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Column: Mike Lindell is helping a California county dump voting machines. You should worry

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at a March 2020 White House briefing.
My Pillow Chief Executive Mike Lindell, seen speaking at the White House in March 2020, has used his fortune and celebrity to push false claims about election fraud since then-President Trump lost his reelection bid to Joe Biden.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
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MyPillow guy Mike Lindell, known as much for his voter fraud conspiracy theories as for his two-for-one deals on bedding, has something to sell California.

It’s a softer, gentler — and more dangerous — version of the “Big Lie” that fraud stole the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump, and we need it about as much as his Giza Dreams™ bedsheets.

Lindell is pushing for U.S. elections to stop using any electronic voting and return to hand-counted paper ballots. And as my colleague Jessica Garrison reported this week, he has one California county ready to bite.

Lindell regularly talks about the dangers of electronic voting on his new social platform, Frank Speech, and anywhere else he can find people to listen. That includes this week at the influential Conservative Political Action Conference, where he announced his newest venture, the Election Crime Bureau (donations accepted), not to be confused with any actual government-related bureau.

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“This is about showing we have a very broken system and we better fix it,” he told me Thursday. “It’s just about the machines, about getting rid of the computers, so we have elections we can trust. Whoever wins, wins.”

Why use a system that people doubt if doubt undermines our elections? Seems reasonable to just go back to the old-fashioned way.

Big problem, simple solution — as long as we are OK with tossing out truth and allowing propaganda, lies and pillow sales to determine our public policies.

In case you need to hear it, here is what UCLA professor Richard L. Hasen, an internationally recognized expert in election law, told me about voting systems:

“Hand-counting of ballots is less accurate because humans make more mistakes than machines,” Hasen said. “Scanned ballots are the gold standard.”

I called Lindell about a situation in Shasta County, a Northern California hotbed of extremism that has emerged as a real-time example of how the far-right election fraud propaganda is proving a threat to our democracy.

Shasta County, newly run by a majority of hard-right elected officials, this week formalized its plans to dump the county’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems, one of the largest suppliers of voting machines and software in the U.S., over fears that the machines could be or had been hacked by nefarious actors, maybe Democrats, maybe the Chinese government. Who knows?

Within days that will leave the county with no legal voting system just one year before the presidential primary.

Never mind that a host of actual election and cybersecurity experts have repeatedly investigated and found baseless the claims by election deniers that Dominion’s machines are corrupt tools that threw votes from Trump to Biden, or that voting machines in general are unsafe.

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Dominion, in fact, is suing Fox News, accusing the conservative media giant of maliciously promoting false accusations about the company, and damaging its brand in the process, because it was good for ratings.

While that suit has received widespread attention, less well-known is that the company also has sued Lindell in a separate defamation case with similar allegations.

Lindell — one of the regular Fox guests who promoted those fraud theories — is adamant his debunked claims about 2020 will be proven true. I’ll leave that to a judge to hash out.

Lawyers believe Dominion has a powerful argument against Fox News. Evidence so far, including Rupert Murdoch’s deposition, is already giving the conservative network headaches.

March 1, 2023

What is more concerning is what it means when Lindell’s shtick tumbles line for line from the mouth of a local government official who can affect the front lines of American voting.

At a Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting this week, one of the hard-right members, Kevin Crye, surprised the audience and his colleagues by reading into record an email from Lindell, whom he said he had communicated with several times. In the email, Crye said, Lindell offered both help implementing a hand-count system and financial and legal aid should the county be sued (for what was not clear).

Turns out Lindell has just the hand-count system for Shasta, ready to go.

“There is room for no mistakes, zero mistakes,” Lindell told me of his miraculous voting method, sounding a lot like Trump. “It’s faster than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s just so efficient.”

Crye waved around a thick stack of papers at the meeting, describing them as a rundown of Lindell’s voting method. He added that Lindell had promised to put money in an escrow account for the county, ensuring no tax dollars would be spent to implement it.

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Crye did not say whether the plan came with discount codes for those infamous pillows, but he was quick to say he didn’t agree with everything Lindell wrote to him, including that “everyone” is aware we need to get rid of electronic voting machines.

“I don’t agree with that,” Crye said. “I don’t think everyone is aware.”

Later, in a brief phone interview, Crye told me his motivation for dumping electronic voting was to increase trust in the system. If people don’t believe electronic voting is safe, why use it? We came from hand counts, to hand counts we shall return.

Sound familiar?

Mary Rickert, a conservative Shasta board member who has come under attack from her now further-right colleagues, told me the meeting felt “chaotic” and “insane.”

“We are going to lose this county. It is going to collapse,” she said of this new leadership that seems to be dismantling government from the inside. “I am in a state of grief.”

Shasta is a warning.

Democracies can fall one town at a time. In Shasta County, a militia and its supporters have put their plan into action.

Feb. 4, 2022

The normalization of voter fraud propaganda is seeping through the country, a dangerous turn from the screech-based conspiracies of 2020 precisely because it’s toned down — and because it’s coming from local community leaders, part of an organized tactic to transfer the energy of the lost presidential election onto city councils, school boards and boards of supervisors.

“It definitely gives more credence [to conspiracies] if your county officials believe the theories to the point of making decisions,” Kathryn Olmsted told me. She is a history professor at UC Davis who specializes in conspiracy theories.

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“It’s truly frightening that they’re making these major decisions without doing due diligence with the fact-checking, that they are making these decisions about elections based on these unsubstantiated conspiracy theories,” she said.

Cathy Darling Allen, the Shasta County clerk and registrar of voters, was overruled when laying out her reasoned objections to canceling Dominion. She heard about Lindell’s hand-counting plan just like everyone else, when Crye sprang it in the public meeting. She’s been in charge of Shasta elections for 19 years and is respected around the state for her knowledge and integrity.

Since this county erupted in Big Lie mania after the 2020 election, Darling Allen has been the target of threats and harassment, including having documents delivered to her office accusing her of treason, described as a crime punishable by death. She’s got a busy life outside of work — a husband who just had surgery, a 5-year-old granddaughter she is raising, but she increasingly feels like she and her staff are the last line of defense for voters in Shasta.

It’s all the harder because there are a fair number of people in Shasta who probably believe Crye and his far-right colleagues are doing the righteous thing. After years of indoctrination from Fox, Lindell and a host of others, who can blame them?

“They’re hearing news reports, and they’re hearing from folks they trust, that there’s a real substantial problem with the way those machines operate. I know that’s not accurate, and I try to communicate that and explain how we can prove it’s not accurate,” Darling Allen said.

But she’s come to see it as a losing battle.

On Tuesday, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted to spend the next 30 days exploring Lindell’s hand-count option, along with other ways to do away with machines. Darling Allen doesn’t know how Shasta voters will cast ballots in 2024, a crushing concern for someone who has dedicated her life to free and fair elections.

“Quite frankly,” she said, “I will never be louder than a multinational media company, or a former president.”

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Or even a pillow guy.

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