Even in deep-blue New York, election deniers question the 2020 election and Tuesday’s midterms
A crowd is forming in Amherst’s American Legion George F. Lamm Post hall on a September Monday night. Attendees — mostly older folks — take their seats under the hall’s disco ball and bingo board. Pizza, beer and wine are for sale in the lobby.
It’s the Amherst Republican Committee’s meeting place, but tonight it has turned things over to a presentation from New York Citizens Audit.
The premise? New York elections are rigged, so says the group’s pamphlets disbursed at the presentation. Over the next two hours, the group claimed to have uncovered millions of irregular registrations in the state’s voter roll, as well as what it calls nefarious programming within the database itself.
“This is a massive issue for New York State,” said Marly Hornik, who founded New York Citizens Audit last year and says she now has over 600 volunteers across the state. “We have found egregious problems with the New York State voter rolls and with illegal registrations being assigned votes.”
As a result, the group argues in its literature that over a third of New York legislators and congressional representatives elected in 2020 can’t prove they won, and has a petition to decertify the results.
These problems are still prevalent, the group claims, and thus Tuesday’s midterm results also cannot be trusted.
“I think that the New York State Board of Elections’ entire system has to be audited, end to end,” Hornik said. “We have to figure out how this has taken place, and why it is happening.”
New York Citizens Audit is part of the election denying movement that’s sprung up since former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. It’s led Republican lawmakers in some swing states won by President Joe Biden to audit their results, but none have found widespread fraud. Arizona’s audit actually found 99 more votes for Biden.
While election denial may be most visible in swing states, University at Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel said he isn’t surprised it’s also here in deep-blue New York, where Biden won by 23 percentage points.
The reason? The nationalization of American politics.
“And so the nationalization of American politics means that an election denier in New York isn't tuning into a radically different information stream than an election denier in Arizona,” Neiheisel said.
And while New York Citizens Audit doesn’t claim to have enough evidence to overturn Biden’s large victory in the state, it has been active leading up to Election Day. In addition to presenting at places like Republican committee meetings, it has also hand-delivered its findings to nearly 30 counties throughout the state.
It also claims to be preparing legal action against state and county election officials, and to be in contact with law enforcement about its findings. It’s even encouraged people to sign up to work the polls.
“Our democracy is sound, and these people are kind of tearing at the fabric of that,” said Erie County Democratic Elections Commissioner Jeremy Zellner.
What New York Citizens Audit claims to have found
Hornik will not reveal which part of the state she lives in. In fact, she won’t reveal much of anything about herself.
“It was a really big decision to release my actual name,” she said, “and very few people on our team function under their real name.”
When asked why, she suggested people who question the 2020 election are being targeted by the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service. Last year the justice department announced a task force to address threats to elections officials.
“I mean, I don't really know what's true and what's false, but it's not looking good out there,” Hornik said.
Hornik said she founded New York Citizens Audit after having concerns about the 2020 election, and figured “it would be interesting to see if there were any issues in New York that we could discover.”
She said she didn’t expect to find much, considering New York is so heavily Democratic and hasn’t gone to a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
“What would be the point of cheating in a state where you're likely to win?” Hornik said. “Or perhaps even guaranteed to win?”
Still, New York Citizens Audit says its findings show fraud in the state’s election system.
These findings allegedly include voters with more than one state voter ID number, and registrations listed in the state rolls but not in individual county rolls. There’s also allegedly more than 10,000 registered voters with a listed birthdate of Jan. 1, 1850, which the group refers to as “Lincoln voters.”
Most of these examples appear to be due to poor record keeping. For example, New York prior to 1974 did not require voters to provide a birthdate, just their age. When voting records were computerized in 2007, an 1850 placeholder birthdate was given.
As someone who relies on electoral data for research, Neiheisel admits social record keeping in the U.S. could be better, but said it isn’t impacting election results.
“Is it bad to the point where it's flipping vote totals, and people who should be winning are not winning, or vice versa? I do not believe so. No, not at all,” he said.
Yet Hornik argues inaccurate information matters. The Help America Vote Act, passed following the 2000 presidential election, requires states to have a computerized statewide registered voter list, and to keep it accurate.
“You can't determine whether a vote is legally passed and counted if there's falsified data within that voter registration record,” she said. “So, if there is falsified data in the New York State database, it is actually impossible to determine whether that vote is lawfully cast or not.”
And New York Citizens Audit claims these inaccuracies go beyond poor record keeping. It alleges criminal activity. Harnik said their “very advanced programmers” have discovered “nefarious programming” within the state’s voter roll database, something the group calls the “voter matrix.”
“Honestly, it takes hours to actually begin to comprehend what the programming has accomplished and how it has done that,” Hornik said.
Hornik said they presented this discovery to New York State Police in June, and that troopers told them they shared their concerns and would forward the information to the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force.
State police spokesperson Beau Duffy confirmed that troopers met with New York Citizens Audit, but declined to say anything more.
Election deniers to elections officials: ‘You need to work with us, not against us’
In a video posted this summer to Rumble, a social media platform popular on the far right, New York Citizens Audit members stand at the entrance to the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.
They hand over their findings in writing to a sheriff's office employee, who obliges their request to stamp the folder of white papers. She also promises to give it to Erie County Sheriff John Garcia, a Republican.
“Personally, I voted for the guy, because I knew he was a good one,” one of the group members says.
New York Citizens Audit says it has delivered its findings — or, as it describes it, served petitions — to the state Board of Elections, Secretary of State and Attorney General’s Office, as well as at least 29 counties. Some of these deliveries have made it onto the group’s Rumble page.
Not a single official answered, Hornik said, and so the group is filing notices of claim in preparation of a lawsuit.
“We're suing for failure to perform the duties of office,” Hornik said.
Zellner, the Erie County democratic elections commissioner, said he recalls his office receiving Freedom of Information Law requests from New York Citizens Audit, but that the information was “obscure” and perhaps didn’t even exist.
“And I think they're wildly out of touch,” he said. “I don't think they really have much evidence to show about anything that they're claiming. And so I don't really pay a lot of attention to them.”
Zellner’s Republican counterpart, Ralph Mohr, actually attended New York Citizens Audit’s event at the Amherst American Legion hall, after seeing a flier online.
At one point he stood up and told the group he was confused by their findings, even outright telling them their claim that there are more registered voters in Erie County than eligible voters was untrue.
Mohr explained that counties rely on their own individual voter rolls, not the statewide voter roll, and also assign their own ID numbers to voters. So, Mohr said, any duplications or other inaccuracies in the statewide voter roll were not impacting results in Erie County.
The explanation did not seem to satisfy those in the room.
“What you’re not thinking about or realizing is there's somebody somewhere — not at your Board of Elections, somewhere else — is making fake votes,” said a man who claimed to be auditing Cattaraugus County. “When we get done with this canvas, the evidence is going to be irrefutable and overwhelming that something is wrong, and you need to work with us, not against us.”
Moments later, New York Citizens Audit member Wendy Dominski confronted Mohr for not responding to the petition she said was served to the Erie County Board of Elections.
“I would like you to look over that petition and take this a little bit more seriously because this is the United States of America, and if our vote is taken away, we will be a communist country,” she told Mohr, causing the room to applaud. "We have lawyers that are going into this, and you are involved in it if you do not look into it, sir."
Some of the proclaimed citizen auditors challenged Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr.— Tom Dinki (@tomdinki) September 27, 2022
"You need to work with us, not against us," says a man auditing Cattaraugus County.
A woman auditing Niagara County asks Mohr whether he read a petition she sent him. pic.twitter.com/rB3dJEFIsQ
Speaking afterward, Mohr mostly downplayed the contentious nature of the meeting, chalking it up to being part of the job.
“It’s something that we have to answer, and I think you can't run away from the questions,” he said.
And while Mohr was unfazed by the confrontation, some election officials have faced threats.
The justice department’s task force on election threats announced last year it has reviewed over 1,000 contacts reported as hostile or harassing by election workers. An Iowa man was recently arrested for allegedly threatening to kill Arizona elections officials in a voicemail left last fall, while two Virginia men were arrested in November 2020 after allegedly threatening the Pennsylvania Convention Center where ballots were being counted. The men were reportedly armed with loaded semi-automatic pistols and an AR-15-style rifle at the time of the arrest.
A survey of elections officials commissioned by the Brennan Center found that one in three felt unsafe because of their job following the 2020 election.
Zellner said the Erie County Board of Elections has not received any substantial threats.
“We always will be prepared when it comes to running the elections,” he said.
Hornik said boards of elections “should be under attack to a degree,” but that New York Citizens Audit does not call for violence of any kind.
“Our team is absolutely nonviolent,” she said. “However, when you demonstrate incompetence and dereliction of duty in something as critical to our national security and infrastructure as elections, you should be questioned.”
And members of New York Citizens Audit could even be working the polls themselves. The group encourages its website visitors and presentation attendees to volunteer as poll watchers.
Erie County will have 3,400 people working the polls — setting up voting equipment, assisting voters, and canvassing and reporting results — on Tuesday.
Hornik said New York Citizens Audit is “not orchestrating or organizing poll watching, but many people who are interested in our information are also interested in being poll watchers because they’re engaged in civic duty.”
Neiheisel said it might be helpful for election deniers to see the process up close for themselves, but that he also worries they might be looking to “correct a perceived wrong.”
“There are a number of election deniers out there who might think that the first strike has already been made, and that they need to to fight back in any way possible,” he said. “And so my worry is that you're not focused on the job as given to you, you're focused on, ‘How can I make a difference for my team?’ And that's something that we don't need.”
Mohr said Erie County removes poll workers every year. One was even charged with a felony for pre-stamping Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s name on ballots last year.
And the county does its best to screen workers ahead of time, he said.
“Sometimes, from the questions that are posed by the person, you can tell whether they want to interfere with the election or whether they want to assist with the election,” he said. “And we hire those people that we know want to assist with the election.”
Amherst Republicans provide platform for election deniers
New York Citizens Audit is “nonpartisan,” according to Hornik.
The group’s literature says it’s calling for all state legislators who ran unopposed in 2020, both Democrat and Republican, to have their wins decertified. Hornik is also quick to point out neither Biden nor Trump’s names appear on their website or literature.
But the group did find a home for its presentation among Amherst Republicans at their American Legion hall meeting place.
Amherst Republican Committee Treasurer Eugene Sibick introduced the group’s presentation and emceed the proceedings, but told WBFO the committee “had nothing to do with this event,” beyond allowing its email address to be used for RSVPs.
He added that several elected Democrats were invited to the event, but that none attended.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said.
Sibick’s son, Thomas Sibick, was charged with stealing D.C. police officer Michael Fanone’s radio and badge in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The elder Sibick took in his son while he was briefly released from jail on home confinement last year. Sibick’s donation to Garcia, the Erie County sheriff, was a point of contention during the 2021 sheriff's race.
Amherst Republican Committee Chairman Brian Rusk said the committee involved itself with New York Citizens Audit because it wants every vote to be counted and for voter records to be accurate. He also noted that none of the speakers or participants mentioned the 2020 election being stolen.
“Not one word of election denial, not one speaker about it,” he said.
However, the event did screen “2000 Mules,” a debunked documentary that claims the election was stolen from Trump.
Rusk called the film “entertainment,” and said most attendees had already left by the time it started playing.
“This meeting was about voter records to make sure that people who are registered do vote, and people who are improperly registered do not vote and their vote is not counted,” he said. “And that's what the Amherst Republican Committee stands for: integrity, good voter records and good registrations.”
Election denial will go beyond Election Day
Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, Hornik said it is impossible that New York will produce a “lawful” election result.
“There's no material upgrades or changes to the system. In fact, our attempts to reach the officials within the system have fallen flat. They do not want to respond to us,” she said. “So it is impossible that the 2022 midterms will produce a lawful result.”
And it’s possible some candidates won’t accept the results, either. Buffalo real estate developer Carl Paladino questioned the results of his own defeat in the Republican primary for New York’s 23rd Congressional District this summer.
On the ballot Tuesday are five New York Republicans who have fully denied the 2020 results, according to a report by FiveThirtyEight. Others accepted without reservations, raised questions or refused to comment, the report said.
“I don't think it's going away,” Neiheisel said about election denial. “I'm not sure how it goes away, but I don't think it's going away.”