The Big Lie’s Long Shadow
Mike Cuffe blends in. Sitting in a chair that almost matches the color of his suit, which almost matches the gray Montana sky outside, the state senator looked a lot like the other legislators in a state administration committee meeting last February. He calmly grasped a stack of papers and leaned back to listen to Cindi Hamilton, a member of the public, who, with her yellow hair, leather jacket and cherry red tartan blouse, very much did not blend in.
“After witnessing the national election a couple of months ago, some of us feel that it was the most corrupt, third-world, banana republic election we could even imagine,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton was speaking in favor of a Montana bill that Cuffe sponsored, part of a suite of six “election integrity” bills passed and signed into law last spring. Senate Bill 169, the one Hamilton went to the committee hearing to support, requires photo ID to register and vote, with some exceptions. Other laws limited ballot harvesting, ended same-day voter registration and mandated yearly voter roll purges, instead of every other year. Cuffe voted yes on all of them.
It’s clear Hamilton had been influenced by the Big Lie — the inaccurate claim circulated by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was rife with voter fraud. Cuffe said he doesn’t believe there was something fishy about the 2020 election, but he acknowledged the bills he helped pass into law were influenced by voters like Hamilton.
“There were concerns from a lot of folks, a lot of my constituents, about voting issues,” Cuffe said. “People went to sleep on election night believing that one candidate was well ahead and was pretty much assured a victory, and then when they woke up the next morning, his opponent had won. And some people still believe there was something funny there. I don’t. I didn’t then and I don’t. But I felt we could do some things to help reduce potential issues and/or beliefs.”
Cuffe has a warm timbre to his voice and asked me to let him know if he started to “ramble too much.” He’s a conservative, pro-life Republican and a Second Amendment advocate. He’s not the kind of local politician who garners national attention for fringe views or frothing fealty to Trump. But as a result of the legislation he helped pass last year, Cuffe has become one node in a broader network of Republicans reshaping democracy.
Since the 2020 election, hundreds of new voter restriction bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, and dozens were enacted into law. In many cases, these bills were a response to the Big Lie. Those incessant claims of fraud created an appetite among Republican voters for answers, solutions and, most importantly, justice. In response, a vast network of right-wing influencers — both emergent and established — began feeding that appetite by investigating dubious claims and concocting new election laws.
State legislators have heeded the call. FiveThirtyEight created a database cataloging these acts at the state level, including every voter restriction bill introduced and every third-party partisan audit conducted. (We have fun around here — you can join in by seeing the full data set on our Github.) What’s revealed is an anti-democratic shift among the GOP, catalyzed by the Big Lie and ushered in by a network of right-wing power brokers.
When I spoke to more than a half-dozen individuals who are inspiring and enacting these legislative changes, there was a prevailing refrain: They’re just trying to respond to an eroding trust in elections. Some believe that trust has legitimately eroded because of widespread fraud, while others believe it has been eroded by messaging about widespread fraud. None of them feel they are responsible for that erosion, only for its cure.
The suite of bills Cuffe helped pass in Montana, by definition, makes it more difficult to vote. They’ve even attracted lawsuits from voting rights groups that claim the laws make it prohibitively hard to vote, particularly for students, rural voters and Native Americans. Cuffe doesn’t mind criticism — he’s been working in politics a long time — but rejects the notion that the intent behind the bills was to disenfranchise voters. He said they only wanted to make “a good system better” in order to build back trust among voters who were now questioning the election system.
“We’re painted with a big, black brush that says we’re trying to curtail somebody’s right to vote. That’s not at all the situation. It never was,” Cuffe said. “We had good things at heart.”
Regardless of the intentions of those involved, the problem is only getting worse. Over the last year, Republican voters have become even less trustful of our elections, questionable amateur “research” is driving actual policy decisions, and many states have introduced or passed what experts call frighteningly anti-democratic legislation. The Big Lie has created an environment in which Republicans feel obligated to respond to fears of election fraud. But their responses — both legislative and rhetorical — are eroding democracy, not bolstering it.
The evolution of the Big Lie was the product of a vast catalog of politicians, pundits, true believers and benefactors financing and promoting claims of voter fraud and efforts to overturn the election. This includes lawyers like Lin Wood and Sidney Powell who filed pro-Trump lawsuits, Republican politicians who actively embraced the Big Lie like Georgia Rep. Jody Hice (whom Trump has endorsed in the race for Georgia secretary of state) and others who, while not embracing the Big Lie, refused to condemn it. It included political action committees and conservative groups that financed these efforts. And it included alt-right personalities like Steve Bannon and Mike Lindell, who have amassed huge audiences as they continue to promote the Big Lie.
The players in this network include a wide range of personalities. There’s a world of difference between Lindell, with his conspiracy theory-fuelled, feverish pleading for those in power to take his claims seriously, and Cuffe’s avuncular small-town sincerity. Yet each has represented a node in the network of the Big Lie, and its effect on our democracy.
Among this group, there are a handful of people who you may not have heard of, but who are veritable celebrities among those who believe the Big Lie. They have amplified the Big Lie, inflaming voter fears and inspiring legislative action.
Matt Braynard is one of these people. Braynard worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign but rose to prominence after he began a grassroots, crowdfunded investigation in 2020 that looked for evidence of illegal ballots cast in several swing states. It started with a tweet two days after the election (and before the presidential election had been called), explaining how he wanted to compare voter registration data to the Social Security Death Index and the National Change of Address database to look for evidence of fraud. All he needed was funding to cover the cost of the data. He went on to crowdfund nearly $700,000 to conduct the investigation. The results were compiled into a series of reports published online that claimed to have uncovered tens of thousands of illegally cast ballots from voters who had, for example, moved out of the state or registered at a non-residential address like a post office box or business. It secured him a position among those pushing hardest against the 2020 election results: His analyses and testimony were used in challenges to election results in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and he presented his findings to state legislators in Georgia.
But upon closer inspection, the analysis didn’t hold up. The methods Braynard and his team used have been criticized by experts, including in a review by the conservative Hoover Institution. Simply identifying two voters who share the same name and birth date doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are the same person. And while Braynard’s political group, Look Ahead America, did attempt to verify those identities, they used iffy methods that, when demonstrated to me, appeared to be little more than creative Googling. They also only reviewed a sample of suspected ballots, and then projected what they believed the total number of illegal ballots to be based on that sample. This has led to several errors in the reported findings being uncovered by journalists and lawmakers.
Braynard vehemently defends his findings and is particularly frustrated that they were never tested in a court of law. (Braynard’s findings were filed as part of some Trump lawsuits, but the lawsuits were thrown out for other reasons.) Ian Camacho, the director of research for Look Ahead America, spent over an hour walking me through examples he selected to demonstrate their method for verifying that a suspected illegal ballot was in fact illegally cast. While I have not personally reviewed every instance, the examples and methods demonstrated to me were sloppy and inconclusive. For instance, he showed an example of what he claimed was a voter using their business as a residential address, but it was unclear if the voter’s name was the man Camacho identified, or his son, who shared his name and helped run the business. He also could not definitely prove that the business address was not also residential. Put it this way: If I used their methods to try to make a claim in a story for FiveThirtyEight regarding a specific instance of an illegal ballot being cast, it would not meet our standards for publication.
Talking to Braynard, he seems convinced he has genuinely uncovered a problem that renders 2020 election results in dispute. Braynard said he knows “for a fact” that his work has inspired some of the bills introduced in state legislatures. He pointed to a bill introduced in New Jersey that would mandate the use of ballot-counting machines with open-source software — one of Look Ahead America’s policy suggestions — which he said was introduced following a meeting between the state senator who sponsored the bill and one of his organization’s volunteers. (State senator Joe Pennacchio, who introduced the bill, confirmed to FiveThirtyEight that he had met with a volunteer who helped point him to useful material when writing the bill.) Braynard said while Look Ahead America isn’t lobbying for specific laws, they have a network of more than 3,000 volunteers that have been meeting with state legislators to “educate” them on the group’s findings and policy suggestions. He said he did not believe his work has contributed to eroding confidence in elections.
“I think that a lot of other people’s work has, but the bottom line is this: What we have identified as problems with the election are indisputable and they’re also the kind of things that can be easily remedied,” Braynard said. “We just want to restore confidence in elections.”
Another popular figure in the Big Lie circuit is a former army captain named Seth Keshel, who drew the attention of figures like Bannon and even Trump after releasing a report that he said showed evidence of voter fraud. The report compared actual voter turnout to Keshel’s own prediction of voter turnout, which he made using his own model that included voter registration, population growth and other data. He claims that major deviations from his predictions indicated likely voter fraud. (Keshel also says this same model enabled him to accurately predict the outcome of all 50 states in the 2016 election, but did not provide evidence to support this claim.)
Since then, Keshel has been on a speaking tour — including stops at campaign events for congressional candidates — and meets regularly with state legislators to share his analysis and views, including at a meeting emceed by Montana Republican state Sen. Theresa Manzella. Keshel told me he doesn’t believe his work is contributing to public distrust in elections, either, and that he was also motivated by a desire to restore that trust.
“You have at least half the country that believes our election was decided by fraud. That is a crisis in and of itself,” Keshel said.
But when the root of that crisis is a lie, any attempt to respond to it is just as baseless. And the cure can end up worse than the disease.
The more brightly people like Keshel and Braynard lit up their nodes on the network, the more seriously legislators like Cuffe felt they had to respond. They did so in droves, introducing hundreds of pieces of legislation and a wide range of tactics deployed for improving “election integrity.” Of the 579 pieces of voter restriction legislation FiveThirtyEight tracked, 50 have been signed into law, which we further categorized into seven types (many bills fell into more than one category). The majority of these bills, 330 in total, limited voting options in some way, whether that was eliminating ballot harvesting or placing more restrictions on absentee voting. The next largest category, with 128 bills, expanded voter ID laws. The smallest category was the most concerning: 14 bills made election roles more partisan, and some of these were enacted into law, such as Arizona’s law to strip its secretary of state (currently a Democrat) from the authority to defend state election laws in court, and instead hands that power over to the state attorney general (currently a Republican). Some state legislators, in places like Montana, introduced only a handful of bills. Others, like in Georgia and Arizona, brought forth dozens. Texas legislators introduced over 100.
And the bills accentuate other measures that capture an anti-democratic shift among the GOP. States where voter restriction bills are being introduced and passed are often home to Republican members of Congress who voted not to certify some of the 2020 election results, and who have a below average pro-democracy voting record.
“This is probably the most widespread and sustained wave of voter restriction legislation since the Voting Rights Act,” said Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University. “But I’m not sure that quantifying the number of pieces of legislation is the best measure.”
According to Keyssar, voter access laws have ebbed and flowed throughout history, and a certain amount of clawing back of voter access was expected after the widespread expansion that took place during the pandemic. But what’s troubling to Keyssar is not the number of bills, but the type of legislation being proposed and passed. In particular, he is concerned about bills that strip authority from election officials and grant it to partisan legislative bodies.
“This is something different,” he said. “If your completely partisan state legislature is going to end up counting the votes, that’s a lot more efficient than voter suppression.”
The possibility of election subversion — where one party overrules the results of an election through these newly created legal levers — is of particular concern to several experts. Last September, Richard Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote a paper outlining the risk of election subversion. In it, Hasen makes the case that the Big Lie itself is a powerful enough force to open the door for election subversion, even without new laws in place.
It has already led to the harassment of election officials, who are quitting their positions around the country. In their place, Big Lie-believing Trump loyalists are running for their jobs, and some have already won. It opened the door for multiple partisan “audits,” which stoke the fires of distrust while putting election infrastructure at risk. It creates an appetite and acceptance among the public and politicians to use existing means to overturn election results, just as Trump attempted to do following the 2020 election. When combined with the new laws passed to give greater partisan influence over election administration, Hasen says it creates a dangerous environment. (Hasen also outlined what he believes to be guardrails against this kind of subversion, including the universal use of paper ballots and federal rules limiting the over-politicization of election administration.)
“I never thought I’d be writing a paper like this about the United States,” Hasen told me. “I’m very worried. It’s like being an epidemiologist right as a pandemic is starting to emerge.”
Other experts emphasized that laws making it more difficult to vote should not be brushed aside as harmless, especially at the scale seen over the last year. Jake Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington who studies the democratic performance of states, said that any law that increases voting barriers or removes voting options but is not in response to a clear and direct threat to election security is, by definition, voter suppression.
Those involved in pushing these bills through, like Cuffe, argue they strike a balance between preventing future potential security risks and not making it significantly more difficult to vote. But critics question the need for the legislative response in the first place.
“What they said in Georgia and in many states is that ‘we need to enact these election laws to reassure our citizens that the elections are safe,’” said Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “But, of course, the citizens only believe the elections are unsafe because of lies that Donald Trump and other politicians have said. So they caused the anxiety and then they’re justifying their actions by saying they need to reassure voters.”
And it doesn’t even seem to be working. Polling from Monmouth University before and after Arizona’s partisan election inquisition found that the so-called audit did more to reinforce concerns around election fraud than to alleviate them. And as laws have been passed under the banner of improving voter trust, Republican voter trust in elections remains low. Just 35 percent of Republicans said they had at least some trust in the U.S. electoral system in a poll conducted by Morning Consult on Dec. 30, 2021. That’s down from 43 percent in January of last year, and 69 percent prior to election day 2020, according to prior polling from Morning Consult.
Trust remains low even when asked about future elections. Thirty-four percent of Republicans said they have a great or a good deal of trust that elections are fair in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted Oct. 18-22, 2021. In that same survey, 60 percent of Republicans did say they were confident or very confident that their state or local government will conduct a fair and accurate election in 2022, but 36 percent also said that they would not trust the results if their preferred candidate doesn’t win in 2022. And 59 percent of Republicans said they would not trust the outcome of the 2024 election if their preferred candidate lost. (By contrast, for the 2024 question, only 13 percent of Democrats said they would not trust results if their candidate lost.) Like Trump, many Republicans’ views on election fraud are directly tied to whether or not they like the result.
This is not what at least some of those involved in this network had hoped for. In my nearly two-hour conversation with Cuffe, the state senator from Montana spoke persuasively about his desire to do the right thing. He was, in his view, trying to avoid laws that would make it unnecessarily difficult to vote. And it’s true that the laws passed in Montana did not approach the most grievous examples collected in our catalog.
Even still, Cuffe demonstrates just how effective and far-reaching the Big Lie’s web has become, and how insidious — it is not only Trump loyalist firebrands pushing bills in response to it, but your friendly neighborhood state senator. The laws Cuffe championed do make it harder to vote. Registering on the same day you cast your ballot is easier than having to register in advance. Voting without a photo ID is easier than voting with one, if you don’t have a photo ID. Multiple voting rights groups including the League of Women Voters and the Native American Rights Fund opposed some of the laws, such as Cuffe’s voter ID law, and other groups have filed lawsuits challenging four of the new laws. Cuffe believes the laws will prevail because of how much effort went into ensuring they would not disenfranchise voters. He said he cares deeply about the right to vote, but that he felt voters’ fears around election fraud had to be addressed in some way and that election infrastructure needed to be protected against future issues that could arise.
That dynamic is what makes the Big Lie and its network of promoters so effective: People from many walks of life — from conspiracy theorists to national legislators to local administrators and state senators — are recruited to weaken democracy, all while believing they’re strengthening it.
I asked Cuffe if the laws he helped pass legitimized fears around election fraud rather than soothed them. He paused. He told me he can’t say what’s going through everyone’s mind, but that legitimizing the claims was never his goal.
“The whole purpose was to make a good thing better,” Cuffe said. “I’m not on the way to the graveyard or anything, but there’s a lot more sand in the bottom of my hourglass than there is on the top. And it reaches a point where you realize the stuff you’re doing is not for yourself, it’s for the time going forward.”
Additional reporting by Nathaniel Rakich and Mackenzie Wilkes. Art direction by Emily Scherer. Copy editing by Maya Sweedler and Curtis Yee. Story editing by Chadwick Matlin.