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The bizarre voter-fraud hunt in a New Mexico county Trump won by 25 points

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin speaks at a January 2020 gun rights rally in Santa Fe, N.M. (Morgan Lee/AP)
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The federal government knows Couy Griffin as the defendant in Case 1:21-cr-00092-TNM, one of the hundreds of individuals facing criminal charges for actions at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Fervent supporters of former president Donald Trump probably know him as the founder of Cowboys for Trump, an advocacy organization that requires no further description.

Residents of Otero County, N.M., though, know him differently: To them, he’s just one of three county commissioners — albeit the one who was the subject of an attempted recall targeting various questionable actions undertaken in his official position. That effort fell short of its signature goal, meaning that Griffin was still in his position last month to help advocate for one of the most remarkably misguided allocations of taxpayer money in recent memory.

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Otero County is Trump country, in case that wasn’t already obvious. In 2020, it preferred Trump to Joe Biden by more than 25 points. That level of support means two things: First, that there is very little likelihood that a significant number of votes were illegally cast for Biden in the presidential contest. And second, that there are a lot of people in the county who are probably worried about rampant voter fraud occurring.

Griffin apparently is among them. According the Justice Department, Griffin spoke with reporters while standing on a terrace at the Capitol on Jan. 6, saying at one point: “The people are showing that they’ve had enough. People are ready for fair and legal elections, or this is what you’re going to get. You’re going to get more of it.” So when the opportunity arose last month for the Otero County Commission to approve a bit less than $50,000 to fund a Maricopa County, Ariz.-style “audit” of the 2020 vote, Griffin was on board. (I’m going to use the word audit without quotes moving forward just because it’s easier, but you should absolutely assume that the word is surrounded by invisible scare quotes.)

I became aware of this story from an excellent report by Kelly Weill at the Daily Beast. She documents the eventual approval of the audit spending and a subsequent review by the state centered on the way the contract for the audit was awarded. But after I watched the actual discussion in its entirety, something more fundamental struck me about the decision.

The audit in Otero County is an excellent demonstration of how baseless Trumpian conspiracy claims and the right-wing media bubble can affect public decision-making.

The hearing began with the commissioners hearing from County Attorney RB Nichols. Nichols was wary, clearly, offering a variety of ways in which the audit might open the county to liability. Included in the effort is a plan to get volunteers to go door-to-door to verify whether people voted, a challenging task even in a place where only 23,000 votes were cast. Soon, Griffin interjected to criticize the attorney’s caution.

“If I’ve taken an oath to my office to protect my constituents that have entrusted me with this position,” he said, “and I feel like our elections have been, could possibly be, compromised — I don’t know if they have been or not.” He then offered up some theories for how there might have been enough fraud to overturn the election (apparently not recognizing that this would mean a Biden victory), such as that maybe people were sent ballots at multiple addresses. “So if I lean this direction, what should I do, RB? Should I honor my oath and be loyal to the people, or should I cow to the state and say, ‘Oh no, I might get sued or I might get in trouble’?”

A bit later, he put it succinctly: “I don’t think there’s any more productive way to spend tax dollars than to make sure our elections aren’t compromised.”

To which the woman representing the firm seeking the contract, EchoMail, offered an “Amen.”

Her name is Erin Clements. And it wasn’t until she began to describe EchoMail that it suddenly clicked what we were talking about here.

“I will say that the head of EchoMail is one of the smartest men in the country,” Clements told the commissioners. “He has four degrees from MIT. He invented email. He’s very precise in what he says and what he does. It’s not true that he doesn’t understand the procedure.”

If you are far too attuned to this stuff, it’s that “He invented email” that made you roll your eyes. She’s talking about Shiva Ayyadurai, who has invested a lot of time in courtrooms trying to defend his untrue claim that he invented email. Ayyadurai has since taken a shine to politics, running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2018 and losing badly. This, he insisted, was not because he was a Republican running in Massachusetts but, instead, because of fraud. Ayyadurai and EchoMail were deeply involved in the Maricopa County audit, as well, and his combination of manufactured complexity and sheer persistence has convinced a lot of people that he must know what he’s talking about when it comes to proving fraud. He does not.

Clements was at the Otero County hearing with her husband, David Clements. (He was fired from a position at New Mexico State University for refusing to adhere to coronavirus precautions.) He began his presentation by declaring that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland is “weaponizing” the Civil Rights Act “not to protect our civil rights, not to protect the First Amendment, not to protect our right to vote, but to keep us from confirming what we already know: that something was off in November 2020.” The reason for this weaponization was simple: “State actors … are scared to death of what we’re going to find out.”

It’s honestly a bit refreshing that the Clementses didn’t mask the fact that they were convinced that fraud had occurred and were now solely seeking to prove it. This is a fraught way to approach any objective investigation, of course, but an objective investigation is not what was sought.

David Clements, for example, captured the spirit of the thing with wonderful precision.

“I don’t believe this president — that calls himself the president — was elected,” he said. “And I think we’ve given you plenty of evidence on why people think in a like-minded fashion.” And then, “At the end of the day, I don’t have a dog in this fight.”

No, clearly not.

He spent most of his time in the commission’s spotlight showing a lengthy video alleging fraud in the 2020 election generally, a mishmash of a number of long-debunked claims about purported fraud and nefarious activity. You know that video of the election workers in Fulton County, Ga., that Trump tried to cast as proof of illegal vote-counting but that was quickly and repeatedly debunked? That was in there, for some reason. Clements brought up a number of other favorites, too, such as the stacks of affidavits submitted to the Trump campaign by well-meaning but broadly uninformed Trump supporters.

At another point, he said two magic words: “Dr. Frank.” This is a reference to Douglas Frank, a high school math teacher who, like Ayyadurai, has parlayed complicated-sounding gobbledygook into a second career as a star on the conspiracy-theory circuit. Calling his allegations baseless is like calling the sun warm. They are just total nonsense. Yet here he was, cited as a reason for Otero County to spend $50,000 investigating its heavily Republican voter pool.

Nichols, the county attorney, wasn’t the only staffer who seemed a bit frustrated with the whole thing. County Clerk Robyn Holmes, who administers the county’s elections, was obviously annoyed at the suggestion that fraud had occurred on her watch. She repeatedly rejected the Clementses’ insinuations about the vote, countering their condescending insistences with flat rebuttals.

At one point, Griffin weighed in on the side of the Clementses.

“Do you think, Robyn, that there would be any chance or any possibility that computer hackers could actually hack into those tabulators or hack into that data?” he asked.

“Now on the tabulators,” she replied, “there’s nothing to tap into.”

“They’re counting — it’s digitally counting the votes, correct?” Griffin responded. “So what if someone were to hack into that, and manipulate— ”

“How are they going to — hack in through what?” Holmes said, obviously annoyed.

“Cellular modem,” Erin Clements interjected with endless self-confidence.

Griffin sort of rolled his eyes.

“It’s not connected to the Internet? Have you heard of Bluetooth?” Griffin replied. “Bluetooth doesn’t have to be hooked into the Internet, and you can hack into something with Bluetooth. Just because something’s not hooked into the Internet doesn’t mean that it can’t be hacked into and digitally compromised.”

“And if I can follow that up,” he continued, “the government is paying hackers not to hack into our food supply. Not to hack into our oil pipeline. And so you don’t think they could hack into our voting systems?”

This is really useful for a lot of reasons. The first is that Holmes is saying with authority what is and isn’t possible — and the goal posts keep moving. Hacking via Bluetooth is certainly possible, but from no more than about 30 feet. Did the tabulators have Bluetooth ports? I suspect Griffin may not know. Clements’s helpful modem suggestion, meanwhile, came from one of those other unproven allegations about other voting machines in some other places. It’s all just well-in-theory-this-bit-of-magic-can-happen, and that’s good enough.

At another point, the Clementses suggested that hacking didn’t need to occur, that the manufacturer of the voting machine could include scripts into the system to change the results — again, no evidence that they did or would, particularly since we’re talking about a very red county in a very blue state. But just, you know, maybe. But then Holmes replied that they couldn’t, since her staffers, unlike in other counties, did the programming themselves.

“But we have to take your word for it,” David Clements responded. So now maybe Holmes is part of that cabal of state actors so worried about what would be found.

Shortly before the commissioners voted, a member of the public chimed in with an idea about offsetting the cost. (The county is budgeted to spend north of $141 million this year, so $50,000 really isn’t that much.)

“Let’s say we do find fraud,” he said. “Is there any way to pinpoint who committed that fraud and then sue them for reimbursement?”

“We’ll do our absolute best to find out,” Erin Clements replied. “I know there’s fraud in voter rolls. I can already see that. There’s no other explanation for it. So we are going to do our best to find out where that’s coming from, and then if votes have been switched in this county, I think we can pinpoint at least a pretty small list of suspects and then hand it over to criminal prosecution from there.”

Bear in mind, the theory of the case here isn’t clear. Did the voting-machine manufacturer inject a script to change the tabulation? Is it the source of that “small list of suspects”? Or were people sent multiple ballots they filled out? How does Clements know that fraud occurred? Because of one of Ayyadurai or Frank’s bogus “algorithms”? It’s very literally an answer in search of a question, but one in which the person who has already decided on the outcome also pledges to subject people to potential criminal prosecution.

It’s all completely unhinged, a universe of surreality fueled by opportunists and novices. I can understand how the other county commissioners who perhaps hadn’t tracked the machinations of the Trump fraud claims might feel as though a powerful case had been made. But that’s the point: Only the county clerk and county attorney were there to inject reality through their firsthand experience and knowledge. There was no one there who might point out that the Clementses’ claims made no sense or that their evidence had been debunked. It was this bubble within the big bubble, in the seat of power in Otero County.

The proposal passed unanimously.