Opinion

Election conspiracies riveted Kansas legislators. A GOP secretary of state tried to talk them down.

February 10, 2022 3:33 am

Douglas Frank, left, testified before the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee on Feb. 1. Secretary of State Scott Schwab, right, testified before the House Elections Committee on Feb. 8. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Former President Donald Trump lied about winning the 2020 presidential election. His continued insistence on the point has swollen that untruth into a Big Lie, one used to restrict voting and advance authoritarianism. During Kansas legislative hearings, we’ve seen that Big Lie expand further, into an alternate universe of bogus statistics, fanciful conspiracies and ludicrous self-owns.

You don’t need that fancy virtual reality headset. You can simply listen to testimony and be taken far, far away. Be sure to ignore any fact checking, as it may prompt a jarring return to reality.

The first of two recent hearings was held Feb. 1 by the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. Douglas Frank, an associate of Mike “My Pillow” Lindell and a math teacher from Ohio, was the star attraction.

He held forth on his “sixth order polynomial,” an impressive-sounding piece of total gibberish.

One of the slides from Douglas Frank’s presentation to the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. Really. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

“They’re controlling who votes using a simple algorithm. And that simple algorithm is, we call it the key,” Frank told the committee. He added, “When I take data, and I analyze data, and I see a smooth function, I go, ‘Oh, something’s going on here. This isn’t just something random.’”

Sounds ominous! So what’s this smoking gun he claims to have found?

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump takes up the story: The way it works is that Frank takes turnout data by age from several counties in a state. He then averages the turnout in those counties – the percent of 18-year-olds that voted, the percent of 33-year-olds, etc. Then he drops that into Excel and uses its Trendline tool to create that ‘sixth-degree polynomial,’ basically a curve that’s designed to fit as closely to the data points as Excel will allow. Then he compares all the other counties to that line and – completely unsurprisingly – discovers that the turnout in all of the counties is pretty close to that curve.”

Bump continues: “I can’t believe that this still needs to be articulated months after Frank first made this claim, but this is idiotic. It is idiotic because there are consistent age-related turnout patterns across the country. Older people vote more; younger people vote less.”

 

Outrageous claims

The committee heard even more codswallop. Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, presented the work of former U.S. Army Capt. Seth Keshel and suggested that Biden didn’t win Johnson County legitimately. He also cast doubt on Biden’s relatively strong showing in Sedgwick County.

“In my opinion, it doesn’t add up,” he said. “I would chalk it up to lack of integrity in our voting system. And while this testimony does not prove there were election irregular, integrity issues in these counties. I feel it raises enough doubt to warrant further action.”

Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, said he was convinced flaws in the state's election laws led to fraud in 2020 because there was no reason to anticipate President Joe Biden would have defeated former President Donald Trump in GOP-saturated Johnson County (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, said he was convinced flaws in the state’s election laws led to fraud in 2020 because there was no reason to anticipate President Joe Biden would have defeated former President Donald Trump in Johnson County (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Really?

Could it be that an incredibly polarizing Republican incumbent was running in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic? Could it be that the Democratic candidate ran a rigorously mainstream campaign designed to appeal to suburban voters across the country (hello, Johnson County)? Could it be that a state whose voters elected a Democratic candidate in 2018 actually have a few Democrats inside it?

Those are just the questions that come to my mind. It seems more believable that voters simply cast ballots for the candidate they preferred.

That wasn’t all, of course. The Reflector’s Tim Carpenter led his hearing coverage with Thad Snider and Robert Strathman, two Kansans who couldn’t prove fraud but imagined its presence anyway.

They urged committee members “to consider that technological vulnerabilities, suspicious statistics or the indifference of state and county election officials provided opportunities to hack computer systems, stuff ballot boxes and distort election outcomes,” Carpenter reported.

“Susceptible, uncontrolled and unequal are the three words that I think describe that election,” Strathman said.

I prefer “safe,” “secure” and “accurate.” 

 

Enter the secretary of state

Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab could have surfed this wave of election denialism when he appeared before another committee this week. Thankfully, he didn’t.

I took him to task last month for touting a Heritage Foundation ranking of our state’s elections system. Based on arbitrary metrics from the conservative think tank, the list was flawed and contradictory. I said he might as well be protecting our state from hippos, given they’re just as likely to attack Kansans as our state is to suffer systemic voter fraud.

Schwab stuck to the facts Tuesday. He has staunchly maintained that Kansas ran a secure election in 2020, and he said the same during testimony to the House Elections Committee. He left the sixth order polynomials and virtual reality headsets at home.

Instead he offered a low-key presentation about his office’s legislative goals for the year.

I want to be clear, Dr. Frank did not accuse any fraud in Kansas last week. He said ‘Where there's smoke, there's fire,’ but there was no smoke because we did over 300 post election audits. If there was smoke, it would have showed up in the audit, and that's a hand count, on paper, audit. … He's not a Kansas election expert. He's a mathematician, but it doesn't add up.

– Scott Schwab

Yes, those proposals veer at times into hippo protection territory. But they also don’t emanate from a fantastic world full of branded pillows, violent insurrections and a power-addled former commander in chief.

“I still stand by our clerks’ work and all our volunteers, what they’ve done,” he told the committee. “They’ve done incredible work, they work incredibly hard.”

Schwab then answered a variety of questions from committee members in a matter-of-fact, low-key way. While you might disagree with some of his takes – a jokey comment about Democratic postal workers landed with a thud – he lowered the temperature in the room. He answered wild speculation with facts. Republican or Democrat, House or Senate, that helps.

He also, as it happened, had some choice words for Frank.

“I want to be clear, Dr. Frank did not accuse any fraud in Kansas last week,” Schwab said. “He said ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’ but there was no smoke because we did over 300 post election audits. If there was smoke, it would have showed up in the audit, and that’s a hand count, on paper, audit. … He’s not a Kansas election expert. He’s a mathematician, but it doesn’t add up.”

Across the nation, true believers have inflated Trump’s Big Lie into a cancerous metaverse of election denialism. We could see it metastasizing in last week’s Senate committee and in the questions parried by Schwab.

The more these fantasies are countered with reality, the healthier our democracy will be.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

MORE FROM AUTHOR