Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, but she said she did not storm the U.S. Capitol.

“We were full of hope — we wanted an audit. It's not like we wanted them to change the election to our favor,” Robinson said in a recent interview. “People knew in their states stuff happened that wasn't kosher.”

During recent interviews with KUNR and The Nevada Independent, other candidates said doubts surrounding the election necessitate further investigation. For example, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden), who is running for state Senate, said he recognized Biden as the duly elected president, but questions whether Biden was elected illegally. 

“Was he elected illegally? I don't know,” Wheeler said. “When the Congress ratified that, he is the duly elected president — that's simple. Did they do it wrong? Did they do it right? I don't know.”

During the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers introduced a suite of legislation related to elections with the goal of “enacting meaningful election reform.” They proposed everything from full-scale repeals of expanded mail-in voting to requiring identification to vote. 

Wheeler was one of three lawmakers who sponsored AJR13, which proposed moving certification of the election from the state Supreme Court to the Legislature, coming as GOP lawmakers from across the country attempted to gain broad influence over the mechanics of voting. That bill, along with other Republican-backed “election reform” measures, died in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. 

But Democrats did adjust some regulations, including limiting mail-in ballots to only active registered voters, shortening the period in which ballots could be received post-election day, enhancing the coordination of reporting statistics and improving the training of workers on signature verification.

In an interview, Vem Miller, a candidate for Northwest Las Vegas’ Assembly District 13, added he believes that there is evidence of “serious issues” with the election process in Nevada and other states.

“Rather than making a concrete statement about, ‘Was 2020 100 percent stolen?’ I'd like to say that there's so many fundamental issues that raise suspicion,” he said. “All of which must be addressed in order for the public to feel confident about the election process.”

Political Science Professor Lokken said candidates painting any kind of doubt on a close and competitive election are most likely looking to enhance their base of supporters. But he said incumbents (such as Dickman and Wheeler) who walk the narrow tightrope between election denial and support for the existing system risk undermining themselves.

”There is a sort of inherent hypocrisy to the argument of questioning something that puts you back in office and you've never questioned your own legitimacy,” Lokken said.

Identity struggles

Of the 16 legislative candidates who explicitly support disinformation surrounding the last election, one is registered as a Democrat, two received support from the Assembly Republican Caucus and almost half were endorsed by the Nevada Republican State Convention. A quarter were endorsed by the Freedom Caucus, a subset of the most right-leaning Republican state legislators. 

May polling of likely GOP primary voters by The Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights found a near-even schism between supporters of former President Donald Trump first (43 percent) and those who identified themselves as supporters of the Republican Party first (42 percent).

The ideological splits within the Republican Party could drive voters away, according to Lokken – especially as nonpartisan registration grows. Socially conservative issues may be a priority for party leadership, but support for those ideas is not widespread. 

“The Republican Party in 2022 struggles with its identity,” he said.

As results from early-primary elections in states such as Ohio and West Virginia have shown, Trump-endorsed candidates have performed quite well, pointing toward a shift from conventional party-line candidates to more radical ones.

“A Trump endorsement is currently the most impactful endorsement a Republican candidate can receive in a primary election right now,” Mike Noble with OH Predictive Insights told The Nevada Independent in May.

But a recent report from NPR indicates that Republican voters are not necessarily in lockstep with Trump and may not always follow his primary endorsements. Conspiracy theory expert Rothschild says the future of the Republican Party – and Trump’s influence – is uncertain. 

“I don't know that we're really going to know where the Republican Party is going until Trump's not in control of it anymore,” Rothschild said. “And he's going to be in control of it until he decides not to be.”

Lokken said the “Big Lie” is prevalent in most state Republican parties across the country, but skepticism around the falsehood is growing. He added that many Nevada Republicans never drank the “‘Big Lie’ Kool-Aid” and there’s the potential for it to fizzle.

“If our democracy survives this, it'll be because voters will start using the power at the ballot,” he said. “The candidates and the parties will begin to realize that they either change, or they get eliminated.”

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