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Trump won Florida, but online and at your door, his supporters are trying to force an audit

The push for a recount began months ago in states like Arizona, where Trump lost by a narrow margin. But the movement is now bleeding into states Trump won comfortably, including Florida.
National and Florida groups are pushing officials to audit the 2020 election.
National and Florida groups are pushing officials to audit the 2020 election. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 15
Updated Oct. 15

LAND O’LAKES — Debbie Horgan, 64, approached the beige house and rapped her knuckles against the door.

A few minutes later, she returned to an SUV idling in the street.

“Another no answer,” she said to the driver, 61-year-old Kevin May. “I’m willing to bet not everyone lives here.”

A recent Saturday morning found Horgan, May and 77-year-old Paul Jordan on a mission. They drove around Pasco County seeking to ferret out voter fraud that local and state election officials have affirmed doesn’t exist. Each knock presented an opportunity to find someone whose address didn’t match their voter registration — and cast doubt on Florida’s election systems.

“I’m doing this because I want to give America a chance,” Jordan told a reporter.

Across Florida, former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters are scouring communities for evidence of voter fraud. They are bombarding local elections offices with calls and emails. They are showing up wherever lawmakers are meeting, demanding an audit of last November’s presidential contest that installed Democrat Joe Biden in the White House.

In Tallahassee, they emblazoned their demand on a billboard.

The push for a recount began months ago in states like Arizona, where Trump lost by a narrow margin. (A much-maligned review of ballots in that state’s largest county, led by a Trump supporter, confirmed Biden’s victory.) But the movement is now bleeding into states Trump won comfortably, including Florida.

This month, the Lake County Republican Party passed a resolution demanding Florida audit its election results. A state lawmaker from the same county filed a bill that would do just that.

The state’s top officials, however, remain unconvinced.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, last week reaffirmed his confidence in Florida’s 2020 result.

“What we do in Florida is, there’s a pre- and post-election audit that happens automatically,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday in St. Petersburg. “So, that has happened. It passed with flying colors.”

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee. [ STEVE CANNON | Associated Press ]

In a statement, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee who oversees state elections, said the vote tally was “accurate, transparent, and conducted in compliance with Florida law.”

Republican legislative leaders also aren’t embracing calls for an election review. The speaker of the House, Chris Sprowls, has said that the election went well. A spokeswoman for Senate President Wilton Simpson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Trump, who has urged election reviews in Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin, has made no mention of doing one in Florida.

Surveys show that a significant number of Americans have lost trust in elections everywhere. The complicated mechanics of running an election have never been perfect. But they have become fodder for Trump supporters seeking to question the 2020 results and undermine confidence in future elections.

Many of the Floridians involved in the effort are affiliated with Defend Florida, an offshoot of a national group called Defend our Union founded by conservatives after Trump’s defeat.

Members of the national group talk to each other via chat rooms on Telegram: an encrypted messaging service popular in far-right circles where conspiracy theories thrive.

The Tampa Bay Times reviewed thousands of Telegram messages and more than 100 emails to Tampa Bay election offices. They show the role these theories are playing in fueling the recount movement in a state that Trump won by 371,686 votes. Some emails take issue with the use of Dominion-provided voting machines, parroting a conspiracy that has sparked billion-dollar defamation lawsuits against conservative television networks. Others suggest that the vote totals were off in Florida, though amounts vary from a few hundred thousand to 1.5 million. They allege sophisticated schemes involving hacked voting software and hijacked mail-in ballots.

Election supervisors say the allegations show a lack of understanding of how voting works.

Mark Andersen, the Republican elections supervisor in Bay County in the Florida Panhandle, said he spent two hours on a Zoom call with representatives from Defend Florida explaining how his office makes sure vote counts are accurate. He said the group didn’t know that his county already audits every ballot.

Andersen said he was open to considering evidence of fraud but he hasn’t seen any.

“Show it to me, if you have it,” he said. “But if you have stuff that’s just bogus, then stop with the bogus behavior.”

Floridians like Horgan, May and Jordan press on, undeterred by elections officials.

“I don’t care that Trump won Florida,” May wrote in an email this month to Pasco’s supervisor of elections, Brian Corley. “We will prove he won it by far more than you say he did.”

•••

Chats run by Defend Florida and Florida First Audits, the local chapter of a national organization working to force election audits in every state, have a combined 15,000 members on Telegram. It’s here that Trump supporters plot counties to target and share email addresses of lawmakers and local officials to flood with messages. They swiftly react to the latest developments in Trump’s election challenges.

When DeSantis rebuffed a forensic audit in Florida, the news spread to Telegram.

“Has anyone met with the governor to show the proof?” a person asked.

“This speaks volumes,” said another. “We need to force it.”

“Time for MASSIVE and CONTINUOUS protests in Tallahassee and wherever Gov DeSantis shows up,” added a third. " ‘Republicans will NOT vote for an Election Integrity Denier’ should be the message.”

This screen grab shows a message sent in Telegram an encrypted messaging application, on Oct. 13, 2021, in a chatroom set up by Florida First Audits, the local chapter of a national organization working to force election audits in every state.
This screen grab shows a message sent in Telegram an encrypted messaging application, on Oct. 13, 2021, in a chatroom set up by Florida First Audits, the local chapter of a national organization working to force election audits in every state. [ Courtesy of Telegram ]

The groups gained steam in mid-August, after Trump supporter and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell held a multi-day gathering of election skeptics to convince the world that the 2020 election was hacked.

They have become a haven for the latest conspiracies and, to a lesser extent, calls for violence.

“We just need an old fashioned Civil War,” one person wrote after Arizona’s audit confirmed Biden’s victory there.

Moderators in these Telegram groups have struggled to beat back violent rhetoric. One told people to stop chatting about “1776 style armed revolution” and focus on audits. To which someone responded, “As of now, NOTHING we are doing is working. Time to turn up the heat, or accept being slaves.”

This screen grab shows a message sent in Telegram an encrypted messaging application, on Sept. 24, 2021, in a chatroom set up by Florida First Audits, the local chapter of a national organization working to force election audits in every state.
This screen grab shows a message sent in Telegram an encrypted messaging application, on Sept. 24, 2021, in a chatroom set up by Florida First Audits, the local chapter of a national organization working to force election audits in every state. [ Courtesy of Telegram ]

Emails to the Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough elections supervisors reviewed by the Times show how quickly conspiracies spread from Telegram into lobbying. They allege dead voters, illegal voters and underage voters. They question results in counties Trump lost but also have doubts about vote totals in Pasco, Walton, Santa Rosa, Volusia and Lake counties — all GOP strongholds led by Republican election officers.

“It’s like the last election didn’t end,” said Corley, who at one point changed his email signature to include the FBI tip line for reporting threats against election workers. “It’s like Groundhog Day.”

They often cite the work of Lindell and his associate, Seth Keshel, who provides analysis videos and color-coded maps identifying possible problem counties. In one five-minute video, Keshel crunches some numbers and determines Biden had 30,000 more votes in Hillsborough than he should have. His evidence? His own estimates of what he thinks should have happened based on past results and party registration.

Keshel doesn’t have a background in election analysis. He described himself as a tech company sales manager and former baseball analyst on his LinkedIn profile before removing it. He claimed on a conservative podcast to have advised DeSantis’ inner circle on which Florida counties to target, which the governor’s office denied. Keshel said he could not remember who he spoke with and then broke off communication with the Times.

Barry Burden, an elections expert at the University of Wisconsin, called Keshel’s work “biased and amateur armchair political analytics to reach an arbitrary conclusion.” Keshel’s estimates conveniently ignored that nearly a third of Florida voters don’t have a registered party, Burden said, and his analysis falsely assumes party registration determines how someone will vote.

Yet, Keshel’s video provoked the Hillsborough Republican Party to demand Lee initiate a “forensic audit” of the county’s results.

But in the push for forensic audits across the state, not one person has given a clear description of what they mean and want, said Lake County’s Republican supervisor of elections, Alan Hays.

Alan Hays
Alan Hays

“There’s no such thing I’ve found in Florida election code,” Hays said. “We have and always will continue to administer elections in this office in complete compliance with Florida statutes and the rules of the Division of Elections of the Department of State.”

“Here’s the sad thing,” Hays said. “When the voters depend more on the word of a pillow salesman than they do on the word of an elections official, we’re in a bad way.”

•••

The push to question election security isn’t only taking place online. It’s happening in the streets.

Here’s how it works: Volunteers, like Horgan or Jordan, visit an address on a list. (They weren’t sure how the homes were picked, saying Defend Florida may have an algorithm.) They’re trained to ask the names of the residents and whether they voted. They cross-reference that information against voter records. They don’t ask who anyone voted for.

May said people seem to be blowing off real concerns about bloated voter rolls and other anomalies discovered by canvassers and number crunchers. They’re not looking to undo the results of 2020, he said, but ensure future elections are secure.

In recent weeks, Pasco is one of the locales they’ve searched for fraud, even though this mid-sized county of 550,000 has become the cradle of Republican power in Florida. The state’s Senate President Wilton Simpson hails from Trilby. Three of the Legislature’s last five House speakers called Pasco County home at one time. Its sheriff, Chris Nocco, is one of the most politically connected law enforcement officials in the state.

It’s here, a county Trump won by a wider margin than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan, that Jordan said he’s found his “fair share of ghost voters” — a term he uses to describe people who do not appear to live at the address at which they’re registered. They’re also looking for people who say they didn’t vote when records indicate they did, a sign, they believe, that someone may have filled out a mail-in ballot for them.

If they find a discrepancy, they’ll pass it along and someone may write up an “affidavit.” Defend Florida says it has collected thousands so far. Election supervisors say they haven’t seen the evidence. The leader of Defend Florida, Caroline Wetherington, didn’t respond to a voicemail and text message from the Times.

The interactions are often benign, though reactions vary. Wesley Wilcox, the elections supervisor for Marion County, said he took a call last month from someone upset that a group wanted to see the death certificate of her father’s wife, who had died this spring.

These canvassing efforts fail to consider that people change addresses all the time, said Gary King, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. They move for jobs, go to college, transfer assisted living facilities, leave their parents’ home, get evicted, become homeless, retire to live with their kids or die. Voter rolls don’t always keep up, King said, but it doesn’t suggest anything nefarious.

“Voter rolls definitely have mistakes,” King said. “It’s human beings collecting data.”

King said there are serious efforts to study voter fraud, which does happen occasionally on a small scale. But fraud to the degree being alleged would mean a massive conspiracy involving hundreds of elections workers across the state’s decentralized election system. There’s no reason to believe that sending amateur surveyors to check voter addresses is a way to root it out, he said.

“If you have chest pains, you don’t just grab a butter knife,” King said. “You need experts to do survey research just as much as heart surgery. It’s really hard to get it right, and it’s so easy to completely mess it up.”

•••

When Pinellas County lawmakers gathered at St. Petersburg College’s Seminole Campus on Sept. 9, Defend Florida was there. A speaker from the group, Cathi Chamberlain, asserted that their members had been canvassing and identified suspicious voters. Chamberlain said it was evidence the state needed a forensic audit, and she called out Speaker Sprowls for saying that the election went well.

“The (Republican National Committee) wants us to ignore what we have seen,” Chamberlain said. “We will not.”

But when the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office asked in an email to see evidence of these suspicious voters, Chamberlain didn’t reply to the email. She told the Times it’s because she wanted a personal meeting with the supervisor’s office.

Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, attended the Sept. 9 meeting. This month, at a Senate committee hearing, Hooper told Lee, the secretary of state, he was hearing from a lot of constituents “certain that our election process needs a forensic audit and that elections were in turmoil.”

Lawmakers could debate the need for an audit when they convene for their annual 60-day legislative session in January. It’s unclear if they will. The sponsor of the bill ordering an audit, State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican, was relegated by Sprowls to an office in the Capitol’s basement.

Even the most conservative lawmakers are unwilling to support an audit. Sen. Dennis Baxley, the chairman of the Senate elections committee, said he has had conversations with people concerned about the 2020 election but wasn’t sure it would lead to any changes in state law.

“We take what they tell us and put it in the pot, and we’ll stir it around and look through all of it and see what comes out,” Baxley said.

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach
Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach [ ]

A Defend Florida leader boasted in Telegram that the group had a two-hour meeting with Republican Rep. Erin Grall of Vero Beach, the chairwoman of the House judiciary committee and a member of the elections committee. They called Grall an “ally of the people” and speculated she would connect them to other influential lawmakers.

Grall confirmed that she met with the group and took interest in their concerns. But a forensic audit, “that’s not something I’m pursuing with them at all,” she said.

Asked his thoughts on the calls for an audit, Sen. Doug Broxson, a Pensacola Republican on the elections committee, sighed deeply and paused for a solid 10 seconds.

“If there was a problem, we’re 10 months past the election,” Broxson said. “Don’t you think some of that would have seeped out by now?”

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.