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Election fraud conspiracy theories find a friendly audience at CPAC

"I may get booed off the stage for this, but I have to say that's simply not true," a GOP lawyer said after he was asked about one particular falsehood.
Image: Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando
A supporter of former President Donald Trump walks with a flag outside the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday.Octavio Jones / Reuters file

After two days of talking about voter fraud at the biggest conservative conference of the year, a woman asked a pair of Republican election lawyers speaking on a panel: What are we going to do about the voting machines that switched thousands and thousands of votes?

The crowd applauded, but Republican lawyer Charlie Spies shook his head.

"I may get booed off the stage for this, but I have to say that's simply not true," he said, prompting shouts from the crowd. "There is just zero evidence that's true."

It was a rare reality check for the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, a weekend summit dominated by false and baseless claims about election fraud and capped with a 90-minute, lie-filled speech by former President Donald Trump, who declared the 2020 presidential race to have been rigged.

Spies, who worked for Republican Senate candidate John James in Michigan last year, repeatedly pushed back against the wildest claims. His comments earned him heckles and ribbing from another panelist, underscoring the fault line the GOP faces as it moves forward as a party while still entertaining — even celebrating — Trump's lies that the election was stolen.

False election claims were central to the conference, where panelists and speakers repeatedly claimed that the dead voted, that fraud changed the outcome of the election and that the American people had been sold out by everyone from the Democrats to judges to lesser Republicans.

Speakers rallied in support of restrictive voting laws — which Republican lawmakers have advanced in dozens of states — and urged attendees to work to defeat H.R. 1, a voting rights bill that Democrats have introduced in the House.

During a panel Friday, Jesse Binnall, a campaign lawyer who sued in Nevada over Joe Biden's victory, alleged 42,000 double or multiple votes in the state.

"Mail-in voting is just ripe for fraud," he said.

Challenging the election's outcome was also a major applause line throughout the four-day event.

Even Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was lauded by a crowd Friday after he referred to his role in challenging the Jan. 6 congressional tally of the Electoral College results. Five people died and hundreds of others were arrested after a pro-Trump riot stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the count.

Trump finally appeared late Sunday to deliver his first speech since he left office last month, a clear climax of the long weekend.

In a 90-minute address that frequently revisited his most worn conspiracy theories about voting, he declared the election unconstitutional, illegal and a "con job," teasing that he might come back for a 2024 bid.

"This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and other courts didn't want to do anything about it," Trump said.

He falsely claimed that there were more votes than people in Detroit and Pennsylvania (claims that have been demonstrated to be false) and called for a blitz of election reforms that he argued would have allowed him to win.

"We should eliminate the insanity of mass and very corrupt mail-in voting," he said. "We must have voter ID."

Trump's election fraud claims got all the more confusing when he started boasting about the successes of down-ballot Republicans, who he said had won on his "coattails," as if the fraud had somehow affected only the top of the ticket.

The tension touched on a key issue Republican leaders will have to address as they look to future elections: How do you mobilize voters to go to polls that they believe will not properly count their votes?

Republicans in Georgia had to reckon with that question this year after GOP turnout for the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs fell short of that in the November contest, according to TargetSmart. Both seats flipped blue.

Election conspiracies are becoming a financial liability, too: Voting companies have launched a series of billion-dollar lawsuits in recent weeks against conservative media figures and outlets.

The quandary also appeared to weigh on Spies, the heckled Republican lawyer, on Saturday. He reminded CPAC attendees that mail-in voting hadn't been an issue for Republicans for years before the 2020 race. In fact, he said, Republicans used to win more mail-in ballot votes than Democrats.

"The deal is early voting is not going away," he said. "We've got to take advantage of that, and telling people not to vote early is cutting your nose off to spite your face. It doesn't work."

He offered a solution, one that united him with other panelists — and much of his party.

"We change the system, make us super confident in it," he said. "Then encourage people to vote using the laws that we have."

CORRECTION (March 1, 2021, 12:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a Republican senator who spoke at the conference. He is Josh Hawley, not John.