November 29, 2022

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Special Report-Voting-system firms battle right-wing rage against the machines By Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Carmen Dolores Fernandez votes for her first time during early voting for the upcoming midterm elections in Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S., October 24, 2022. REUTERS/Paul Ratje/File Photo

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By Helen Coster

(Reuters) – Donald Trump’s stolen-election falsehoods have thrust America’s voting machine suppliers into a national struggle to protect their businesses.

Industry leaders Dominion Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software are waging a political and public relations ground war to beat back threats to their state and local government contracts, rooted in bogus conspiracy theories about vote manipulation. Dominion has also turned to the courts, filing eight defamation lawsuits against Trump allies and media outlets including Fox News.

The efforts to fight misinformation have so far blocked any significant loss of business, in part because many counties and states are locked into long-term contracts for voting systems. But the companies are nonetheless taking the election-denial movement seriously as the belief in voter-fraud fictions continues to gain mainstream acceptance on the right. About two-thirds of U.S. Republicans say they believe the election was stolen from Trump, Reuters polls show.

Whenever companies “face a tsunami of suspicion and distrust of their products, that poses an existential threat to their livelihood and survival,” said Mark Lindeman, policy and strategy director at Verified Voting, a U.S. nonprofit that promotes the use of secure voting technology.

Dominion faces the most intense opposition because the company has featured prominently in right-wing theories alleging its equipment flipped votes from Trump to Biden in 2020. In all, Dominion has faced campaigns in at least a dozen jurisdictions across eight states by officials or activists seeking to replace Dominion voting systems based on unproven fraud allegations, according to a Reuters review of government records and interviews with local officials.

Among the risks: a statewide voting-systems contract Dominion holds in Louisiana, which Trump won handily. Officials there have indefinitely delayed awarding a new contract worth about $100 million amid pressure from pro-Trump, anti-machine activists.

In Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections, five counties facing voting-machine protests — in the states of Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Minnesota — plan to institute hand-counting of ballots as a check on their machine counts by Dominion or ES&S tabulating equipment. Among them is Nye County, Nevada, where commissioners voted unanimously to recommend dumping Dominion touch-screen voting machines after a pressure campaign by nationally prominent election deniers.

Voting vendors also face including well-funded national campaigns targeting their machines. Such protests could gain steam nationally depending on the election outcome. Election deniers who support ending the use of electronic voting systems are campaigning in battleground states such as Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania for governor or secretary of state — the top voting administrator.

Dominion declined to comment on its financial performance since the 2020 election and did not answer detailed questions about its campaign to battle misinformation. The company told Reuters that it has been “active” in “refuting the harmful lies spread about us.” Stolen-election activists, the company said, have “damaged our company, harmed elections officials, and diminished the credibility of U.S. elections.”

ES&S also declined to provide financial specifics but said it has not lost customers because of the voting-machine protests. “Jurisdictions continue to need to seek trustworthy support of their elections,” the company said in a statement.

Both companies managed to grow their revenue in 2021, after the contested 2020 election, according to data provided by PrivCo, which tracks private company financial information in a proprietary database.

The assault on voting machines is at the center of a broader offensive on the U.S. election system by a loose network of right-wing activists. Across the country, election officials have received hundreds of threats or menacing messages that cite debunked conspiracies involving the machines. And pro-Trump officials and activists, on the hunt for fraud evidence, have been accused of gaining or trying to gain unauthorized access to voting equipment in at least 18 security breaches since the 2020 election, Reuters has previously reported.

Debunking the torrent of misinformation is costly, forcing voting-machine companies to expand investments in litigation and public relations, according to more than two dozen interviews with election officials, voting-system vendors and their representatives.

Dominion has vocally rebutted voting-machine conspiracy theories in public statements and in its defamation lawsuits. But it has kept a lower profile in the local political fights over its contracts. The company said it prefers to provide information and expertise to local officials who are dealing directly with voting-machine protesters.

ES&S executives travel multiple times a month to states like Kentucky, Wyoming and Idaho, where they participate in equipment demonstrations for the public, according to the company. They confront questions such as whether the machines are connected to the Internet (they aren’t) and whether the company has foreign owners (it doesn’t). The executives include Chris Wlaschin, the company’s senior vice president and chief of security.

ES&S also says it helps public information officers field questions from voters and the media even in jurisdictions where it has no business — such as Antrim County, Michigan, where a quickly corrected error in the initial reporting of 2020 results from Dominion machines was seized on by conspiracy theorists to baselessly allege widespread fraud in the state.

“When we are able to sit at that table and respond to questions, it shows that we are not hiding,” Wlaschin said.

CHINA, VENEZUELA AND ANTIFA

Right-wing activists’ nonsensical claims about systemic vote-rigging have overshadowed a more useful and long-running debate about legitimate issues with U.S. voting systems, according to four election technology experts interviewed by Reuters. Experts have long scrutinized Dominion, ES&S and other voting technology firms over issues including security, usability and interoperability, accessibility for people with disabilities, and a lack of transparency around pricing and contracts.

The systems are “far from perfect,” said Lindeman, of Verified Voting, but the torrent of pro-Trump vote-manipulation claims “make no sense whatsoever.”

Attacks on voting machines exploded after the 2020 election, led by Trump himself. He tweeted on Nov. 12, days after the election, that Dominion “deleted” votes or “switched” them to his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. As Trump’s misinformation went viral, Denver-based Dominion faced an onslaught of Republican voter rage.

Since then, false claims about Dominion and other voting-technology companies have caught fire, spread by local and national politicians, aspiring pro-Trump congressional candidates, Republican activists and right-wing media. Some have alleged without evidence that Dominion machines were rigged in plots involving Chinese communists, Venezuelan socialists or Antifa, the loosely organized U.S. anti-fascist movement.

Dominion is fighting back in court. Since the 2020 election, it has filed eight defamation lawsuits against Trump allies and conservative media outlets. None has yet been resolved. The company has sued Fox News for $1.6 billion in Delaware Superior Court, alleging that Fox defamed the firm by amplifying false claims about its technology in an effort to boost ratings. In a statement to Reuters, Fox called the damages claims “outrageous” and “nothing more than a flagrant attempt to deter our journalists from doing their jobs.” A trial is set for April 2023.

To fight local political battles, Dominion arms state and county election officials with data and other information to counter conspiracy theorists. Kay Stimson, Dominion’s vice president of government affairs, often calls in to local meetings when voting machine issues arise, to keep abreast of the accusations or to answer questions from officials. In Nevada, Dominion employs a high-profile consultant, former Republican Nevada governor Robert List, who appears at county meetings as the face of the company – someone who can sympathize with Trump supporters but deflect blame for his loss away from Dominion.

At an April board of commissioners meeting in Elko County, for example, List told residents that he shares their “rural values” and, as a Trump supporter himself, was disappointed in the outcome of the election. “But I know it wasn’t the fault of the machines,” he said, before debunking some common claims by election conspiracy theorists.

$100 MILLION ON THE LINE

Some of the highest-profile attacks on voting machines have originated with MyPillow chief executive and Trump ally Mike Lindell. In June, at a Louisiana Voting System Commission meeting, he told state officials that America will be lost “if we keep even one machine in this country going forward.”

The commission was created by law in 2021 amid widespread claims of voter-fraud and machine-rigging in the 2020 election. The law also banned a type of voting machine that does not create an auditable paper trail, according to a September report on the effort from the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), a nonprofit public policy organization.

Lindell said in an interview that his goal in Louisiana and nationally is to force the removal of all voting and voting-counting machines and return to counting paper ballots by hand. Election officials and experts overwhelmingly reject that idea, saying the laborious process would make elections more vulnerable to fraud and error, not less. Many voting security experts recommend a middle-ground approach that already is used in the majority of U.S. jurisdictions: hand-marked ballots, completed in private by voters and counted by machines, which create a paper trail for audits or recounts.

Among those calling for Louisiana to ditch Dominion machines is the state’s Republican National Committeewoman, Lenar Whitney. At a Republican Party meeting last year, she described Dominion as committing “illegal and treasonous acts” in the 2020 election. Whitney did not respond to a request for comment.

In the spring of 2021, Dominion launched a public relations campaign in Louisiana, including ads on the radio and a conservative political website, to fend off opposition to its bid for a new state contract, worth about $100 million. Its executives – along with those from other vendors – appeared at the June Voting System Commission meeting where Lindell gave his presentation attacking the machines. The executives provided technical answers to address common fears of machine skeptics — reassuring them that Dominion was U.S.-owned, and that its machines could not be remotely accessed or rigged through components imported from China.

Authorities in the heavily Republican state acknowledge that their aging Dominion machines, most of them bought in 2005, are outdated. The machines Louisiana uses are no longer manufactured, requiring the state to scavenge for parts when they break and to lease some new Dominion machines as temporary replacements, according to the PAR report. The machines also do not create a paper trail for auditing, which most states now require.

Nonetheless, Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin last year abandoned a state effort to buy new machines amid protests from anti-machine activists and complaints about the fairness of the bidding process.

The Louisiana secretary of state’s office did not make Ardoin available for an interview or answer questions about the delayed contract and the pressure from stolen-election activists. The Republican state election chief, who chairs the Voting System Commission, invoked a “chairman’s privilege” to allow Lindell more time to speak at its June meeting, where the pillow magnate addressed the board for 17 minutes.

A couple of months later, on August 14, Ardoin appeared on an episode of “The Lindell Report,” a show on Lindell’s website. Ardoin said in the 40-minute conversation that he had sent a letter on Aug. 10 ordering local Louisiana election officials to preserve records from the 2020 election as potential fraud evidence. The secretary of state stopped short of alleging widespread voter fraud in 2020 but said a “travesty of manipulation” had “changed the outcome.” He referred to election law changes before the vote, which included expansions of mail voting and ballot drop boxes meant to protect voters amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about voting machines, Ardoin said he had told the chief executives of at least two machine suppliers that they needed to be more “transparent” about the internal workings of the equipment. Otherwise, he recalled telling them, “You’re going to go out of business and our Republic is going to go to hell in a handbasket.”

HAND-COUNTING IN NEVADA

Dominion’s business is also precarious in Stark County, Ohio. The local Board of Elections voted in December 2020 to replace aging Dominion machines with more than 1,400 new ones at a cost of $6.5 million. After Trump supporters protested, citing false voter-fraud claims, the county’s all-Republican Board of Commissioners voted in March of 2021 to withhold funding for the machines, arguing the county could save money by using other voting-equipment vendors.

The county’s Board of Elections sued the commissioners in April last year to try to force them to buy the machines in time for primary elections. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in May 2021 that the elections board has authority to select voting technology, and that the county must go ahead with the purchase of Dominion machines. The county complied with the ruling.

Members of the elections board and the county commission did not respond to requests for comment.

In Nevada, a critical election battleground, seven county commissions have considered changing their election systems, by switching voting-equipment vendors or getting rid of the machines altogether. Five of the counties have not moved forward on the proposals, but two have started making changes.

In December 2021, officials in Nevada’s rural Lander County voted to switch from Dominion to ES&S – a vendor used by just one other Nevada county. A Lander County elections technology official told an October board of commissioners meeting that replacing Dominion machines was a “positive change to help regain trust in the system.” County officials approved spending more than $223,000 on new ES&S equipment and an additional $69,000 for equipment installation, training and maintenance.

In Nye County, where Trump won 69% of votes in 2020, commissioners voted 5-0 in March to request that the county clerk ditch Dominion touch-screen voting machines and require voters to submit paper ballots.

The county plans to continue using Dominion vote-counting machines, but also to separately hand-count the ballots to confirm the result. Newly elected County Clerk Mark Kampf in September called the continued use of Dominion tabulators a “stopgap measure” as the county researches whether it can exclusively hand-count in the future.

Commissioners were persuaded after a presentation led by Jim Marchant, a Republican candidate for Nevada Secretary of State who falsely claimed voting machines were rigged against Trump in 2020. Marchant is running in a close race and could become the state’s top election official.

“Why is it even a possibility we would even use any of these electronic voting machines at all?” Marchant asked in a March 3 email to Nye’s commission chair, obtained by Reuters in a public records request.

Marchant did not respond to requests for comment.

The decision by Nye’s commissioners amounted to a recommendation. Only the county clerk could legally implement it. Nye’s longtime Republican clerk, Sandra Merlino, said she took early retirement in August out of frustration with the move to scrap the machines. Her replacement, Kampf, has claimed Trump won the 2020 election. He moved quickly to implement the hand-counting plan.

Kampf did not respond to a request for comment.

Nye’s move to paper ballots and its possible switch to exclusively hand-counting could cost Dominion. The company had been receiving more than $50,000 annually for maintenance and other services, according to Merlino, the former clerk. Dominion machines remain in use in 14 of Nevada’s 17 counties.

Merlino said she was stunned the commissioners voted for junking the machines and returning to old-fashioned hand counts.

“I thought: My commissioners are not going to go for this,” she said. “But they did.”

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