SUAMICO, Wis. (AP) — EDITORS/NEWS DIRECTORS:
As local elections and the 2024 presidential election approach, election conspiracy theories continue to permeate swaths of the country, fanned by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
For a subset of Trump’s most ardent supporters, election denialism has formed the bedrock of what many local officials have described as almost a faith system built on conspiracy theories perpetuated by online misinformation and far-right figures.
Local, grassroots groups are taking aim at this election denialism on a small-scale in their own communities. Among them is Keep Our Republic, a pro-democracy group trying to build trust in elections by hosting forums in small towns throughout Wisconsin. With eyes on Michigan and Pennsylvania as well, the organization is working alongside local officials to teach residents about elections, hoping to demystify the process, working against a massive tide of election conspiracies in the perennial presidential battleground state.
The Associated Press traveled to the Village of Suamico, a town of 13,000 that borders Oconto County on the shores of Lake Michigan, just outside Green Bay, where Keep Our Republic hosted a community engagement event.
Here is how the fight against election denialism in Wisconsin can offer a deeper understanding of how to report out the issue in your own community.
READ AP’S ARTICLE
NONPARTISAN ORGANIZING NEEDED
Polling from last summer by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 22% of Republicans have high confidence that votes in the 2024 presidential election will be counted accurately, compared to 71% of Democrats. And a solid majority of Republicans continue to believe President Joe Biden’s election win was illegitimate.
Kathy Bernier, the Wisconsin state director of Keep Our Republic and a Republican former state senator, said she’s been “yelled at more times than I can count” for breaking with her own party to criticize those spreading false election claims. But she thinks a nonpartisan approach to election denialism is a necessity and that Republicans need to be reaching out to one another in order to combat false claims.
Keep Our Republic’s leaders include a mix of political parties with slightly more Republicans, something Bernier calls an asset.
“We need for Democrats and Republicans to join arms in this effort,” she said. “There has to be a united effort.”
IN YOUR COMMUNITY: Identify voices from both parties who are pushing back against election denialism. Reach out and interview them about their work, their ideas and what they are hearing from community members. Be aware of local officials who are spreading election conspiracies in your community.
STARTING LOCAL WITH ELECTION EDUCATION
Distrust in elections is a national issue. It has led to attempts to ditch voting machines in favor of less accurate and efficient hand counts, threats of violence against election workers and the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. But the key to combatting it is starting local, the leaders of Keep Our Republic say.
“The best way to help people understand is to bring the experts to them and connect with them like this,” said Kathy Bernier, state director of the nonprofit group, which emphasizes that it is nonpartisan. “Then they can spread that information to their own friends, family and neighbors.”
Kim Pytleski, a clerk from the rural Oconto County, said she hears conspiracy theories nearly everywhere she goes, from restaurants to bus stops. In those moments, she starts a conversation with people and asks them why they believe this.
IN YOUR COMMUNITY: Use your sources or build new relationships and find out if there are any local events designed to educate people on the election process. Interview the organizers and ask people in attendance what brought them there and how they are feeling after attending. Many election officials are also moving toward making parts of the process, such as testing equipment and certifying results, open to the public. Ask your local officials if this is something they are doing and, if so, check it out in person and talk to community members who are also attending.
COMBATTING ELECTION DENIALISM TAKES TIME
Local officials described the process of rebuilding trust in elections almost like couples therapy. One of the main factors is that it takes time and often repeated conversations.
Pytleski tells the story of tells the story of a man she met who didn’t trust ballot tabulators. The man wrote her a letter then came to her office, where they sat down to talk about his concerns. He left unsatisfied and came to two other community events where Pytleski was speaking, staying afterward to ask her more questions.
After the second event, he thanked her and said, “I trust you.”
“I didn’t earn his trust just by my title,” Pytleski said. “I earned it by listening, being patient, acknowledging his fears and concerns and giving him the correct information, again and again, over time. That’s how you change minds.”
Combatting election denialism comes with a slew of obstacles that local officials have described as at times unwavering.
For example, lack of public awareness of election processes creates information gaps that make people vulnerable to misinformation. People also consume news that confirms their biases and move to areas where they are surrounded by people who think as they do, Bernier said.
“If you’ve closed your mind to the truth, there’s not always a lot we can do,” Bernier said. “We’re working on those who are hovering around the middle.”
Meanwhile, other groups are spreading a conflicting message about elections in Wisconsin – that they’re rigged, not secure and that fraud is rampant. Their efforts are aided by prominent voices in the election conspiracy movement, including MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and Douglas Frank.
And even when officials build trust in local elections, it can be more difficult for them to persuade residents to trust the system as a whole, especially in urban areas, many said.
“There’s a saying that, ‘It’s very easy to scam somebody but it’s much harder to convince someone they’re being scammed,’” said Reid Ribble, a former U.S. representative for Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district and an advisor to the nonprofit Keep Our Republic. “This whole idea of your vote not being counted becomes almost an urban legend.”
CONSIDER THESE REPORTING AVENUES
— Search for the grassroots organizations combatting election denialism in your own community and reach out to local election officials who are doing this work on the ground. Do they have any events planned? Do they feel like their work is making a difference, why or why not? What obstacles are they facing? Many of these organizations are operating on social media, including local Facebook groups. You might also ask local officials or leaders at community institutions such as libraries, universities and colleges if they’re aware of any grassroots groups doing this work.
— Part of reporting on election denialism is understanding the election misinformation that’s out there, as well as credible threats to local elections. AP recently put out a Localize It guide on elections misinformation.
— Talk to people directly about why they distrust elections. Their responses are likely varied and deeply personal, pointing to why some local officials may feel an individualized, one-on-one approach can be effective.
— Be aware of local groups spreading election conspiracies and of national election denialism figures, such as Douglas Frank, who travel the country to do talks and presentations. Frank, for example, has traveled throughout Texas and to dozens of other states, claiming to have uncovered an algorithm proving the 2020 election was stolen, though his conclusions have been debunked by experts.
— Find out which companies are behind your local community’s election equipment and ask about the work they are doing to build trust. The Boston-based company Clear Ballot, for example, operates in 13 states, including in Wisconsin’s Chippewa and Sheboygan Counties, said Carolyn Weigold, the company’s marketing and communications manager. Clear Ballot has a new white paper series called “Election Insights” that explains processes such as election audits or voting by mail in a way that is accessibly to voters. The company is also sending representatives to Keep Our Republic’s events to engage directly with residents. Weigold said many voting machine companies have been prioritizing this work in recent years as election denialism has spread.
— Many local election officials are seeing an increase in threats of violence and attempts to flood election offices with records requests. Consider asking officials in your community if they have experienced anything similar.
Localize It is an occasional feature produced by The Associated Press for its customers’ use. Questions can be directed to Katie Oyan at firstname.lastname@example.org.