ELY— Two very different views of the 2020 election clashed at times on the sidewalks of downtown Ely this past Saturday morning, as about 150 area residents turned out for showings of the …
ELY— Two very different views of the 2020 election clashed at times on the sidewalks of downtown Ely this past Saturday morning, as about 150 area residents turned out for showings of the controversial film, “2000 Mules,” at Ely’s Historic State Theater.
A little over a dozen protestors gathered out front to state their opposition to the film and its suggestion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by voter fraud perpetrated by shadowy nonprofit organizations.
According to the film, those groups, which were left mostly unnamed, deployed delivery people, or “mules” to bring ballots to drop boxes deployed in a number of states, including key swing states.
That was the story inside the theater. Out on the sidewalks in front of the building, protestors held signs like “2000 lies,” or “Honor the Truth” to make their case debunking the film. Those two sides interacted at times, engaging in sometimes heated discussion, but mostly seeming to talk past each other.
The film was produced by longtime political provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian-American who has made millions of dollars generating similar controversies throughout his career as a right-wing provocateur and conspiracy theorist. D’Souza comes with a somewhat checkered past, having been convicted of campaign finance fraud in 2012. In the same year, he was fired from his position as president of Kings College, a New York Christian college, over allegations of deception and adultery.
Those who turned out for the film, which aired at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., represented a politiclal cross-section, although a large majority appeared more than willing to accept D’Souza’s claims that organized voter fraud, perpetrated by Democrats, was sufficient to tip the scales in key swing states, effectively handing the White House to Joe Biden.
For some area politicians, it was an opportunity to show sympathy for a view held by many Republicans, namely that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. “There’s no voter fraud, right?” said Chad Walsh sarcastically during a brief break in the first showing of the film due to a temporary power outage. “And if you believe there is, there’s something wrong with you, right?”
Walsh, who is one of several candidates running for St. Louis County Sheriff, joined Ely Mayor Roger Skraba, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the 3A House seat currently held by Rob Ecklund, and Doug Wardlow, who is seeking the GOP nod to challenge current Attorney General Keith Ellison, at the event.
Wardlow, who lost to Ellison in the 2018 general election, comes to the race as a true believer in election fraud. “The 2020 election was stolen. The 2018 election was stolen as well,” said Wardlow, an attorney who serves as chief legal counsel for MyPillow and its founder Mike Lindell, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting his stolen election theories in support of former President Donald Trump. “We have voter fraud going on in Minnesota,” said Wardlow, without citing his evidence. Wardlow said confidence needs to be restored in elections or the public stands to lose faith in both elections and their elected leaders. “Then, law and order breaks down in general,” he said.
Wardlow could have cited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as an example of that breakdown, except that’s not how the events of Jan. 6 are viewed by many on the political right. “January 6th was not an insurrection,” stated D’Souza at one point in his film. “It was a primal scream.”
That scream was, in D’Souza’s telling, a response to widespread election fraud. To back up his claims, D’Souza cites cell phone geolocation data obtained by the conservative organization known as True the Vote and its president Catherine Engelbrecht. Shortly after the 2020 election, Engelbrecht claimed to have evidence of widespread voter fraud, and raised millions of dollars off those claims, promising to release the evidence.
Yet, according to the Texas Tribune, in a June 14, 2022 report titled “She helped create the Big Lie. Records suggest she turned it into a big grift,” Englebrecht’s group never followed through on its promises.
The Tribune, after reviewing public tax records, reported that Engelbrecht had used donations given ostensibly to expose voter fraud, to make personal loans to Engelbrecht, large payments to a firm owned by her romantic partner, along with payments to a law firm that failed to file lawsuits it promised large donors it would undertake in hopes of overturning the 2020 election results.
Yet, Englebrecht’s evidence, which purportedly included vast amounts of cellular tracking data obtained from private companies, as well as four million minutes of government security video obtained through public records requests, became the basis for D’Souza’s arguments about a stolen election. They claim the data provides evidence of not just 2,000 so-called “mules” but actually 54,000 that participated in the scheme to harvest votes, at least to some extent.
In other words, 54,000 people, none of whom have apparently spilled the beans.
While True the Vote did apparently provide some of the evidence they say proves their claims to law enforcement officials in Georgia, officials with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported that the geolocation data was not precise enough to form the foundation for an investigation. In some cases, according to a fact check of the film by the Reuters news service, Georgia officials were able to identify some of the individuals presented as “mules” in the film, and that subsequent investigation cleared them of wrong-doing.
While some might describe D’Souza’s film as a documentary, it makes no pretense of the fairness that is normally a part of a journalistic work. The film interviews no elections officials about their processes and checks and balances that are designed to prevent the casting of fraudulent votes. It interviews no law enforcement officials about the standards of evidence required for an investigation. It interviews none of the purported “mules,” nor does it name or interview anyone from any of the non-profit organizations it claims were involved in the vote harvesting schemes.
Even if one accepts the evidence presented as factual, it’s unclear that it represents voter fraud. D’Souza’s film purports to show what is known as “ballot harvesting,” which is when individuals collect and deliver absentee ballots for others. D’Souza’s film presents no evidence that suggests that any of the ballots delivered were cast by voters who were not qualified to do so.
Rules on ballot harvesting vary from state-to-state, and the practice is not illegal in every state, according to numerous media reports.
D’Souza’s film, given its many shortcomings, has been widely dismissed as propaganda by most of the media. Even the conservative cable outlet, Fox News, has refused to air the film for that reason. But the film is making the rounds of theaters across the country, raking in millions for D’Souza and serving as a political rallying point for Republican candidates playing off the unwillingness of so much of their party’s base to accept the results of the 2020 election.
Republican candidates, like Wardlow, Skraba, and Third District Senate candidate Andrea Zupancich, all were present or had literature available at the event. Walsh noted that the sheriff’s job is officially non-partisan, but he left little doubt that his view of the election was in line with many who viewed D’Souza’s film on Saturday, or his eagerness to pursue voter fraud in St. Louis County. “I can tell you right now, if I get elected and we get wind of voter fraud, we will investigate it,” he said.
And Saturday’s showing won’t be the last in Ely. GOP organizers announced they’ll have regular showings of the film once they open their planned new office in Ely in the coming days. They promised more details on that soon.