SUAMICO, Wis. (AP) — Kim Pytleski could barely sleep the night before. She replayed the PowerPoint slides in her head, packed her notebook and took a deep breath.
The clerk from a rural Wisconsin county north of Green Bay was preparing for a public meeting to explain the election process to residents. She didn’t know who she would encounter. Would some deny the results of the last presidential election? Would the conversation get combative? Most importantly, would she get through to anyone?
They were questions Pytleski never expected to ask herself when she started the job in Oconto County more than 14 years ago. But since then, election conspiracy theories have taken root in the rural, heavily Republican county in northeastern Wisconsin. It’s among large swaths of the country where distrust of voting and ballot-counting, fanned by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, maintains a stubborn grasp.
Pytleski, who was born and raised in the county, hears conspiracy theories nearly everywhere she goes: Democrats are paying people to stuff ballot boxes with illegal votes, absentee voting allows rampant fraud, voting machines are hacked by foreign powers. She receives skeptical letters and emails. When she’s defended the election process, Pytleski, a lifelong Republican, has been called a RINO — a Republican in Name Only.
“You know pretty much everyone,” she said of the towns that make up Oconto County, which has consistently leaned Republican in presidential elections over the past two decades, except when former President Barack Obama won here in 2008. “The joke is that if someone moves here, you have to live here 30 years before you’re considered a local. It’s a warm feeling, being in a place like this.”
But, she added, “election denialism has gotten its hold on it.”
For elections officials and grassroots democracy groups in the presidential swing state, it has been an uphill fight to combat the doubts and the people who continue to spread them. They describe grappling with an almost faith-like pull of conspiracy theories perpetuated by online misinformation and far-right figures.
Still, they press on, taking on the issue one community event and one conversation at a time, hoping for a half-step forward.
“This state is vital, and it’s ground zero in this fight to save our republic,” said Reid Ribble, a Republican who represented the area in Congress until 2017 and is an adviser to the nonprofit Keep Our Republic. The group is holding town hall-style forums throughout Wisconsin hoping to restore faith in elections and has plans to do the same in two other states that will be pivotal to next year’s presidential race, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The group’s efforts come as distrust in elections has gained a persistent foothold across the country, especially in rural areas. That has led to attempts to ditch voting machines in favor of less accurate and efficient hand counts, threats of violence against election workers and the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Polling from last summer by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 22% of Republicans have high confidence that votes in the 2024 presidential election will be counted accurately, compared to 71% of Democrats, while a solid majority of Republicans continue to believe President Joe Biden’s election win was illegitimate.
The deep partisan divide comes amid a relentless campaign of lies from Trump that the 2020 election was stolen as he seeks a second term in the White House.
Wisconsin has been an epicenter of the efforts to undermine faith in elections. The state supreme court, then with a conservative majority, came within one vote in 2020 of overturning the presidential results, and Republicans in the Legislature later launched a partisan investigation seeking evidence of widespread fraud. That probe eventually landed before a judge who declared that it had uncovered “absolutely no evidence of election fraud.”
Instead, multiple audits and recounts have affirmed Biden’s 21,000-vote win in the state. Yet the doubt remains.
With Coke cans and paper plates stacked with Pepperoni pizza slices, about 50 community members filled a fire station on a recent evening in Suamico, a town of 13,000 that borders Oconto County on the shores of Lake Michigan, just outside Green Bay.
Flanked on either side by U.S. and Wisconsin flags, a panel of local officials brought together by Keep Our Republic walked attendees through the election process, from how voting equipment is tested to the process of certifying the results.
“We’re arming people with facts,” said Kathy Bernier, state director of the nonprofit group, which emphasizes that it is nonpartisan. “The best way to help people understand is to bring the experts to them and connect with them like this. Then they can spread that information to their own friends, family and neighbors.”
Bernier, a Republican former state senator, broke with her own party to criticize those who disseminate false election claims. The event in late September was the second in a series she is planning in Wisconsin.
“I’ve been yelled at more times than I can count,” Bernier said. “People have sent out press releases chastising me. But I’m going to stand my ground because the truth is on my side, and this work needs to be done.”
It’s not without obstacles. Bernier and others involved in the effort said the public is still largely unaware of what happens behind the scenes during elections, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation.
People also consume news that confirms their biases and move to areas where they are surrounded by people who think as they do, Bernier said. In addition, when many people see Trump and others who spread election misinformation as “some sort of savior,” election denialism can become almost like a faith system.
“If you’ve closed your mind to the truth, there’s not always a lot we can do,” Bernier said. “We’re working on those who are hovering around the middle.”
The effort to provide a clear view of how elections work comes as other groups are spreading a conflicting message in Wisconsin — that elections are rigged, not secure and that fraud is rampant. Their efforts are aided by prominent voices in the election conspiracy movement, including MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and Douglas Frank, who has visited Wisconsin regularly to speak at events spreading false claims of 2020 election fraud.
These narratives have fueled an ongoing fight over an effort by legislative Republicans to fire Meagan Wolfe, the state’s nonpartisan elections commissioner and potentially replace her with someone favored by the GOP in time for the 2024 presidential election. Wolfe is scheduled to speak at another town hall hosted by Keep Our Republic later this month.
They also were reflected in a flood of questions from residents during the Suamico town hall: How are absentee voters being vetted, are ballot drop boxes secure, are dead people and undocumented immigrants voting? A meeting scheduled for three hours stretched to five as residents lingered until 10:30 p.m.
“I can’t say for sure that we changed hearts and minds, but they were engaged, that’s for sure,” Bernier said.
The forum didn’t seem to budge several of those who showed up and have become deeply skeptical of the election process.
Connie Streckenback, from Howard, a town of about 20,000 just outside Suamico, said she “saw cheating” while serving as a poll observer in the Green Bay area. For example, she said she saw over a dozen women register to vote with the same address. When she later drove by the building, she saw a single-family home.
Local officials offered possible explanations, such as that the women could have been roommates, but Streckenback, 59, remained convinced they could not have all lived in the same home.
“It was fraud,” she said. “Everyone was very nice, but people were acting like I was making a big deal out of nothing. … I don’t believe the explanations.”
She added, “This has not improved my trust in the election process.”
Another poll observer from the same town, 79-year-old Mary Verheyen, said she trusted the election officials at the meeting but that it didn’t make “any difference at all” in her trust in the system as a whole.
“I believe the people here think like I do and are doing their jobs,” she said. “That doesn’t mean everyone is.”
Verheyen’s comments illustrate a challenge faced by election officials across the country, especially in rural areas. In close-knit communities where residents rely on each other, improving trust in local election officials is possible, said Michelle Bartoletti, the Suamico Village clerk. But it’s harder to persuade residents to trust the system as a whole, especially in urban areas.
In Suamico, the election administration was ranked number two, just under the fire department, in a survey last year asking residents to rate the village’s services, Bartoletti said. Even with that level of local trust, the false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen permeates the community.
“It’s really difficult to combat that kind of attitude,” she said.
There’s no perfect solution, said clerks and experts who’ve participated in Keep Our Republic efforts. In addition to more community events, the group is planning social media campaigns to combat online misinformation and is organizing talks at high schools. They may even work with voting machine companies to create explanatory material that counties and cities can send to residents.
Bartoletti is putting her faith in one-on-one conversations and community forums like the one in Suamico.
“We just keep trying because that’s all you really can do,” she said. “What other option is there? This is too important to just throw our hands up and give up.”
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