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Sept. 24, 2023

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Vote fraud conspiracy theories driving candidates for elections offices in Washington

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp smiles while greeting supporters at a rally Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Mount Vernon, Wash. Culp, police chief of the town of Republic, Wash., and author of the book "American Cop: Upholding the Constitution and Defending Your Right to Bear Arms," will face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in November.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp smiles while greeting supporters at a rally Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Mount Vernon, Wash. Culp, police chief of the town of Republic, Wash., and author of the book "American Cop: Upholding the Constitution and Defending Your Right to Bear Arms," will face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in November. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Photo Gallery

Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire has spent nearly two decades helping run elections, including stints as Oregon deputy secretary of state and at the Department of Defense, ensuring military service members overseas could vote.

For most of that time, public confidence in the accuracy of ballot counts was a given, said McGuire, who has spent the last three-plus years overseeing elections in the conservative-leaning rural county just south of Puget Sound.

“When I started in this business, election officials were sort of treated like pharmacists, trusted innately,” McGuire said.

But former President Donald Trump’s continuing efforts to sow doubts about his 2020 loss have vastly diminished that trust. Across the country, candidates motivated by Trump’s false assertions of widespread voter fraud are running for office, including positions that oversee elections at the state and local levels.

This year, as he seeks a second term, McGuire, a Democrat, has drawn a challenger running on an “election integrity” platform and pushing to stop using machines to count ballots.

“Let’s face it, people have lost confidence in our election system. … There’s lots of questions about what happened in 2020,” Steve Duenkel, a Republican who is running against McGuire, said during a recent podcast interview.

In that interview, Duenkel also touted “2000 Mules,” a movie by conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza that makes unproven and discredited claims about a massive ballot-box-stuffing scheme by Democrats.

Duenkel has been endorsed by Douglas Frank, a prominent election-conspiracy theorist from Ohio who tours the country touting claims he’s discovered secret algorithms used to rig the 2020 election.

“I’ve been working with Steve on fixing 2020 for the better part of year now,” Frank wrote in March on the social media site Telegram.

McGuire said he’s disturbed that his opponent is associating with Frank’s theories, which have been debunked as nonsensical by experts and by Republican-led reviews in swing states.

“It’s madness,” McGuire said. “I mean, there’s really no other way to describe it other than just complete junk science.”

Duenkel, a retired Boeing manager, declined repeated requests for interviews from The Seattle Times and public radio’s Northwest News Network.

McGuire isn’t the only incumbent county auditor facing a challenger who’s making election integrity an issue.

In Pend Oreille County, longtime Republican Auditor Marianne Nichols has drawn a fellow Republican challenger, Tamara Newman, who told the local newspaper, “We should have proof that there was no outside interference in our elections.”

In the contest for secretary of state, an “America First” Republican candidate, Tamborine Borrelli, leads a group that has sued several county elections offices alleging massive “vote flipping” in the 2020 election. The group and its attorney were recently fined more than $28,000 by the state Supreme Court for frivolous legal filings.

Three candidates for Washington Legislature are listing “election integrity” as their party preference. And Trump-endorsed challengers Loren Culp and Joe Kent, running against Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler, respectively, also have echoed the ex-president’s claims of election fraud.

Such candidates in Washington are part of a national trend that troubles experts tracking the spread of election deniers seeking important public offices.

Across the country, nearly two-thirds of secretary of state races and half of gubernatorial and attorney general races this year include at least one candidate who denies the results of the 2020 election, according to States United Action, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization devoted to protecting free, fair and secure elections.

“There really has been a slow-moving insurrection across the country,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO and co-founder of States United, who said the same disinformation that propelled the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol is continuing to undermine confidence in elections. “This is like arsonists trying to run the fire department.”

“This absolutely is not a partisan issue,” Lydgate added. “The people who stood up and defended our elections in 2020 were county, local, statewide elections officials from both sides of the aisle.”

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The surge in election denial comes even as the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack has produced sworn testimony from top Trump advisers who say they told the former president that Joe Biden won the 2020 election fairly and that Trump’s claims of widespread fraud were baseless.

In his recent interviews with a podcast and another local media outlet, Duenkel did not explicitly bring up Trump’s loss, but he echoed some of the former president’s allies’ rhetoric casting doubt on the reliability of vote-counting machines.

Duenkel says he’d work to educate Mason County residents “what those machines are really all about,” if he’s elected, and work with county commissioners to “set those machines aside” and move to “old school, hand counting of the paper ballots.”

McGuire rejects the notion that voting machines are unreliable.

“The simple fact is, any professional election administrator will tell you that machines are better at counting votes than people. They’re more accurate. And we have several checks and balances to make sure that the computers are counted correctly,” McGuire said, pointing to pre- and post-election testing. Close races are also verified through hand recounts.

Before filing to run for auditor this year, Duenkel volunteered on an election-integrity committee for the Mason County Republican Party. The party has publicized a resolution declaring ballot tabulation machines vulnerable to tampering and asserting “numerous instances of election irregularities.”

Duenkel also has participated in a statewide canvassing effort led by conservative activist Glen Morgan, in which a team of volunteers has gone door to door searching for suspected illegal voters or voters who no longer live at their registered address.

Duenkel said in the podcast that canvassing found numerous “anomalies,” including one dead voter and one noncitizen who voted. He said a final report on those results is forthcoming.

Morgan is a longtime Thurston County activist known for filing hundreds of campaign finance complaints against Democratic candidates and allied groups. He has endorsed Duenkel and recently posted a video attacking McGuire for his office’s acceptance of about $33,000 in grant money from a nonprofit funded by billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.

The video paints the money in a sinister light, calling Zuckerberg “creepy,” suggesting his money controlled the county election and displaying a fake quote from him telling McGuire, “Now I own you.”

The Zuckerberg-funded grants in the run-up to the 2020 election — $400 million in total — were used to help elections offices across the country conduct elections during the pandemic. Similar grants were accepted by other elections administrators in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans.

McGuire said Mason County’s grant was approved by the Republican-majority county commission and paid for things like sending a mailer to every household in the county showing where ballot drop boxes were located.

“To be criticized for taking a grant and spending it locally to provide voter information that I don’t have the budget for otherwise is ridiculous,” he said.

McGuire noted that in the 2020 election, Trump won Mason County, as did all but one Republican candidate for statewide office.

“So if I’m stealing elections for Democrats, I’m terrible at it,” he said. “I’m really, really terrible at it.”