The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The voter-fraud allegation that perfectly captures the post-2020 Republican Party

Former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, center, and American Conservation Union Chairman Matt Schlapp speak at a news conference outside the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas on Nov. 8. (John Locher/AP)

A few days after the 2020 election, a group of high-profile supporters of President Donald Trump held a news conference in Nevada to allege rampant fraud in the state. Former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt was there, as were conservative personality Matt Schlapp and Ric Grenell, who served in Trump’s administration in various capacities.

As part of the campaign’s blitz to allege as much fraud as possible, the group brought forward a woman, Jill Stokke, who alleged that she tried to vote in person before being told a mail-in ballot had already been submitted in her name. It later turned out that the state had already adjudicated the woman’s claim and that she had refused to sign an affidavit that might lead to criminal charges against the person who’d allegedly cast that mail-in ballot, a ballot that included a signature that matched her own. Reporters couldn’t ask Stokke about the claim, though, because no questions were allowed.

“You’re here to take in information,” Grenell told reporters. “Go do your job; it’s pretty easy.”

A few days later, after the election had been called for Joe Biden, Laxalt and Schlapp tried again. This time, they had a new angle: dead people voting in the election.

“Dead people voted in Clark County,” Schlapp claimed. “That is a tricky thing because obviously for these families this is a very tragic reminder of a loss that they have just recently had to go through.”

He pointed to two examples. One was Rosemarie Hartle; the other, Fred Stokes. “Miraculously,” Schlapp said, “they both voted.”

The implication was that fraud was so rampant that one couldn’t take at face value the eventually certified results of the vote in the state: Biden won by more than 33,000 votes.

The Hartle case became a media sensation. The Nevada Republican Party highlighted the case, chastising the media for not understanding that it was “finding concrete cases of voter irregularities.” Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza promoted a local news interview with her husband, Kirk Hartle, instructing his viewers to show it to those skeptical of fraud. In the interview, Kirk Hartle appears perplexed, saying that it “made no sense to him” that his wife had cast a ballot. He described it as “sickening.”

A few days later, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson picked up the allegation. On his show, he included the deaths of Rosemarie Hartle and Stokes along with several others as he similarly argued for the existence of rampant illegal voting.

“We don’t know who did this. We wish we did, because it’s fraud,” he said. “It’s a threat to our system, and it’s being hidden by a news media totally vested in a Joe Biden presidency.”

Carlson was right that the Hartle case does appear to have been actual fraud. On Thursday, the office of Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford announced that Kirk Hartle himself was being charged with two felony counts for submitting a ballot on behalf of his wife.

Hartle, a registered Republican, is an executive for a conglomerate called the Ahern Family of Companies. One of those companies is Xtreme Manufacturing, which stepped in to provide space for a Trump rally outside Las Vegas in September 2020 in defiance of state rules limiting large crowds during the pandemic. The company was later fined.

All of this is part and parcel for Trump’s post-election fraud claims. There was never robust evidence of rampant fraud, just anecdotal examples such as the Hartle case that were used to imply widespread illegality. Sometimes, as with a woman in Georgia who was accused by Carlson of voting illegally for her dead husband, there was no fraud at all. In other cases, the incident was neither evidence of rampant illegality nor of efforts to illegally swing the election to Biden. That appears to describe the Hartle situation well.

But, of course, there’s been little effort by those involved to correct their mistakes. Carlson admitted on air that he’d been mistaken on the Georgia case. A story about his initial report on the Fox News website vaguely shrugs at the misleading story that follows: “[O]n Friday, we began to learn some of the specific dead voters reported to us as deceased are in fact alive. We initially corrected this on Friday. We regret not catching it earlier. But the truth remains: dead people voted in the election” — people such as Kirk Hartle’s wife. Others such as Trump and Schlapp have simply moved on to other allegations.

This is how it has so often gone over the past year: a claim made and amplified, with later context mostly ignored. For Trump, this is good enough; even a lingering scent of impropriety helps him wave off the whole election as suspect.

Laxalt, too, has moved on. He recently announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Nevada. His campaign site doesn’t mention his post-election efforts to undercut the results of voting in the state, in keeping with a recent pattern of Republicans trying to navigate the barrier between Trump’s world and reality as they appeal to both Republican and moderate voters. His site does, however, mention that he’d been endorsed by Trump.

“Adam Laxalt is running for Senate in Nevada to defeat Harry Reid’s, Chuck Schumer’s, and Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked successor, and win an America First majority in the U.S. Senate,” Trump’s endorsement reads. It mentions that Laxalt is a veteran and former attorney general. “He fought valiantly against the Election Fraud, which took place in Nevada. He is strong on Secure Borders and defending America against the Radical Left. Adam has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

On the candidate’s website, the part about Laxalt’s valiant fight against “election fraud” does not appear.