Megan O'Matz

This Republican tried to introduce a commonsense gun law. Then the gun lobby got involved

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Cole Wist was a Republican state House member in Colorado with an A grade from the NRA. Then, in 2018, he supported a red flag law, sponsoring a bill to allow guns to be taken away — temporarily — from people who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Wist lost his seat in the legislature that year in the face of an intense backlash from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun rights organization in Colorado that boasts it accepts “no compromise” as it battles “the gun grabbers.” The group campaigned against him, distributing flyers and referring to him on social media as “Cole the Mole.”

Wist, an attorney, doesn’t regret trying to enact what he considered a measured response to an epidemic of gun violence in the United States. He acted after a mentally ill man in his Denver suburb killed a sheriff’s deputy. The bill didn’t pass until after Wist was out of office and his successor, Tom Sullivan, shepherded it through. Sullivan is a Democrat who lost his son in the Aurora theater massacre.

Wist left the Republican Party this year, citing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as the reason, and is now unaffiliated with any political party. Days after the slaughter of 19 children and 2 adults in an elementary school in Texas, ProPublica talked to Wist about the challenges ahead as proponents once again work to enact gun reforms.

Colorado is one of 19 states, including Illinois, Florida and Indiana, that have red flag laws, sometimes called extreme risk protection orders. Texas does not. After the Robb Elementary School murders on Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate agreed to negotiate over possible anti-violence measures, including expanding red flag laws.

In Colorado, a spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners called Wist “a sellout” on Friday and said the organization had no choice but to work against him. “At the end of the day, my goal is to hold politicians accountable regardless of whether they’re a Republican or a Democrat,” said RMGO’s Executive Director Taylor Rhodes.

Rhodes called the assault on the elementary school a “massive terrorist attack” but said gun control is not the answer.

“We protect everything in our nation that’s valuable with guns. We protect our banks with guns, courthouses … our homes. We protect them with guns.” The group’s logo includes an image of a firearm that resembles an assault rifle.

This interview with Wist has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about why you introduced the legislation in Colorado.

Every time we have an incident like this, people tend to go into their camps. We’ve got some folks who say we should ban certain kinds of guns or expand universal background checks or any other number of policy proposals to try to eliminate guns from society. On the other hand, you have folks who say no, these are mental health issues, this is an indication of a larger mental health crisis in the country. But you know, I don’t really hear a whole lot of policy solutions from those folks. So in an effort to try to pair concerns about mental health and the combination of mental health crisis with access to firearms and weapons, I started investigating extreme risk protection orders and how they’ve been passed in other states. And one of the first states in the country to do this was Indiana. And I don’t think you’d really think that Indiana is a hard left state, by any means. … And ultimately, I decided to sponsor legislation relating to extreme risk protection orders.

When you served in the state legislature, the Republicans controlled the state Senate and Democrats had the House. What was the makeup of your district?

I represented a district that at that time was predominantly Republican. It had historically elected Republican legislators, but it was a suburban district becoming more purple. And, you know, look, when you’re elected to represent a district in the legislature, you’re not just elected by the people that voted for you, you’re elected to represent everyone in the district, and that includes unaffiliated and Democratic voters.

Who opposed you when you ran for reelection in 2018?

So there’s a group called the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a very active gun rights organization. They targeted me or targeted my race for campaign activity and actively worked against me. … They put flyers on people’s doors, including my own door, and used their resources to campaign against me.

Are the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners similar to the National Rifle Association?

I think they characterize themselves as being the no-compromise gun rights organization. So I would characterize them as certainly more aggressive on gun rights issues than the NRA, and the NRA is the more well-known organization, the one with more resources. But in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners is the gun rights group that seems to have the most sway. They’ve been successful in recalling a couple of legislators here.

Did it seem like they sacrificed your seat to send a message to other lawmakers to stay in line?

I guess that’s a fair interpretation, that you either stay in line and vote the party line on this issue, or they will remove you. And that’s what they did. I mean, there were other factors in play in 2018. That was also the midterm election of Donald Trump’s first term in office or his only term in office. … So there were more issues in play than gun policy. But it was certainly a group that worked against my reelection and didn’t help. … It might have been enough to suppress turnout on the Republican side for me.

What was the reaction from the GOP leadership to your sponsorship of the red flag bill?

I was the assistant minority leader in the state House at that point. There was an effort to strip me of that leadership post. That effort failed. I think there’s some reluctance in Republican circles here to take on groups like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for fear of getting primaried, for fear of having them work against you. And I suppose people may look at my experience as being something that deters them from even having conversations. I introduced a bill that was very controversial. In those circles, even being open to conversations about gun policy or gun safety legislation creates risk for folks in Republican circles here. So, if your objective is to stay in office for a long time and continue to get reelected … you don’t cross that line.

In the aftermath of Uvalde, what does your experience suggest about the likelihood of our politicians enacting some measures to prevent future atrocities?

I see some of the same signs happening again, in the aftermath of this event, where everyone sort of retreats to the corners. And some people are calling for banning certain kinds of guns and changing the purchase age for certain kinds of guns. If you try to ban AR-15s, I think that’s a policy solution that some people think is something we should do. I don’t agree with that. We’ve got millions of guns already in the possession of gun owners across the country. How much of an impact are you going to have if you ban certain kinds of guns at this point? I think a better discussion is to talk about why people commit these kinds of violent acts with guns and other weapons. … And so I think red flag laws and legislation that focuses on trying to reduce risk and talking about why these kinds of events happen is the most productive conversation for us to have. Let’s give law enforcement and families tools that they can use.

But one of the things that’s lost in this conversation is that — I’ll talk specifically about Colorado — we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. We also have one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the country, and the highest percentage of suicides here are committed by guns. So when folks are going through a severe mental crisis, yes, there’s a risk that they might go commit a homicide, but there’s probably a greater risk that they’re going to hurt themselves. So I think there’s this way of characterizing red flag laws as confiscating guns and trying to hurt someone’s constitutional rights. But instead, I think it’s something that’s being used to help protect that person, to prevent them from harming themselves and prevent them from harming family members.

Can you describe the toll this experience took on you and your family?

I received threats as a result of going through that process. And that was very stressful for my family. I don’t miss that part of public life. And, you know, social media and other things have made being in office very difficult. And folks can say just about anything and do say just about anything. So I can choose to do a couple of things. As a private citizen, I can kind of retreat from this and not talk about it, or try to do what I can to raise awareness and just try to encourage folks to come together. I don’t know that you’re ever going to change everyone’s minds. But we don’t solve problems unless we talk to each other and not talk past each other. And every time we have an incident like what happened in Texas this week, there’s sort of the initial, let’s talk, let’s come together, let’s talk about this. But I’m just amazed at how quickly everyone just sort of retreats to the same old political position. I hope this time is different.

This hypnotherapist and failed politician helped fuel the never-ending hunt for election fraud in Wisconsin

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Jay Stone grew up in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago ward politics, the son of a longtime city alderman. But his own forays into politics left him distrustful of Chicago Democrats.

When he ran for alderman in 2003, he was crushed at the polls after party leaders sent city workers out to campaign against him. Even his own father didn’t endorse him.

Then when Stone sought the mayor’s office in 2010, he only mustered a few hundred of the 12,500 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. He filed a federal lawsuit over the requirement and lost.

His father, Bernard Stone, who held office for 38 years, once told the Chicago Tribune: “My son is very good at what he’s trained to do. And that’s not politics.”

Jay Stone’s training was in hypnotherapy, and he eventually walked away from Chicago politics, carving out a living using hypnosis to help people with anxiety, weight gain, nicotine addiction and other issues. Only in retirement, and after a move to Wisconsin, did he finally find his political niche.

In 2020, Stone played a crucial, if little-known, role in making Wisconsin a hotbed of conspiracy theories that Democrats stole the state’s 10 electoral votes from then-President Donald Trump. The outcry emanating from Wisconsin has cast Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a force of untoward political influence and helped create a backlash against using private grants, including large donations from Zuckerberg, to assist election officials across the country.

In Wisconsin, Stone has finally been embraced politically, by activists and politicians who, like him, didn’t approve of the so-called “Zuckerbucks” or of big-city Democratic mayors. They, too, are unhappy with the way the 2020 presidential election was run in Wisconsin and how it turned out. And they, too, show no inclination of giving up, even when their claims have been rejected and other Republicans have told them it’s time to move on.

“The best part of getting involved in politics in Wisconsin is the wonderful people I’ve been meeting,” Stone said in an interview. “They’re just a great group of men and women that I admire and respect.”

The questioning of the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s 20,000-vote victory in Wisconsin continues thanks to Stone and others who have emerged to take on outsize roles after the election. Among them: a retired travel industry executive who has alleged voter fraud at nursing homes. Ten alternate GOP electors who signed documents to try to subvert the certification of Biden’s election. And some state legislators who are still looking for ways to hand the state to Trump, a year and a half after the election.

Stone hasn’t garnered much public attention, but records indicate that in the summer of 2020 he was the first person to complain to state authorities about grant money accepted by local election officials. The funds were earmarked for face masks, shields and other safety supplies, as well as hazard pay, larger voting facilities, vote-by-mail processing, drop boxes and educational outreach about absentee voting.

Stone, however, saw the election funding, which came from a Chicago nonprofit, as a way to sway the election for Biden by helping bring more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls in Wisconsin’s five largest cities.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission rejected Stone’s claim last year, on the grounds that he didn’t live in any of the cities he mentioned and that the complaint did not allege any violations that the commission had the authority to investigate. A separate complaint Stone filed with the Federal Election Commission, in which he objects to the Zuckerberg money, has not been resolved.

Nonetheless, the idea that the election was somehow rigged lives on.

Chief among the election deniers is Michael Gableman, who served on the state Supreme Court for a decade. A Trump ally, Gableman was named as special counsel by the GOP-controlled State Assembly to investigate the legitimacy of Biden’s victory in Wisconsin. Not only did Gableman give Stone’s accusations a platform, he took them even further. In his review for the Assembly, Gableman labeled the grants a form of bribery.

Gableman expressed his admiration for Stone during a March interview on the “Tucker Carlson Today” show, which streams online.

It’s “a private citizen, a guy named Jay Stone, who really deserves a lot of credit,” Gableman said, referring to questions about the election grants.

“He saw all of this coming,” Gableman said. “And he’s not a lawyer. I don’t know what his particular training is — he’s trained in the medical field. He filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission back in August of 2020, well before the election. And he foresaw all of this, he foresaw the partisan nature of all of the Zuckerberg money and all of the Zuckerberg people coming in to influence the election.”

Gableman, who has not responded to requests for an interview, had hired Stone as a paid consultant for his review by the time he appeared on Carlson’s show.

But that’s not the only thing keeping Stone from a quiet retirement in Pleasant Prairie, not far from the Illinois border, where he grows his own fruits and vegetables and heats his home only with firewood. Once again, he’s got his eyes on political office. This time he’s running for the Wisconsin State Senate.

The Chicago Connection

In the summer of 2020, cities across the U.S. were canceling Fourth of July firework celebrations. Public health departments were scrambling to put contact tracing measures in place to track the spread of COVID-19. Movie theaters remained shuttered. Vaccines were still undergoing testing.

Against this backdrop, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit based in Chicago, decided to get involved. Its stated mission is to ensure that elections across the country are “more professional, inclusive and secure.”

The group approached the mayors of Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — and encouraged them to draw up a “Safe Voting Plan” outlining how they would spend more than $6 million in grant money to make it easier for people to vote while also limiting their exposure to the highly contagious coronavirus.

Wisconsin’s April elections, including the presidential primary, had been a near-disaster. The state’s Democratic governor and GOP-controlled legislature bickered over whether to postpone the balloting. Election offices were deluged with requests for absentee ballots. National Guard troops stepped in to replace poll workers too scared to volunteer. Polling places closed or relocated. Some voters waited in long lines for hours.

The Safe Voting Plan envisioned a smoother election that November. The goals were to keep voters safe and educate them about how to cast a ballot properly, whether in person or by mail. The plan also expressed the desire to ensure the right to vote “in our dense and diverse communities.”

Green Bay, for example, proposed using $15,000 to partner with “churches, educational institutions, and organizations serving African immigrants, LatinX residents, and African Americans” to help new voters obtain documents needed to get a valid state ID that they could show at the polls or to get an absentee ballot.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life awarded the $6.3 million to Wisconsin’s five largest cities in early July 2020. That’s when a friend of Stone’s sent him a link to a newspaper article about the grants.

“Within 10 minutes, I knew this was a scam, because they were targeting the Democratic strongholds in the state of Wisconsin,” said Stone.

Stone recognized that the organization’s address on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was in the same building that had once housed Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, which he felt confirmed his instincts.

He took exception to the proposed outreach to communities that traditionally vote Democratic, saying such efforts are the responsibility of candidates and parties, not municipal election workers. On Aug. 28, 2020, he fired off a 27-page complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which included 167 exhibits.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life “exploited COVID-19” to help Democrats, Stone wrote. “All of CTCL’s $6.3 million expenditures will increase voter turnout in Wisconsin cities that are heavily Democratic and increase the likelihood that Democrat Joe Biden will win Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes.”

Less than a week later, CTCL made a major announcement: It had received a $250 million donation from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple later added an additional $100 million. CTCL’s previous funding had come from a variety of foundations.

Ultimately, CTCL awarded grants to more than 2,500 elections offices across 49 states, including rural parts of Wisconsin. The sums included $5,000 to small communities such as Ralls County, Missouri, and $10 million each for the city of Philadelphia and for Fulton County, Georgia, which encompasses most of Atlanta.

In an interview, Stone said he wouldn’t have objected if the grants had been awarded to each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — with every county getting an equal amount per registered voter.

According to a ProPublica analysis, the biggest municipalities in Wisconsin received the most money and had higher per capita grants than smaller places like Waukesha, Brookfield and Fond Du Lac, which all had a history of voting for Trump. For instance, the per capita figure for Milwaukee was more than 10 times that of nearby Waukesha.

An analysis by Ballotpedia, a nonprofit focusing on elections, found that Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan — swing states that ended up in the Biden column — received some of the highest per capita grants from CTCL. However, it’s nearly impossible to discern what may have turned the tide in those states and whether turnout was affected by the grant money, a motivation to vote against Trump, or other factors.

CTCL was formed in 2014. One of its founders, Tiana Epps-Johnson, was named an Obama Foundation fellow in 2018, providing her with leadership training and other resources to help her in her work. She has described CTCL as nonpartisan, but Stone said the Obama Foundation connection suggests otherwise.

Epps-Johnson, who is CTCL’s executive director, did not respond to a voice message left on her direct line, but the group replied with a statement saying the grant money was available to all parts of the country. “Every eligible local election office that applied was awarded funds,” CTCL stated.

The center also defended its actions in a lawsuit the Trump campaign filed against the Wisconsin Elections Commission; the suit alleged, in part, that the state election commission had improperly supported the five cities’ plan to promote expanded mail-in voting.

In an amicus brief in that case, CTCL wrote: “Most of those funds were used to purchase personal protective equipment for voters and election workers, to recruit and train additional staff, to provide improved security, to establish in-person polling places, to process mail-in ballots, and to ensure emergency preparedness. CTCL’s program thus helped officials throughout the nation to run secure, lawful, and efficient elections for all Americans.”

A federal judge appointed by Trump found no merit in the former president’s case and dismissed it.

Zuckerberg also denies having hidden motives in funding nonprofits that targeted voting issues. His spokesperson Brian Baker said in an email to ProPublica that Zuckerberg and his wife stepped in when “our nation’s election infrastructure faced unprecedented challenges” and the federal government “failed to provide adequate funds.” The goal, Baker said, was to “ensure that residents could vote regardless of their party or preference.”

When Wisconsinites went to the polls in November 2020, there were far fewer issues with people having trouble casting a ballot or having to wait in long lines than there had been in the spring election.

Jay Stone’s Grievances

Stone’s skepticism was deeply rooted. His own family and his political failures were shaped by Chicago politics, giving him a close-up view of the unseemly tactics of loyalists associated with Democratic rule under Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and then, to a lesser extent, his son Richard M. Daley.

Running for 32nd Ward alderman on Chicago’s North Side in 2003, Stone preached good government, transparency and election reform. He lost. Testimony in a 2006 federal corruption trial involving top Daley administration officials described how party bosses ordered city workers to campaign for Stone’s opponent, the sitting alderman.

“They wanted a puppet they could control,” Stone said.

After his election defeat, Stone filed a claim against the Daley administration as part of a class-action suit seeking compensation for damages related to political patronage. A federal monitor awarded him $75,000 based on Stone’s claims about city workers forced to campaign against him. His efforts taking on the Daley machine earned him a description as a “passionate independent” from a reporter for the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly.

Reflecting on the experience, Stone said that even his father was unwilling to endorse him for fear of political retribution. (Stone’s father died in 2014. Jay Stone said that despite their political differences, they remained close.)

Undeterred, in 2010 Stone made a bid for mayor, hoping to take on Richard M. Daley, but Daley announced he would not run for a record seventh term.

Stone didn’t obtain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and sued the city’s Board of Election Commissioners, claiming the requirement was onerous and unconstitutional, designed to keep the machine in power. The courts disagreed, and the case failed.

Stone never won an election in Chicago, but he was able to build a professional life there as a hypnotherapist in private practice. Stone decided to enter the field after earning first an undergraduate philosophy degree and then an MBA. He received a doctorate in clinical hypnotherapy through remote learning from a now-shuttered California institute.

Hypnotherapists are not licensed in Illinois. But the treatment has gained acceptance. According to the National Institutes of Health, hypnosis has been shown to help people manage some painful conditions and deal with anxiety.

Stone sought to help clients visualize a better future, a goal he said he wanted to achieve in politics, too. In hypnosis, Stone said, some of his patients experienced flashbacks to past lives that helped them find peace and change their behavior for the better. He wrote a paper, posted on his website, on the potential to use DNA to prove the existence of past lives.

Science, he noted, always starts with a theory. “And then you have to be able to prove it,” he said.

His theories about elections tend to lump all Chicago Democrats together, so that Michelle and Barack Obama are considered just as capable of unsavory political tactics as the two Daleys who governed Chicago for decades.

Stone maintains that the Obamas have unduly influenced elections through a network of former White House staffers associated with nonprofits Stone believes are inappropriately registering and influencing voters. (He said he soured on Barack Obama long ago because he believed that Obama had failed to confront the Chicago Democratic machine as a U.S. senator.)

He is particularly opposed to the star-studded nonprofit When We All Vote, set up by Michelle Obama to register voters and help “close the race and age gap.” By the 2020 election, more than 500,000 people had started or completed their voter registration process through When We All Vote, according to the group.

“I believe Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote is the most powerful political organization or political machine in the country,” Stone said in a video he posted on Rumble, a video platform that’s popular among some conservatives. “When We All Vote is more powerful than the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee combined.”

When We All Vote told ProPublica in an email that it is nonpartisan and works with schools and educators to increase civic engagement and voter participation, saying its “initiatives comply with the letter and spirit of the law.”

Stone filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission against the former first lady, alleging criminal violations for offering financial prizes to schools that registered the most voters and for enticing people to early voting sites with food and music. The commission, in a 5-1 vote in April, dismissed the matter “due to a lack of reasonable suspicion” and fined him $500 for filing a “frivolous” complaint. (Stone on Friday appealed that decision in Kenosha County Circuit Court.)

Stone saw the supposed Obama network’s fingerprints on the 2020 election grants offered by the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

And while he measures his words more carefully than Gableman and others who see the 2020 Wisconsin election results as tainted, he clearly is in that camp.

“There was so much, I don’t want to say ‘fraud,’ but there was so much deviation from the election laws and the election norms, it raises serious questions,” he said of Trump’s loss in Wisconsin.

“I don’t think the election was fair and just.”

Allies in Wisconsin

The CTCL money has become a central theme in complaints about Biden’s victory in Wisconsin — and in the review by Gableman. Under pressure from Trump, GOP Assembly Speaker Robin

Vos appointed Gableman to review whether the election was administered fairly and lawfully.

Gableman has fallen short of proving fraud, but did use an interim report and an appearance before the legislative oversight committee on March 1 to highlight the Zuckerberg money and call for disbanding the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He said the legislature should look into decertifying the 2020 election results, but even Republican officials balked at that.

Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted that “handing authority to partisan politicians to determine if election fraud exists would be the end of our republic as we know it.”

Jay Stone sat in the front row behind Gableman during the meeting, where Gableman released a report of his findings thus far. It spanned 136 pages, half of which dealt with the CTCL grants, which he characterized as “election bribery.”

Stone helped in the review but won’t talk about what exactly he did in the ongoing investigation, which was budgeted by Vos to cost taxpayers $676,000. “I’m on a confidentiality agreement,” Stone said.

Stone billed Gableman $3,250 for 128 hours of work between Feb. 16 and March 1, according to an invoice obtained by the nonprofit group American Oversight, which has sued to get access to Gableman’s records.

Asked about Gableman’s bribery terminology, Stone sighed. “It’s not a typical case where somebody gives a politician money for, let’s say, a zoning change,” he said. “So, it’s not your typical bribery case, but certainly it’s worth looking into.”

Lawsuits in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota about the CTCL grants have failed, as did Stone’s complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Just last week in Madison, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke called the election bribery allegation “ridiculous,” saying he saw no evidence that CTCL offered anything to change anyone’s vote. “I mean, what proof is there in the record anywhere of an inducement of bribery? That whole thing just falls away. There’s nothing in the record. Is there?”

Minnesota lawyer Erick G. Kaardal, who continues to challenge the grants, replied that he reads state law to mean: “We don’t want Wisconsin public officials taking money to get people to go to the polls.”

The county case is an appeal of the elections commission’s rejection of a similar complaint Kaardal filed there about the grants. Ehlke has yet to rule.

Gableman’s work, meanwhile, has been widely discredited, cast by politicians, including some Republicans, and legal analysts as unprofessional and amateurish. Wisconsin’s Democratic governor called the investigation a “ colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“This effort has spread disinformation about our election processes, it has attacked the integrity of our clerks, election administrators, and poll workers, and it has emboldened individuals to harass and demean dedicated public servants,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a prepared statement.

The issue of using private grants in administering elections, however, remains alive.

Zuckerberg will not be making future donations to election offices, his spokesperson told ProPublica earlier this month, calling it “a one-time donation given the unprecedented nature of the crisis.”

More than a dozen states, meanwhile, have banned or restricted the use of private funds for election offices. The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill in 2021 prohibiting counties or municipalities from applying for or accepting any private donations for elections, but left room for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to take outside grants so long as the money is distributed statewide on a per capita basis. Evers vetoed it.

In southeastern Wisconsin, however, the Walworth County Board of Supervisors passed its own ban last month, prohibiting the county from accepting donations or grants for election administration from individuals or nongovernmental entities.

Now that he’s left a mark as a political activist in Wisconsin, Stone is back on the campaign trail.

At an event hall near Kenosha this month, Stone addressed about 100 people gathered at a regular meeting of the H.O.T. Government group, a right-leaning Wisconsin grassroots organization that adopted an acronym for the words “honest, open and transparent.” (Stone is the group’s vice president.) A stuffed effigy of a torso with a white foam head hung from the rafters, wearing a shirt labeled “Corrupt Officials.”

Standing before a large American flag, he politely asked people to sign his nominating forms. Republican State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the elections committee overseeing Gableman’s investigation and supports the effort to overturn Biden’s Wisconsin victory, jumped up from her seat to lead the crowd in a chant: “Jay Stone! Jay Stone!”

“Jay is the one who filed the complaint in the very beginning,” she told the audience. “Jay is a real hero in what he’s done for Wisconsin.”

Billionaire-backed group enlists Trump-supporting citizens to hunt for voter fraud using discredited techniques

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

At a wedding hall in rural northwest Wisconsin, an evangelist hollered a question to an eager crowd of conferencegoers: “Who thinks Wisconsin can be saved?”

He was answered with enthusiastic whistles and cheers. The truth, he said, would be revealed. “We need transparency!”

The subject: the nation’s election systems. The preacher was among a group of conservative speakers, including politicians, data gurus and former military officers, who theorized on the mechanics of voter fraud in general — and specifically distrust in the voter rolls, the official lists of eligible voters.

“Voter rolls are very, very important to the process,” Florida software and database engineer Jeff O’Donnell told the gathering of 300 in late January in Chippewa Falls, deeming the rolls “the ground zero” of what he called Democratic plots to steal elections. The only way former President Donald Trump could have lost his reelection campaign in 2020, O’Donnell said in an interview, was if voter rolls had been inflated with people who shouldn’t have been able to cast ballots.

Ever since Trump failed to convince the world that he lost the 2020 election because of fraud, like-minded people across the country have been taking up the same rallying cry, revisiting that vote with an eye toward what will happen in 2022.

Now, a new group is stepping into a more conspicuous role in that world by providing easily accessible tools for people in Wisconsin, other Midwest battleground states and, eventually, the entire country to forge ahead with a quest to prove election irregularities.

Calling its work unprecedented, the Voter Reference Foundation is analyzing state voter rolls in search of discrepancies between the number of ballots cast and the number of voters credited by the rolls as having participated in the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

The foundation, led by a former Trump campaign official and founded less than a year ago, has dismissed objections from election officials that its methodology is flawed and its actions may be illegal, ProPublica found. But with its inquiries and insinuations, VoteRef, as it is known, has added to the volume in the echo chamber.

Its instrument is the voter rolls, released line by line, for all to see.

In early August, the foundation published on its website the names, birthdates, addresses and voting histories for 2 million Nevada voters, information that is normally public but only available on request, for a fee. It claimed to have found a significant discrepancy between the number of voters and the number of ballots cast, despite being warned by state election officials that its findings were “fundamentally incorrect.”

In the months since, VoteRef has reported similar discrepancies in rolls posted for 18 other states, including the 2020 election battlegrounds of Michigan, Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin. Most recently, it added Texas. It intends to post the rolls of all 50 states by year’s end.

“Voter File Transparency site adds Michigan; large discrepancy found,” read a headline on a Dec. 6 press release put out by the organization, which is led by Gina Swoboda, a high-ranking officer in the Republican Party of Arizona.

The project is still in its early stages, and the people at the Chippewa Falls conference did not mention VoteRef specifically.

Still, the VoteRef initiative is an important indication of how some influential and well-funded Republicans across the country plan to encourage crowdsourcing of voter rolls to find what they consider errors and anomalies, then dispute voter registrations of specific individuals. Visitors to the VoteRef site are able to scroll through data on more than 106 million people in a free, easy-to-use format. The VoteRef data includes personal identifying information of every voter and the years they voted, but not how they voted.

VoteRef’s methods have already led to pushback from state officials. The New Mexico Secretary of State believes posting data about individual voters online is not a permissible use under state law and has referred the matter to the state attorney general for criminal investigation.

And an attorney for the Pennsylvania Department of State notified VoteRef in January that state law prohibits publishing the voter rolls on the internet and asked that the data be removed. VoteRef complied.

ProPublica contacted election officials in a dozen of the states where VoteRef has examined voter rolls, and in every case the officials said that the methodology used to identify the discrepancies was flawed, the data incomplete or the math wrong. The officials, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, were in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

“The accuracy and integrity of Michigan’s election has been confirmed by hundreds of audits, numerous courts and a GOP-led Oversight Committee analysis,” said Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for Michigan’s secretary of state.

“This is simply another meritless example of election misinformation being disseminated to undermine well-founded faith in Michigan’s election system, and from an organization led by at least one former member of the Trump campaign,” Wimmer said.

VoteRef, records show, is an initiative of the conservative nonprofit group Restoration Action and its related political action committee, both led by Doug Truax, an Illinois insurance broker and podcaster who ran unsuccessfully in the state’s GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

A ProPublica review found that VoteRef’s origins and funders are closely linked to a super PAC predominantly funded by billionaire Richard Uihlein, founder of the mammoth Wisconsin-based packaging supply company Uline. A descendant of one of the founders of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, Uihlein is a major Trump supporter and a key player in Wisconsin and Illinois politics. Among his political donations: $800,000 in September 2020 to the Tea Party Patriots political action committee, a group that helped organize the Jan. 6 rally that led to the Capitol insurrection.

Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth Uihlein, have contributed in excess of $30 million combined over two decades to mainly Republican candidates on the state and local level, particularly in Illinois and Wisconsin, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign donor information. The total includes money given to groups that advocate on behalf of candidates as well as direct contributions.

Voter rolls are public information, typically used by campaigns to identify potential supporters, target messages or persuade people to go to the polls. Journalists and some businesses also at times use the rolls for newsgathering or commercial purposes.

VoteRef has said its aim is to increase transparency in the elections process, echoing the language used to justify door-to-door address checks, painstaking ballot audits and other efforts that Trump supporters are continuing to employ to parse the 2020 election. To publicize the results of its analysis of ballot inconsistencies, it crafted press releases that then were parroted on sites that purport to be legitimate news outlets and were connected to a media network that received large sums of money from VoteRef.

“VoteRef is the beginning of a new era of American election transparency,” Swoboda, VoteRef’s executive director, said in its Nevada press release. “We have an absolute right to see everything behind the curtain.”

Until a few months before the 2020 election, Swoboda, a resident of Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb, was a professional in Arizona’s election system, working as the campaign finance and lobbying supervisor in the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

Swoboda then served as Election Day operations director for the Trump campaign in Arizona, according to a sworn court affidavit she gave in Arizona in November 2020 as part of Trump’s legal challenge to election results there. She described how she took complaints from people who thought poll workers allowed defective ballots to be submitted, in what later became known as “SharpieGate.” (Votes made with a Sharpie do count, the state said.)

She and others associated with VoteRef declined to be interviewed for this story. But Swoboda did respond via email.

“In each of the states we’ve researched to date, the election data math simply doesn’t add up,” she wrote. “That requires reform. We seek to spur this reform through the sustained spotlighting of inaccuracies or wrongdoing.”

Flawed Methodology

As of late February, VoteRef showed 431,173 more ballots cast overall than people credited by voter rolls with having participated in the 2020 election.

To those unschooled in the mechanics of elections, VoteRef’s approach could seem reasonable: Compare the total number of ballots cast in the Nov. 3, 2020 election with the number of current voters on the rolls who have recorded histories of having participated in the vote.

For example, the VoteRef table for Nevada shows 8,952 more ballots cast than individuals credited with voting, based on histories obtained in February 2021.

“Theoretically, these numbers should match,” VoteRef claimed in an August press release.

But there are valid reasons the numbers do not match.

Nevada election officials explained it this way in a press release: “If ‘John Doe’ votes and has his ballot counted in Lander County, then moves to Mineral County, once he is registered in Mineral County, he will show no vote history because he has no vote history in Mineral County. The farther away from the election the data is acquired, the more it will have changed.”

In Connecticut, there were 1,839,714 ballots cast in 2020, according to VoteRef, but the group’s examination of voter histories in October, 2021, showed 1,802,458 people voting. VoteRef’s conclusion is that there was a discrepancy of 37,256 ballots.

But state election officials said that the registration database is “live,” and voting histories of those who moved out of state or died in the months after the election would have been removed from the rolls, accounting for the discrepancy.

“The list is not a static list,” said Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. “It changes all the time.”

In Michigan, where VoteRef found a difference of more than 74,000 votes, an elections official said that state’s qualified voter file also constantly changes as it's updated, making the data the foundation relied on in late May 2021 — more than six months after the election — out of date.

In a recent email to ProPublica, Swoboda conceded as much.

“It's up to election officials who run election offices to reconcile their data, not the Voter Reference Foundation, which merely publishes their information in a consumer-friendly format,” she said. “Of course, our election experts are well aware of the time lag between certification and data pulls — we posted the documents online for all to see!”

Federal law requires that election supervisors make reasonable efforts to update voter lists, but provides leeway in how states carry out the task. The law prohibits administrators from removing people for simply not voting in repeated elections, unless notices go unanswered and officials wait for two federal election cycles before putting the voters on an inactive list.

Counties haven’t always done a good job, however, in maintaining the voter rolls, leading some people to distrust the system. One of VoteRef’s key aims is to task ordinary people with the chore of finding anomalies.

Scrutinizing Voter Rolls and Neighbors

In announcing the launch of its website, the Voter Reference Foundation touted it as a “first of its kind” searchable tool for all 50 states “that will finally give American citizens a way to examine crucial voting records.”

“Citizens will be able to check their voting status, voting history, and those of their neighbors, friends and others. They will be able to ‘crowd-source’ any errors,” the press release stated.

The group’s backers have encouraged scrutiny outside of one’s own household.

“With VoteRef.com you can find out who voted and who didn’t. Did your aunt who died 10 years ago ‘vote’ after she died? Did your ‘neighbor’ who moved to another state vote? Did 55 votes emerge from a five-unit apartment complex?” Jeffrey Carter, a partner in a venture capital group who earlier had appeared on Truax’s podcast, wrote on the newsletter site Substack in December.

Matt Batzel, whose organization American Majority recently highlighted VoteRef’s efforts in Wisconsin, said in an interview with ProPublica that VoteRef’s vision is for citizens to detect and then report potential problems with the voter rolls, such as people who are registered to vote at vacant lots or unusually high numbers of votes coming from nursing homes.

Election experts say the type of work being done by VoteRef risks leading to further misinformation or being weaponized by people trying to undermine the legitimacy of the past election or give the sense that voter fraud is a more encompassing problem than it’s proven to be. Or it could be used to harass or intimidate valid voters under the guise of challenging their legitimacy.

Even without any clear evidence of fraud during the 2020 election, the vast, decentralized election system still is drawing scrutiny from those who believe that the system can be easily manipulated. At the daylong voter integrity conference in Chippewa Falls, speakers invoked war imagery, spoke of coverups, and urged people to “expose the tactics” of the political left. The group — saluted via video by Trump acolyte and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell — is seeking to put like-minded individuals in vote-certifying secretary of state offices nationwide.

The voter rolls have been targeted, too, by others in Wisconsin, including special counsel Michael J. Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice and Trump supporter who the state’s Republican Assembly speaker appointed in June to conduct a review of Wisconsin’s administration of the 2020 election. On March 1, Gableman released a report blasting what he called “opaque, confusing, and often botched election processes.”

Gableman urged the Legislature to consider legal methods to enable citizens or civil rights groups to help maintain election databases.

“As it stands, there is no clear method for individuals with facial evidence of inaccurate voter rolls to enter state court and seek to fix that problem,” he wrote. He envisioned a system that “could even provide nominal rewards for successful voter roll challenges.”

While information about voters is available in most states, it comes at a cost and with limits on how it can be distributed to avoid having some private information be easily accessible.

In January, an official with the Pennsylvania Department of State wrote to Truax warning that it appeared that the Voter Reference Foundation had “unlawfully posted Pennsylvania-voter information on its website” and demanding that the organization “take immediate action” to remove the information.

Soon, Pennsylvania data disappeared from the website. Swoboda declined to answer questions about the matter. Attempts to reach Truax were unsuccessful.

In New Mexico, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver also said the undertaking is not an allowable use of voter data. By state law, she said, the rolls can only be used for governmental or campaign purposes.

“Having voter registration data ‘blasted out across the internet’ violates state law limiting use of the voter rolls solely for campaign or government activities,” she said. In December, Toulouse Oliver’s office referred the matter to the state attorney general for investigation and possible prosecution.

Associates of the Voter Reference Foundation dismiss these privacy concerns.

"You are joking, right?” said Bill Wilson, chairman of the conservative-leaning Market Research Foundation of Fairfax, Virginia, which paid more than $11,000 to the state of Virginia in March 2021 for the voter roll data and shared it with the Voter Reference Foundation.

“Big tech, both political parties and big media have no interest or concern for privacy and have mountains of data on individuals that is shared and sold on an hourly basis. You called me at my home, after all.’’

Support in GOP Circles

Restoration Action/PAC describes itself on its website as an “effective dynamo against those trying to destroy our country.” It produces ads on behalf of state and national candidates, castigates Planned Parenthood, “biased liberal media” and “Big Tech” and advocates for fair elections.

Truax, the group’s head, frequently assumes the role of news anchor to host the First Right video podcast, interviewing far-right conservatives. In early June last year, he introduced his audience to VoteRef, telling them: “We helped create the organization, and we’ll have much more to say about it in the coming weeks.”

Richard Uihlein’s quiet role was essential. He’s been the primary funder of Restoration PAC since its inception in 2015, contributing at least $44 million, according to the data from OpenSecrets. In May 2021, Federal Election Commission records show, Uihlein donated $1.5 million to Restoration PAC. That same month, the Voter Reference Foundation was incorporated in Ohio.

Two weeks after the Uihlein donation, money started flowing from Restoration PAC to a media network that did some data procurement and analysis for VoteRef, with payments totalling more than $955,000 as of the end of 2021, the FEC records show.

The network, which includes Pipeline Media, is operated by Bradley Cameron, a Texas business strategist, state corporation records show. Brian Timpone is listed as a manager at Pipeline Media. He made headlines a decade ago after his firm, then called Journatic, came under fire for outsourcing hyperlocal news offshore using phony bylines.

In recent months, VoteRef has released press releases about its activities that have been turned into stories on sites owned by Metric Media, which Cameron leads, according to his online profile. The sites mimic legitimate news outlets but print press releases, shun bylines, do little to no original reporting and rely on automated data. “New website to publish which Arlington residents voted, did not vote in gubernatorial election,” read an Oct. 28 headline in the Central Nova News of Virginia, a Metric Media site.

Uihlein did not respond to calls or emails from ProPublica seeking comment. Cameron and Timpone also did not reply to messages seeking an interview.

Political figures with ties to Trump have been touting the efforts of VoteRef.

Among them: former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner appointed by Trump to serve as acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Cuccinelli now heads the Election Transparency Initiative, a Virginia organization opposed to expanding early voting or easing registration requirements. The initiative, a project of the conservative group Susan B. Anthony List, says it partners with The Heritage Foundation’s political arm.

Cuccinelli spoke in September to about 100 party loyalists at a gathering at a suburban Milwaukee hotel about how they could use the VoteRef tools and become involved in securing the elections process.

Similarly, J. Hogan Gidley, former national press secretary for the 2020 Trump campaign, promoted the work of VoteRef on Philadelphia conservative talk radio before Christmas.

“We’re doing some work with them, too. We know the folks over there really well,” said Gidley, who is now with the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit packed with Trump administration alums.

Truax, meanwhile, brought in Swoboda for his podcast last summer. They talked about the Arizona ballot audit and briefly referenced her work with the Voter Reference Foundation.

“It always feels like to me that the states, in general, have gotten a little sloppy in different areas and just you know nobody’s really paying a lot of attention to it,” Truax said.

He added: “Now I think as conservatives we’re in a place we really got to pay a lot more attention. There’s a lot of energy now on this.”

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