He Was the ‘Perfect Villain’ for Voting Conspiracists

Coomer watched the video in shock. He is adamant that he never participated in any antifa phone call, and he felt disgusted by the accusation that he had done anything to change the results of the election. The Trump campaign and its allies have introduced more than 60 lawsuits claiming election fraud in this country, but no court has found persuasive evidence to support the idea that Coomer, Dominion or anyone else involved in vote-counting changed the election results. Bipartisan audits of paper ballots in closely contested states such as Georgia and Arizona confirmed Biden’s victory; and prominent Republicans, including Attorney General Bill Barr and Trump’s official in charge of election cybersecurity, have reaffirmed the basic facts of the election: Over all, the results were accurate, the election process was secure and no widespread fraud capable of changing the outcome has been uncovered.

Oltmann is now the subject of a defamation suit brought by Coomer. It currently names, as co-defendants, 14 parties responsible for the dissemination of Oltmann’s claims about that alleged antifa phone call, including Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani and the Trump campaign. (Dominion has filed separate defamation suits against Giuliani, Powell, Fox News and others. Lawyers for Giuliani, Powell and for the Trump campaign declined to comment. Fox called the Dominion litigation “baseless” and defended its right to tell “both sides” of the story.) Oltmann’s best defense would be to provide corroboration of his claims about that phone call — he has said there were as many as 19 people on the line — but he has so far declined to do so.

As Coomer watched the video, though, he felt a second strong emotion: a powerful sense of regret — because the Facebook posts were, in fact, authentic. Why, he thought, hadn’t he just deleted them? Coomer could imagine how his words would sound to just about any Republican, let alone someone already hearing on Fox News that Dominion was switching votes for Biden. He told me that he believed every word of what he said on Facebook, but when colleagues later asked him what he was thinking, he was frank: He had screwed up. At a time when well-​funded efforts to sow mistrust in the election were already underway, Coomer had given conspiracy theorists a valuable resource, a grain of sand they could transform into something that had the feel — the false promise — of proof.

Elections in the United States are impossibly convoluted. Every county — and, in some states, every municipality — runs its own election, creating a patchwork system in which voters in one place may have a remarkably different voting process from their neighbors just a few miles away. That variation can breed mistrust: If voters in one county believe their election process is being administered correctly, different methods in other counties might strike them as suspect.

Local governments also rely on private companies like Dominion and its competitors ES&S and Hart InterCivic, which together control 90 percent of the voting-machine market, to provide machines, software and technical support. For Americans who are suspicious about an election result — or are looking to create suspicions — these relatively obscure, private companies present an obvious target. In 2004, after George W. Bush narrowly won the presidency, Democrats focused on possible irregularities in Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes would have given the presidency to John Kerry. The voting machines used in Ohio that year came from Diebold, whose chief executive, Walden O’Dell, was a longtime Republican donor. A year before the election, O’Dell wrote a letter to about 100 people inviting them to a fund-raiser: “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year,” he wrote. The language reinforced mistrust of Diebold machines among some Democrats. O’Dell later said the letter was a “huge mistake,” and Diebold ultimately sold its voting-machine business.

Dominion was founded in the wake of a different controversy: the failure of punch-card voting machines — and their infamous hanging chads — in the 2000 election. After Congress funded a bill to replace those machines, many counties purchased direct-recording electronic (D.R.E.) voting machines, which eliminated paper ballots altogether. The limits of that approach became apparent in 2006, when, in Sarasota, Fla., a Congressional race that used D.R.E. machines made by ES&S produced a result that struck partisans and neutral observers as unlikely. ES&S stood by the results, but in the absence of a paper ballot, doubts and uncertainty lingered.

Dominion was well-positioned at that moment. John Poulos, the company’s chief executive and one of its founders, started the business in 2003, serving a small circle of clients who favored a paper ballot. Additionally, Dominion developed a tabulator that kept a digital image of the paper ballots so they could be easily audited. (They also sold machines that met the needs of visually impaired voters, with audio interfaces and headphones that allowed for independence and anonymity.)

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