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Antrim County figures prominently in election conspiracy theory

By Ashley Nerbovig, Detroit Free Press | November 8, 2020

Joe Biden's victory did not stop the spread of false claims of voter fraud in the presidential election.

Rather, it may have enhanced them.

On Saturday, Biden was declared president-elect. That same day, far-right sites, President Trump and his sons amplified tweets about an election reporting error in Michigan's Antrim County, fueling a vast and complicated conspiracy theory.

A coalition of universities and private security companies called the Election Integrity Partnership is tracking the spread of this theory. In a tweet Saturday, the partnership wrote:

"False claims have been circulating that Dominion Voting Systems is responsible for widespread election errors. There is no evidence to support these claims, which use isolated incidents to allege malfeasance. Voting across the country remains a secure and auditable process."

Trump received more votes than Biden in Antrim County, but the day after the election it appeared Biden had beaten Trump by 3,000 votes. The county posted and revised figures Friday that showed it's still red. The Michigan Secretary of State said late Friday that a failure to properly update software was the reason for a computer glitch.

Michigan officials on both the state and county level also stressed the voting process can be audited. The errors in reporting of unofficial results would have been caught during the canvassing process, officials told the Free Press.

In Oakland County, Democrat Melanie Hartman was wrongly declared the winner of the commissioner's race by a 104-vote margin. A computer issue at the Rochester Hills clerk’s office caused them to double-count some votes. After elections officials caught the error, Republican Adam Kochenderfer was declared the winner with 1,127 more votes than Hartman.

Dominion Voting Systems supplied Antrim County's voting software, as well as other counties in Michigan, according to the Michigan Secretary of State's website. The same site showed Oakland County does not use Dominion Voting Systems; it uses a vendor called Hart InterCivic.

Two counties in Georgia also reported issues with Dominion Voting Systems, but it was unrelated to voting results, a county election supervisor said. False claims around thisincident spread widely, too.

One of the first tweets mentioning Dominion was posted Friday by Twitter user @OccamScooter, according to tracking done by the Partnership. The user took a screenshot of Dominion Voting Systems' website map showing what states use its software, adding "Dominion Voting Systems are being used in the following states. #MediaBias."

As more people posted the map, they attached hashtags such as, "#CountTheLegalVotes." Other tweets called for an audit of any results where Dominion was the software provider.

These posts are misinformation. They take isolated incidents and frame them as evidence to support a broader claim of voter fraud. People who shared these posts might not have intended to deceive other users. However, sharing these post for the purpose of making people distrust the election results would be considered disinformation.

One of the Partnership’s researchers, University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird, pointed out some of the people amplifying the conspiracy theory on Saturday were Trump’s sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump.

Users on far-right Telegram channels have since linked Dominion to a bigger false claim: that the CIA can somehow change votes using an undetectable software program called "Hammer."

The country is in for a deluge of misinformation in the coming months as bad actors seek to undermine the election process, said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington D.C. Especially if Trump doesn't accept the results.

"Anything less is going to add to the uncertainty and distrust," Jankowicz said.

About three hours after the Associated Press projected Biden to win the presidential election, Michigan State Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, posted to her Facebook page Michigan Senate and House oversight committees would subpoena documents related to the vote. Hoitenga posted at 1:50 p.m. Saturday and it had been shared more than 600 times seven hours later.

For months, Trump normalized the idea that this election would be illegitimate, Jankowicz said. Now that he has lost, the rhetoric mail-in ballots aren’t secure is starting to “bear fruit,” she said. People are ready to believe there was massive fraud, she said.

However, within the election process there are "fail safes everywhere," said Robert Brandon, founder of the Fair Elections Center.

"If there’s a question at all, there’s a Republican and a Democratic or opposing candidate’s representatives who are part of the counting system," he told USA Today. "These are not the observers that stand aside and look around. These are the people that actually decide … if there’s a questionable ballot, what did the voter intend. And if they agree, then it goes forward."

One petition callingfor a recount or revote of the entire 2020 election has more than 1 million signatures.

Since the election, a group called Michigan Lanterns of Liberty was created on the social media platform MeWe. The group’s stated goal is to organize Trump supporters and ask them to appear at election commission final vote tallies during the next few weeks. It had almost 5,000 members as of Saturday.

In a post to his re-election campaign website Saturday, Trump refused to concede the election and promised to continue to pursue legal action.

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