Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

(Arizona Mirror) Arizona took the stage at Mike Lindell’s election conspiracy conference this week, as a former GOP legislator and a local election denialist made a litany of fact-free claims about supposed malfeasance in the state’s elections — all while the leader of the Maricopa County Republican Party watched from the crowd.

Mark Finchem, a former state legislator and a failed candidate for secretary of state, took the stage Aug. 16 at an event put on by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell in which the pillow mogul, whose business has been on the decline after years of promoting election conspiracies, spread falsehoods about the election and touted likely illegal “solutions” to ferret out perceived fraud in the election.

“There is a lucrative movement out there whose purpose is to confuse voters and to encourage them to give up on the system,” Joanna Lydgate, president and CEO of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan organization aimed at protecting free and fair elections, told the Arizona Mirror.

The Lindell event featured a slew of celebrities within the election fraud world, and behind Lindell and the speakers was prominent text directing viewers to a website where viewers were urged to donate to help Lindell in his efforts. Finchem, a Republican who represented the Tucson area during his time at the state Capitol, promoted his similar organization during his appearance at the event.

The “Election Fairness Institute” was featured prominently in slides presented to the audience during his presentation, though he never mentioned that he founded and runs the nonprofit organization. Finchem, who currently has filed to run for the state Senate in Yavapai County’s District 1, has appeared on QAnon talk shows promoting the organization and raising money from the conspiracy adherents.

Finchem is currently also facing multiple sanctions for election lawsuits and a failed defamation case he brought against a former Democratic lawmaker. Finchem has used these sanctions as fundraising appeals, and his secretary of state campaign brought in a record-breaking amount of money. Much of his support came from across the nation, not Arizona, including the anti-government Oath Keepers militia members.

“You know you’re over the target though when they sanction you for everything,” Finchem told the crowd at Lindell’s event. “So, this is going to be the third case I’m going to be sanctioned for for simply standing up and using my First Amendment rights.”

In fact, Finchem and his attorney have been sanctioned for filing baseless lawsuits and making sweeping allegations with no evidence to support their claims.

Failed candidates like Finchem have been using the platform they received from running as a way to continue to spread mistrust in the election system ever since their election loss, Lydgate said.

“They didn’t go quietly,” she said, adding that folks like Finchem now have a bullhorn built from their campaigns along with warchests to continue to spread misinformation. “That is really toxic to our democracy.”

Election denialism is highly lucrative. Kari Lake, who lost her bid for governor last year, raised $2.5 million after Election Day and to this day has continued to raise money for her failed election lawsuits.

One of Lake’s attorneys, Kurt Olsen, joined Lindell on stage, alongside disgraced former Gen. Michael Flynn and longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon.

When Finchem spoke, he was joined by Shelby Busch, a prominent local election denier who has spread election misinformation and works with expelled lawmaker Liz Harris. Busch presented “evidence” to the Arizona legislature of what she claimed was violations of federal law, but was actually legal voter outreach, and her group’s analysis of signature verification did not withstand scrutiny.

Busch told attendees that she and others “will take the Republican Party back” and singled out Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman Craig Berland in the crowd and said his election to lead the local GOP is the first step in doing so.

Falsehoods around the Arizona election continued to be prevalent throughout the presentation, including a claim that Pinal County had a “massive” number of ballots not counted due to “programming modifications.”

While a statewide recount uncovered several hundred uncounted ballots in Pinal County, the issue wasn’t ballot-counting machines; instead, it was human error that resulted in the ballots not ever being processed.

“The well-publicized errors that the County experienced in the November Election were the result of human errors,” Pinal County spokesman James Daniels said to the Mirror. “And the variance in the count, as determined by the recount (which did its job), was 507 votes out of 142,184 total votes. So, a percentage of 0.356%.”

Busch made these claims while speaking with a well-known election denier, Patrick Colbeck, who attempted to bring a similar election audit to his home state of Michigan. During the discussion, Colbeck made a dubious claim about the 2021 election “audit” ordered by the Arizona Senate, claiming that human feces were found in a ballot container by the auditors.

That was news to Ken Bennett, a Prescott Republican who served as the liaison between the Senate and the Florida-based contractor Cyber Ninjas for the “audit.”

“Not to my knowledge,” Bennett said.

(Bennett was elected to the state Senate in 2022; Finchem is challenging him in 2024.)

The event also brings into focus the issues election officials and the public may face going into 2024, as election denialists have larger platforms and greater mobilization than they did going into 2020.

“As we look towards 2024, we have to stay very vigilant,” Lydgate said, adding that groups of Republicans and Democrats have been working together in places like Maricopa County to ensure elections are safe and secure. The Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and the Maricopa County Recorder (also a Republican) have faced heavy criticism from election denialists, despite efforts at transparency and answering questions.

Despite movement from election denialist groups, Lydgate remains hopeful that the 2024 election will continue to be safe and secure and that efforts by election denialist groups to undermine the credibility of election workers and officials will fall flat.

“There are so many safeguards built into our system, and it is a system that people trust,” Lydgate said, adding that candidates who anchored their campaigns on election denialism saw major losses across the country. “It is not just bad policy, it is bad politics. Voters do not like it.”

The main issue will be keeping dis- and misinformation in check going forward into 2024, but overall Lydgate said she feels “hopeful” in this moment, calling it the “summer of accountability.” Those who have sought to undermine the democratic process are now facing consequences for their actions, she said, referring to the federal and state indictments for former President Donald Trump and his allies.

“We have to be very clear that democracy in this country has been under attack for the last several years,” Lydgate said, “but we have seen that the will of the people has prevailed.”