In a county rife with conspiracy theories, a GOP clerk fights to win voters’ trust

Justin Roebuck sought to rebuild faith in the election system with a public forum. At the same time, the Ottawa County Patriots were raising doubts.

Justin Roebuck is the county clerk and register of deeds for Ottawa County in Michigan. (Evan Cobb for The Washington Post)

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — As democracy in Ottawa County wobbled under a wave of misinformation, mistrust and raw anger, Justin Roebuck decided it was his job to shore it up.

And so, on a rainy night in late October, the clerk in this lakeside community set aside two hours to answer questions from his voters about the election system he oversaw.

He strode past a dozen women knitting sweaters and into a public library meeting room where his staff was setting ballpoint pens and notecards on chairs. To keep the proceedings as civil as possible, he planned to ask attendees to submit their questions in writing.

About 20 miles away, the Ottawa County Patriots were gathering at a church to take their own stand in defense of a country that they believed was on the verge of collapse. From the pulpit, speakers blasted the Democrats for backing efforts that they said would embolden pedophiles, empower sex traffickers and make it easier to sterilize minors. To realize these “evil” ends, they said, the Democrats were prepared to commit massive fraud, as they had in 2020.

All across the country, election officials are dealing with the fallout of former president Donald Trump’s insistence that he won two years ago. Roebuck has seen it firsthand: the conspiracy-fueled questions and requests related to the 2020 vote, which occupy about a quarter of his staff’s time; the embrace of candidates spouting false claims; the erosion of trust in the fundamentals of the election system.

Dozens of Roebuck’s counterparts have received death threats or have had their homes or cars vandalized. A troubling number have quit, fed up with their fellow citizens.

Not Roebuck. With his horn-rimmed glasses, navy suit and hair combed in a ruler-straight part, the 38-year-old Republican looked like a throwback to an earlier era in America politics. He sounded like one too. He spoke of America’s election system with a reverence and wonder that seemed impervious to the anger and cynicism that swirled around him. “It’s beautiful thing,” he often said. “It’s an awesome thing.”

An “I VOTED” vanity license plate was affixed to the bumper of Roebuck’s Camry sedan. He had waited five years for it to become available, he said.

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He planned to win over the skeptics and election deniers in his county, which Trump carried by 21 percentage points, with patience and civility. They were, after all, his voters, his neighbors, his fellow conservatives and, in many cases, his friends, he said. They worked in the county’s manufacturing plants, catered to tourists by Lake Michigan, grew corn or raised turkeys. They had elected him, starting in 2016, to serve them, and no matter how outlandish their claims, how angry their accusations, he believed he could bring them around.

“This is not an us versus them thing. I really don’t see it that way,” he said. “I really just think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding.”

Roebuck straightened his tie and took in the room at the Loutit District Library, which was filling with people, just as he had hoped. A friend from the League of Women Voters rushed up to hug him and asked if he was ready for Nov. 8.

“I feel very good about the election,” he said. “But there are other things going on.” Roebuck was thinking of his busy schedule, packed over the next two weeks with meetings, interviews and other county business.

His friend’s mind went to a darker place. “It’s tense in the community,” she told him. “I don’t like it when it’s tense in the community.”

*

Sometimes Roebuck wondered whether he too would have doubted the outcome of the 2020 election if he hadn’t been so deeply involved in running it in his role as county clerk. He had been volunteering for Republican candidates since he was a teenager, attended the conservative Christian Hillsdale College and worked for a Michigan congressman after graduation.

Even though Biden had won Michigan by 154,000 votes, Roebuck’s former boss, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), voted with 147 other Republicans to overturn the 2020 election.

A majority of GOP nominees deny or question the 2020 election results

Instead of condemning his former boss, Roebuck described the congressman in an interview as a “great mentor” who had been “fed” a false narrative. He tried to imagine how a typical Republican voter in a place like Ottawa County — largely White, mostly rural and reasonably prosperous — might process the same flood of bad information.

“I just think there’s stuff in elections that people don’t understand, and that’s because they’re normal and they have normal lives and they don’t have time to understand,” Roebuck said.

A week before his town hall, one of those normal people — a 60-year-old grandmother from Hudsonville, Mich. — emailed Roebuck to tell him that she couldn’t go to his event because she was attending the Ottawa County Patriots meeting.

“[I’m] trying to do anything I can to prevent election fraud like 2020,” she wrote. “It even went on here in Ottawa County … and for some reason you don’t want to believe that. Makes me think you know something.”

Roebuck did his best to win her over, praising her “willingness to step up” and her “passion.”

“I would truly love to have a conversation about any concerns you have or anything you feel like our team can be doing better,” he replied via email.

When that entreaty failed, he invited her to send him a question, which his assistant was now reading to the three dozen or so people assembled in the library: “What is the legal amount of ballots that someone is allowed to drop or handle for others, and what do we do if we see someone dropping off a lot?”

Her questions, she wrote, originated with “2000 Mules,” a documentary made by right-wing firebrand Dinesh D’Souza that falsely claims that criminals flooded drop boxes with thousands of illegal ballots for Joe Biden. Roebuck knew the film was full of baseless claims. But he also knew that many of his voters took the documentary’s allegations seriously and that nothing good would come from abruptly dismissing their concerns.

“Very good question,” he said.

Roebuck patiently explained — as he had dozens of times over the past two years — that Michigan voters were allowed to drop off ballots for members of their immediate family; that the boxes were under 24-hour video surveillance; and that the ballots inside them were scanned and logged daily. “If you see somebody dumping hundreds of ballots, please do call your local clerk, your county clerk,” he said. “That’s important, and it’s all on video.”

More questions followed. Voters wanted to know why Roebuck had turned off a new ballot-imaging function on the county’s voting machines. The feature was too “slow” and glitchy, he explained. Others wondered what would happen if a USB drive from one of the machines was misplaced or a secure modem, used for transmitting results, was pried open and its SIM card secretly removed.

“These are very nitty-gritty,” Roebuck said. “I’m impressed.”

Sometimes an audience member shouted a question. Mostly, though, they stuck to the cards.

Roebuck registered each exhausted sigh from the audience. His eyes drifted to the back where two men sat scowling, their arms folded across their chests.

“Are they frustrated with the questions or with me?” Roebuck asked himself.

*

At the Ottawa County Patriots meeting, Gretchen Cosby listened as speakers warned of stolen elections and enemies out to “destroy” people like her.

The setting was a big, steepled church that abutted some railroad tracks and an Elks Lodge. About 230 people filled the pews. The group’s origins traced to 2009 and the Tea Party movement. Its popularity and growing power in the county were a much more recent phenomenon.

Cosby, a Republican nominee for Ottawa County commissioner, cheered along with the crowd. The 58-year-old former nurse had never imagined that she would run for public office. Then came 2020. She watched in disbelief as Fox News called Arizona for Biden, drifting off to sleep that night with a splitting headache and a sense of dread. A year later, she and a team of volunteers set out to prove Trump’s false allegations of fake voters and doctored ballots in Michigan, knocking on 2,221 doors in Ottawa County.

“We did it through the sleet, the snow, and when it was raining sideways,” she said.

Cosby visited nursing homes, which she’d been told were hotbeds of voter fraud, and pressed Roebuck to take action. Roebuck said their canvassing hadn’t uncovered any wrongdoing.

Cosby’s frustration led her to run for office as part of a slate of like-minded conservative candidates. In the August primaries, she and her allies wiped out seven of the 10 more-moderate Republican incumbents on the Ottawa County commission.

From the church’s pulpit, Joe Moss, the driving force behind the summer takeover, was celebrating their collective victory. “I was going to open with a joke, but what’s funnier than seeing them all thrown out of office?” he asked. Amid whoops and cheers from the crowd, Moss read off the names of the winners.

In the back of the church, Cosby smiled and waved.

The top item on her agenda was fixing what she saw as the most grievous flaws in Ottawa County’s election system. She couldn’t tell Roebuck how to run his office, but she and her fellow commissioners controlled his budget. Cosby wanted to start by banning funding for voting machines and requiring a hand count of ballots. “We need to vote Amish,” she had said at an earlier Ottawa County Patriots meeting.

At the church, volunteers were signing up for shifts to watch the county’s drop boxes. A former GOP candidate for governor who faces disorderly conduct charges stemming from the Jan. 6 insurrection was warning of the Democrats’ plan to install a “communist China type government in America.”

Cosby had moved to a small room off the church’s main sanctuary where she was assembling campaign signs. She still had a Democratic opponent for the general election. Even though the county had been dominated for decades by Republicans, Cosby wasn’t taking any chances.

“I’m playing like I’m losing because I don’t trust the machine,” she said.

*

At the library, Roebuck was making his final pitch. His frustrations flared briefly when discussing an affidavit filed in late 2020 on behalf of Trump that had alleged 460 percent turnout in one of Ottawa’s townships.

“A complete, utter and total lie,” he said.

But he had come to realize that calling out lies didn’t fix the problem in Ottawa County or, for that matter, anywhere. Poll after poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Republicans believed that Biden had been propelled to victory by voter fraud, a number that had held steady for nearly two years.

Sometimes Roebuck felt like he was teaching a civics class, while the Ottawa County Patriots and other leaders of his party were screening a horror movie. How could he even compete?

“Unfortunately, candidates have found a message that sells,” Roebuck said in an interview. “And I just think we’re in dangerous territory when that happens.”

His best shot, he believed, was to focus on the things that had drawn him to election work, such as the sense of community he felt when he spotted a neighbor working at his local precinct, and the stirrings of patriotism he experienced when his children, ages 7 and 4, accompanied him to vote.

Roebuck and his staff had trained 1,200 election workers for the midterms. These were the people who performed the mundane duties that made the election run: checking voters off in the poll book, sealing up ballots, and printing out and delivering their precincts’ results.

Roebuck wasn’t telling the skeptics to trust him. He was asking them to have faith in their neighbors and friends who showed up before dawn on Election Day and often stayed past midnight to ensure all the votes were counted.

He wanted the doubters at the Loutit library to feel what he felt. And so he urged them to take part in the process; to see up close for themselves. “What I always tell people who have questions or who are cynical or concerned with the process: sign up,” he said. “It’s great. … It’s God’s work in my opinion.”

The meeting broke up. In the back of the room an argument erupted between two attendees. A retired electrical engineer praised Roebuck but insisted that there was rampant fraud in Detroit and surrounding Wayne County.

“They have exactly the same laws, exactly the same systems as we do,” countered Field Reichardt, a lifelong resident of the county who had run for Congress as a Republican in 2010. “This is all part of the giant lie!”

“So you think there was no corruption?” the engineer asked.

“Everything is audited!” Reichardt replied.

“What if the auditors are corrupt?” the man pressed.

The two kept at it for several more minutes, arguing in circles.

“Are you just a concerned citizen?” the engineer asked skeptically.

“I’m a very concerned citizen!” replied Reichardt, who recently had decided to leave the GOP.

Eventually, they went their separate ways.

In the morning, Roebuck was planning a Facebook Live interview with a retired elementary school principal who regularly volunteered at her neighborhood precinct. Then he had a news conference and a local television hit where he expected that he would once again be asked about the minutiae of his county’s election system.

He couldn’t help but wonder whether these sober recitations were any match for a former president screaming fraud.

“I don’t think it trickles down a lot,” he conceded.

The library was closing for the night. Roebuck headed out to his car. The midterm elections, the next big test of Ottawa County’s democracy, were two weeks away.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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