Interviewers told U.S. election officials they were nonpartisan observers conducting surveys for educational purposes. They were actually feeding information to the America Project, a group run by conspiracy theorists campaigning for a return to hand-counted ballots.
Pro-Trump group gathers intel for its war on voting machines
In June, a man and a woman turned up unannounced at the office of Catherine Roeske, the city clerk in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. They wanted to ask Roeske detailed questions about how local elections were run.
“We’re pretty much these grassroots people,” the man said, according to an audio recording of the encounter. “We’re nonpartisan,” the woman added. All they wanted, she said, was to educate citizens about the electoral process.
Roeske dutifully answered their questions. Only later did she learn from a Reuters reporter that the couple were part of a national effort to gather intelligence for prominent allies of former U.S. President Donald Trump who promote stolen-election conspiracy theories. And that intelligence would be used primarily to campaign for radical changes in the U.S. voting system that election officials overwhelmingly oppose.
Roeske got another surprise when she reviewed a summary of her interview posted online by the surveyors: It was riddled with mistakes, potentially fueling the misinformation that many voting administrators are struggling to combat.
The Oak Creek survey was one of more than 260 conducted with county and city election officials across eight battleground states and sponsored by the America Project. The influential right-wing group was co-founded by Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s national security advisor, and wealthy businessman Patrick Byrne. The organization told Reuters it is using the information to fuel a multi-state campaign to promote the Trump-backed agenda of eliminating electronic voting machines and returning to hand-counted paper ballots.
The America Project finances litigation seeking to overturn the 2020 election and public campaigns challenging the integrity of U.S. voting systems. It also donates heavily to groups backing pro-Trump election deniers who are campaigning for top state offices. Weeks after the 2020 election, both Flynn and Byrne visited the White House to urge Trump to use the military to seize voting machines in an effort to overturn the election result, according to the congressional investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Byrne and Flynn didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Many surveyors working with the America Project told election officials that they were politically neutral and engaged in voter education. Chris Quackenbush, a Republican who interviewed officials in Florida, told Reuters the surveyors only “pretended” to be nonpartisan. The real objective was to gather technical information on voting machines to help wage a campaign against them, said Quackenbush, a former software executive who wore a “NO VOTING MACHINES” badge during an interview.
The surveyors from right-wing groups only “pretended” to be nonpartisan when approaching election administrators. The information from their interviews on voting machines and other hot-button issues could be used to “attack” or “sue” the officials.
Information from the surveys, she said, could help identify “problem areas” in how local officials run elections. “It could be used to attack them. It could be used to improve them.” She added: “It could be used to sue them.”
Reuters interviewed 45 election officials who were approached for the survey. Only two of them were aware of the America Project’s involvement. Thirteen said their responses were misrepresented or misreported in the surveyors’ summaries of their discussions. The errors often involved the administrators’ views on voting machines or other hot-button issues.
Reporters for this story also filed public records requests to obtain emails and messages exchanged between election officials and surveyors, and reviewed hours of interview recordings that the surveyors posted online.
Asked why surveyors didn’t explain the America Project’s involvement, the organization said that it partnered with state-level groups and wanted them to be “front and center.” The America Project denied hiding its involvement. “We are proud of it, and refer to it as a concrete example of how we are promoting election integrity in our fundraising efforts,” said America Project spokesperson Kristin Davis in a written statement.
Davis said the organization wrote the surveys and trained the surveyors to reassure the officials they interviewed that the effort was nonpartisan. She said the surveyors’ failure to disclose their political loyalties didn’t undermine that claim. “In a democracy, people are allowed to support political parties,” Davis said, adding that it would be “unfortunate” if any surveyors were only “pretending to be nonpartisan.”
Davis said the information from the surveys would help promote an “election reform agenda” in each state, including the elimination of voting machines. She said none of the information will be used to attack or sue election officials.
Election officials and experts overwhelmingly say that getting rid of voting machines would make elections more vulnerable to fraud and error; officials who took the surveys consistently rejected the idea of hand-counted paper ballots. Davis said understanding the reasons for their opposition would be “incredibly helpful” to the America Project as it crafts a strategy to convince those officials that hand-counting “can be cheaper, easier and faster.”
Asked why some surveyors told officials they were engaged in voter education, Davis said the effort could help the America Project “better encourage participation in election reform.” She said some surveyors may have interpreted that goal as voter education. Addressing mistakes in reports on the surveys, Davis said some interviewers might have misinterpreted officials’ statements or failed to capture “conversational nuance.”
The surveyors wrote up the election officials’ answers and posted accounts of their interviews online. While the questions differed slightly from state to state, all sought details on how election offices use and manage voting machines and ballot drop-boxes.
Most election officials who took the survey said they would have responded even had they known of the America Project’s involvement. They wanted to be transparent, they said, and valued opportunities to inform voters.
Still, some worried that their answers could be twisted to undermine public confidence in elections. Five officials expressed alarm that errors in the surveys could spread misinformation – a charge the America Project denied. One official said she wouldn’t meet with the surveyors again without the county’s attorney present.
‘Probably skews Dem’
The interviewers who visited Roeske’s office in Oak Creek identified themselves as Chuck Maier and Virginia Pratt. Oak Creek is part of Milwaukee County, one of two big urban counties that in 2020 helped Democrat Joe Biden defeat Trump in Wisconsin.
Maier and Pratt asked more than 30 questions. At least half the answers, as reported by the surveyors, contained assumptions or inaccuracies, Roeske said.
For example, the survey report noted that Roeske “probably skews Dem” in her choice of election inspectors. Roeske told Reuters that she accepts all qualified inspectors, regardless of political affiliations. The surveyors noted that inspectors were trained “by a contractor or NGO.” In the group’s audio recording, Roeske said she does the recruiting and training herself.
Roeske’s support for Oak Creek’s single drop-box seemed to prompt the closing remark on the surveyors’ account of the conversation: “I think she’s a Dem. She was pro-drop box.”
Roeske, an elected official, said she’s neither a Democrat nor a Republican; she’s officially nonpartisan.
Maier and Pratt couldn’t be reached for comment.
In other states, too, surveyors questioned election officials without disclosing the America Project’s involvement, according to audio recordings and Reuters interviews with officials.
In Virginia, a surveyor told Mecklenburg County’s registrar: “We’re nonpartisan – just to help students and citizens.” In Wisconsin, interviewers identified themselves as “concerned citizens” in Junction City and as “just a couple of girlfriends” in the town of Lanark.
Some surveyors seemed reluctant or unable to provide even basic information. Asked by an election official in Rockingham, Virginia, where their home base was located, one member of the group said he didn’t know. “Richmond comes to mind,” another said.
The America Project said that the state-level groups organizing the surveys disclose their America Project partnerships on their websites. Those state groups use “America First” – Trump’s political slogan – in their names. Some include conspiratorial partisan rants on their websites, falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen.
But Reuters found that surveyors rarely mentioned their affiliations with the America First groups. Oak Creek’s Roeske said the surveyors who visited her presented a business card that read, “We The People.” Others identified themselves as representatives of local organizations with less partisan-sounding names, such as “election transparency” groups in Texas and Florida.
Margetta Hill, the election administrator for Victoria County in Texas, said she would have rejected an interview request had she known the America Project was behind the surveys. Hill agreed to sit down with Maria Miller, who said she was a coordinator from Texas for Election Transparency, on July 27.
“The only reason I met with them was because they described themselves as nonpartisan,” she told Reuters.
At the county election office, Miller and three associates quizzed Hill on a range of topics, including the maintenance and security of voting machines.
Hill was surprised when Reuters told her that Miller’s group was backed by the America Project. In 2020, Miller was the national coordinator for Latinos for Trump, a Florida-based coalition. Miller also worked this year on the campaign of Bianca Gracia, a pro-Trump Republican candidate for the Texas legislature. Gracia – who said God had “appointed and assigned” her for the position – lost badly. She is now a “chief strategist” at the America Project.
In an interview, Miller described herself as a Christian conservative. Asked how the surveyors can call themselves nonpartisan given the America Project’s political activities, she responded that the organization calls itself nonpartisan. “As far as I know, they’re nonpartisan,” she said.
The surveyors who turned up in the Village of Amherst, Wisconsin, told Jodi Patoka, the clerk and treasurer, that they were “just citizens” with “no agenda,” according to an audio recording. Asked how she felt after learning from Reuters about the America Project’s involvement, Patoka replied: “Like we were lied to.”
The surveyors could not be reached for comment. Asked about the Village of Amherst interview, the America Project’s Davis said: “Perhaps this volunteer did not understand the nuances of the relationship” between the state group and the America Project, “but nothing has ever been done that is misleading.”
The America Project surveyors often told election officials that they aimed to improve election transparency. But the finances of the organization behind the surveys are opaque.
The America Project was incorporated in Delaware as a nonprofit in April 2021 and characterizes itself as a “nonpartisan social welfare organization.” Its initial non-profit federal tax filing – a public disclosure of its officers, revenue and spending – was due last spring. The group obtained a six-month extension that effectively shrouds its financial activity until just after the November elections.
The America Project says on its website that its “primary goal is to unite coalitions” around its core values. These extend beyond the conduct of elections to include border security, gun rights, parental rights, opposition to coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates, and promotion of Judeo-Christian traditions, according to its website and public statements.
While the organization describes itself as nonpartisan, the America Project’s federal tax-exempt status does not require that designation. But partisan political work cannot be its “primary” activity or account for more than half its spending.
An examination of the America Project’s social media accounts, public events and the political activities of its officers shows that the group is a powerful force in a nationwide movement to contest Trump’s 2020 loss and question the integrity of U.S. elections. The surveys are part of its “Operation Eagles Wings,” which broadly aims to organize local groups in battleground states to monitor the 2022 elections. The surveys were reported earlier by the election-affairs website Votebeat.
Byrne has blamed Trump’s 2020 loss on a non-existent international plot to turn America into a Chinese colony. He faces a $1.6 billion lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over false claims about its machines. He has denied any wrongdoing and is contesting the suit.
Byrne made a fortune as founder and chief executive of internet retailer Overstock.com. He said at an America Project news conference in February that he had given the organization about $8 million and would be covering all the group’s 2022 costs, amounting to “several million dollars.”
The group’s chief evangelist is co-founder Michael Flynn, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general and briefly Trump’s national security advisor, who was pardoned by Trump after pleading guilty in 2017 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with a Russian official. In frequent appearances around the country, Flynn has falsely claimed that Trump was robbed of reelection in 2020 by widespread voter fraud. He often speaks at events featuring adherents of QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy theory that casts Trump as a savior figure battling a Democratic cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles and cannibals.
Davis, the America Project spokesperson, said Flynn had “no managerial role” in the organization. “He is an outside strategic advisor and is not involved in any decision making,” she said. Flynn’s brother Joe is the America Project’s third co-founder and oversees its day-to-day operations. Joe Flynn did not respond to requests for comment.
The America Project provided more than $3 million to finance an audit of the 2020 election results in Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, according to the company that conducted the review, Cyber Ninjas. The audit was commissioned by Republican state legislators and backed by other pro-Trump organizations. The effort backfired: It found no evidence of election fraud and confirmed President Joe Biden’s victory.
The America Project has given $155,000 to a political action committee that promotes pro-Trump election deniers running for top state offices, according to campaign finance records. In Colorado, it donated $100,000 to a group that opposed a candidate running against an election conspiracy theorist seeking the Republican nomination for Secretary of State. And in Michigan, it gave another $100,000 to a Republican-run group pushing to rewrite state voting laws.
The America Project is also pursuing litigation challenging election results and policies. In Michigan, it has sponsored a new lawsuit brought by Republican candidates and officials seeking to void the state’s 2020 election results. In Georgia, it has funded VoterGA, a group that has filed several legal challenges to the state’s voting procedures and its handling of the 2020 election. Voter GA also has filed petitions with county election offices contesting the legitimacy of tens of thousands of voter registrations.
Just ‘asking questions’
In Florida, the election-official surveys were coordinated by Michael Thompson, who said he was paid by the America Project. Thompson is the state director of its affiliate, Florida for America First. The state group, however, conducted the surveys under a different name: Floridians for Election Transparency, of which Thompson is also the state director.
Asked by Reuters if he thought it was important to inform election officials that the America Project was behind the surveys, Thompson replied: “I don’t see why, really.”
Quackenbush, who worked on Thompson’s team, said election supervisors wouldn’t have talked had they known she was working with the America Project. “We weren’t supposed to be talking to the supervisor and saying: ’I’m a Republican, I’m here to look over your shoulder,’” she said. “They have been trained that we people making questions are breeding misinformation and malcontent in the voters.”
Quackenbush said she came away disappointed because the election officials she interviewed wanted to keep using voting machines. “That’s their security blanket,” she said.
Thompson briefly outlined the findings of the Florida surveys during a September presentation at a West Palm Beach conference that also featured right-wing election deniers campaigning for secretary-of-state positions.
He said his team had interviewed supervisors in about 30 of Florida’s 67 counties. “Unfortunately, about 10 of them wouldn’t even meet with us,” he said. “Why the hell wouldn’t they sit down and have a conversation with us? I mean, all we’re doing is asking questions.”
Mistakes and misinformation
Many surveyors’ accounts of their interviews were riddled with mistakes. At Reuters’ request, 30 election officials reviewed their surveys; nearly half said the interviewers had distorted their views or just got them plain wrong. This was potentially damaging, they said, because the surveys are spreading misinformation about sensitive issues such as voting machines and about election officials themselves, who are already enduring an unprecedented wave of threats and pressure.
One example is a survey that reported a June 24 interview with an election official in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, named Sue Milliard. County administrators were confused: There’s no Sue Milliard in Crawford’s election office. And no Crawford election official participated in the survey, said Gina Chatfield, the county’s chief clerk.
The published survey also said the county used voting machines made by Election Systems & Software and monitored ballot drop boxes with a security camera. But Crawford County doesn’t use ES&S voting machines and doesn’t have drop boxes, Chatfield said.
There is, however, an election official named Sue Milliard in Pennsylvania’s Elk County, about 100 miles to the east. She doesn’t recall talking to the group, said her manager, Kimberly Frey.
In Pennsylvania’s Northumberland County, Reuters asked two officials to review the group’s published survey. They found mistakes in nine of their responses to 33 questions. “You try to be transparent and open so that you can bring faith back to the process,” said the county’s chief clerk, Nathan Savidge. “But sometimes that turns around and bites you because then they use something against you.”
In Lycoming, also in Pennsylvania, elections director Forrest Lehman said the surveyors never disclosed their America Project backing. Had he known, Lehman said he would have been more guarded in his answers because of uncertainty over the group’s agenda.
The surveyors also made mistakes in its published report of Lehman’s answers. It said, for example, that a sheriff monitored video of the county’s drop box. No sheriff does this, Lehman explained, for a simple reason: “We don’t have any drop boxes.”
By Andrew Marshall, Peter Eisler and Jason Szep
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins
Art direction: John Emerson
Edited by Brian Thevenot