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Faction of McLean County GOP continues to embrace discredited election fraud claims

FILE - A Republican election challenger at right watches over election inspectors as they examine a ballot as votes are counted into the early morning hours, Nov. 4, 2020, at the central counting board in Detroit. A review by The Associated Press in the six battleground states disputed by former President Trump has found fewer than 475 cases of potential voter fraud, a minuscule number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election. (AP Photo/David Goldman, file)
David Goldman/AP
A Republican election challenger, right, right watches over election inspectors as they examine a ballot as votes are counted into the early morning hours, Nov. 4, 2020, at the central counting board in Detroit. (AP Photo/David Goldman, file)

Gary Stevens of Bloomington is running for McLean County Board as a write-in candidate. During a meet-and-greet with voters at a Bloomington restaurant, Stevens said he was disappointed and surprised when Donald Trump lost reelection. Stevens said he had suspicions about how Joe Biden won.

Stevens recently watched "2000 Mules," the film that tries to claim Democrats stole the election through illegal ballot harvesting, apparently exposed through cellphone location data. The county GOP sponsored the showing of the movie created by a conservative provocateur.

The film has been widely discredited, but Stevens was sold. “After seeing this film today, it seems like there’s a good basis for there could have been some fraud," Stevens said. “I think there’s a lot of weight to what they said, and I would tend to believe (the election was stolen).”

Stevens is not alone.

Vicki Schultz of Bloomington also is running as a write-in for McLean County Board. Schultz said she'd like to go back to paper ballots only and a photo ID requirement to vote, adding what she saw on the news on election night 2020 bothered her.

People watching video screen
Facebook/McLean County Republican Party
The McLean County Republican Party recently hosted a viewing of the film "2000 Mules."

“There were a lot of questions I have about some of the things that had occurred, and it makes me wonder what’s going on there,” Schultz said.

Schultz pointed to claims of poll watchers being barred in Pennsylvania and a reported delay in vote counting in Georgia over a pipe break. Those are false. Poll watchers from both the Republican and Democratic parties watched the vote counting in Pennsylvania, and vote counting stopped only briefly in Georgia because of a water leak. Poll watchers left on their own.

Trump was just the second Republican presidential candidate in the last 50 years to lose McLean County. But the defeated ex-president still has sway over some GOP candidates seeking office in McLean County.

Schultz and Stevens said they are not running for McLean County Board because of Trump. They said they are focused on local issues and that's what voters want to talk about, but the county Republican Party continues to make election integrity an issue.

The county GOP sponsored the viewing of the debunked "2000 Mules" flick. On social media, the party called the movie's claims "astonishing." Party chair Connie Beard did not respond to requests for an interview.

The McLean County Democratic Party released a statement about the county GOP showing of "2000 Mules." The Democrats called it "absolutely astonishing that a local political party would actively promote and share blatantly false and widely disproven conspiracy theories about the 2020 election."

In March, the county Republican Party also hosted a seminar entitled, "Guardians of the Vote." Its lead presenter was from the Illinois Conservative Union. WGLT requested access to the event, but media were not allowed to attend.

Diana Hauman was there. She's with the McLean County League of Women Voters and is an election judge. Hauman said she watched as the presenter contended the 2020 election was fraudulent. The group also cited, without evidence, that McLean County "likely" has some election fraud.

Hauman took offense. “I was a bit taken aback because as an election judge I feel that we do follow the letter of the law, what we are instructed to do,” she said.

"It just got the point where I said why am I continuing to me a member of a party that believes and advocates for things like election fraud that I don’t believe in and I think are wrong. It finally just got to the point where I said I’m done."
McLean County Board member Josh Barnett

The local fraud claims also did not sit well with the county's chief elections officer, McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, a Republican. “When I saw the ‘possible fraud’ up on the screen, I raised my hand and stood up and told them they needed to change that because they also couldn’t verify that that was based upon any fact,” Michael said.

Michael said she's confident there's no election fraud in McLean County, adding anyone guilty of fraud will go to jail.

The Republican Party forum encouraged more people to sign up as election judges and poll watchers. Michael said the county usually has a waiting list for election judges, not just this year. More rare is for poll watchers to sign up for primary elections as they have this year, though it's hard to tie that to the GOP push.

Michael said she welcomes extra scrutiny to ensure fair elections, but she won't weigh in on claims by her own party that the 2020 election was stolen.

“I’ve got my hands full keeping track of McLean County elections,” she said.

Each of the Republican candidates WGLT interviewed for this story said they believe elections in McLean County are fair and well run, but they have serious doubts about how they are run elsewhere. It's not just candidates for local races.

Jim Fisher of Hudson is running in the Republican primary for a state House seat. “Does it appear (there was) something that was not right going on? Yeah, it appears that way. Was it corrected? I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” Fisher said. When asked whether Biden was duly elected president, Fisher responded, “That’s a tough one.”

Fisher said that's because Biden was declared the winner while ballots were still being counted — a practice that is common as ballots are counted for weeks after an election.

Jan. 6 hearings

Fisher also said he's unmoved by evidence that's come out during congressional hearings into the capitol insurrection, an attack that was fueled by Trump's false claims. Fisher said the hearings are just a political sideshow.

“I think what they are trying to do is charge him with something so that he cannot run again,” Fisher said. “I think that’s what their intent is, especially when they should be concentrating on other things like, do you know how much it cost me to mow my lawn today?”

Stevens also said he's not watching the Jan. 6 hearings, and wonders why the government didn't spend more time investigating the riots that broke out in the summer of 2020. Nationwide, local authorities did make more than 10,000 arrests stemming from those incidents. Most were for non-violent offenses.

GOP voters back fraud claims

Perhaps it’s not surprising many Republican candidates have adopted claims of a stolen election. A recent poll shows two-thirds of likely Republicanprimary voters in Illinois believe the 2020 election results were illegitimate, despite dozens of failed lawsuits and one recount after another that affirmed the results.

McLean County Board member Josh Barnett has served nearly two terms on the county board as a Republican. He recently switched parties. Barnett said it's possible some Republican candidates say they buy the "Big Lie" because that's the only way to win primary voters. He calls the claims “wacky and dangerous.”

“I think what they are trying to do is charge him with something so that (Trump) cannot run again."
Illinois House candidate Jim Fisher

“The very idea that this sort of massive fraud has happened in this country, that there’s a massive conspiracy going on, this ranks right up there with people who believe we didn’t land on the moon,” said Barnett, adding the GOP's embrace of election fraud was a big reason he bolted the party.

“I think for me personally, it just got the point where I said why am I continuing to be a member of a party that believes and advocates for things like election fraud that I don’t believe in and I think are wrong. It finally just got to the point where I said I’m done. It was time to switch parties,” he said.

Barnett is not seeking reelection.

Republican Jim Soeldner is seeking another term on the county board. The board's vice chair, Soeldner said he doubts claims many of his fellow Republicans have made.

“I don’t doubt that there was some voter fraud. Every year, there’s some of that. I believe Joe Biden, like it or not, is our president and duly elected,” Soeldner said.

Michael would not address election fraud claims Republicans have raised about other states, but said claims like that promote mistrust and discourage people from exercising their right to vote.

“I have some concerns or frustrations about the more anybody — no matter what side or party you are on — the more you talk about voter suppression, if it hasn’t been proven, you are discouraging the very people you are trying to help,” Michael said.

Michael said if election deniers keep scaring voters, they will help to destroy democracy.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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