Hours before a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in a stunning and brazen display that left five dead and widespread destruction, hundreds of Oklahomans gathered outside of the State Capitol in a protest seeking to overturn the presidential election.
Holding signs or flags that read, “stop the steal,” “fight for freedom” and “Patriots! Duty Calls,” the crowd listened as a series of speakers, including elected officials, pushed the so-called “Big Lie” that the presidential election was somehow rigged and that former President Donald Trump should remain in office.
A year later, the United States is still dealing with the fallout of the insurrection and the disinformation campaign that pushed the country to the brink of catastrophe.
While a majority of Americans rightfully believe that President Joe Biden legitimately won the election, a recent national poll found 75% of Republicans say there was widespread fraud that cost Trump the election. Meanwhile, a new Washington Post-University of Maryland survey found 1 in 3 Americans say violence against the government can be justified.
Over the past year, Trump’s numerous electoral legal challenges were all rejected. And election officials, both Republican and Democrats, across the country have repeatedly affirmed there is no evidence of widespread fraud.
But in Oklahoma, a contingent of Republican party leaders, state lawmakers and 2022 candidates continue to push debunked conspiracy theories that experts worry will continue to sow distrust of fair and secure elections.
“We are seeing more people willing to endorse violations of what we call democratic norms or the unwritten rules of democracy,” said Matthew Motta, a Oklahoma State University assistant professor who researches misinformation and disinformation. “And what I’m really worried about as a political scientist is the erosion of these norms.”
Backing Election Lies in Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s highest profile Republican leaders, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and the states’ seven members of Congress, all have gone on record affirming that Biden is the legitimate president.
This includes all five of the state’s U.S. House lawmakers — Reps. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City; Tom Cole, R-Moore; Kevin Hern, R-Tulsa; Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville — who supported throwing out millions of votes in the state-certified elections in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
None of the five have said they have regretted their decision and the group has largely been silent on the insurrection that rocked the U.S. Capitol hours before their vote.
The same goes for the 37 Oklahoma lawmakers who signed onto a pair of letters asking Congress to overturn the election results prior to the Jan. 6 vote.
Oklahoma Watch asked all 15 state senators and 23 House members, all Republicans, who supported that move if they still support their request and whether they will now say that Biden rightfully won the election.
Only three responded. All doubled down on their unfounded claims that widespread election fraud cost Trump the election.
“If anything I’m just more convinced that there was election fraud,” State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, said in an interview with Oklahoma Watch. “Sorry, I’m 100% believing that our government is a false government and a corrupt government.”
State Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, similarly says he continues to believe that the election should have been overturned in Trump’s favor. He still sees no problem joining the letter to Congress that alleged that the “voices of millions of Oklahomans, as well as millions of Americans have been canceled” as a result of fraud in other states.
“Of course I still support signing the letter,” Dahm said in an emailed response. “What an amazingly stupid question to ask me.”
Like Humphrey, Dahm says he doesn’t believe an “insurrection” occured Jan. 6 of last year even though 738 people, including 7 Oklahomans, have been charged and arrested of related crimes.
State Rep. Mike Dobrinski, R-Okeene, said he too remains “unconvinced of the legitimacy of this presidency.” But he said he is ready to move on from the debate.
“Like most responsible conservatives, I choose to accept the current situation and get up every day and work to provide for my family, serve those in need, and educate myself and others to prepare a plan for better days ahead,” he said.
A Fundraising Message
Among others that have, and continue to spread misinformation that the election was compromised is John Bennett, a former state representative who was elected to lead the Oklahoma Republican Party last year.
In an Oct. 21 fundraising video, Bennett said “we cannot trust the election process,” as he called on Oklahoma Republicans to “fight.”
“Patriots, we must be prepared to muster in defense of Liberty,” he said. “Patriots, we must reclaim our republic. We must be willing to fight on every front in this war. … we must fight from the capitol steps to the corporate boards, our homes, our churches, our schools and in our social clubs because this is total war.”
He offered more ominous warnings during a “Freedom Rally” Nov. 21 in Enid where he told the crowd that this is “our 1776 moment.”
“We have to stand up and fight for our republic because if we don’t stand and fight for our republic today, we won’t have any freedoms tomorrow. We’re fighting against a system that utilized all government resources to steal an election from Donald Trump and we the people,” he said. “But guess what? We are not just going to lay down and take it anymore.”
The Oklahoma Republican Party has also sought to monetize calls to remove Biden or criticize the president with heated rhetoric.
In October, for example, the party began selling $30 T-shirts with Biden’s face and the phrase, “Let’s Go Brandon” on it. The slogan has become an in-joke among conservatives, that is code for an expletive against the president.
For $30, buyers can also purchase a OKGOP branded shirt with the words, “Pray for Biden Psalm 109:8” sprawled across the front. Although it doesn’t say it on the shirt, the biblical passage reads, “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.”
A number of candidates who have announced 2022 bids have also been on the frontline of spreading election misinformation or disinformation.
Jackson Lahmeyer, a Tulsa pastor who is challenging James Lankford in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, said in a campaign video last month that election integrity is his top issue, even claiming he has been the “loudest voice in Oklahoma when it comes to election integrity by far.”
He has also continued to falsely suggest, without providing credible evidence, that there was widespread fraud.
“Our entire state supported Trump and we believe that was a stolen election,” he told One America News Network, a right-wing media outlet also known as OAN, last year. “And in fact, I believe it was a stolen election.”
James Taylor, an Oklahoma City teacher who was among those fired for refusing the district’s mask mandate, is another congressional hopeful that continues to spread the lie that there was widespread fraud that cost Trump the election.
The Republican, who is challenging Cole in the 4th congressional district GOP primary, repeated a debunked theory that 40 million people voted during a “Faith and Freedom Conference” conference in August at Oklahoma City’s Crossroads Church.
“I don’t care if you are a Democrat, Republican, Communitst, whatever: There is something wrong here,” he said.
Fostering Distrust in Electoral Process
State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said the level of distrust in the country’s electoral process is the shakiest since he took office in 2009.
He worries it could get worse.
“I really fear that we are headed down a path where no matter which side wins, the losing side is going to claim either fraud or suppression based on which candidate wins the election,” he told Oklahoma Watch in an interview this week.
Misinformation about the 2020 election has even spread to Oklahoma’s presidential results. Even though Trump won a majority of votes in all of the state’s 77 counties, some, including Humphrey, say they believe vote manipulation occured here.
Ziriax said he heard about many of these concerns after Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow and an ally of Trump, falsely claimed during a three-day “cyber symposium” he hosted in September in South Dakota that Oklahoma’s numbers were understating Trump’s win by tens of thousands of votes.
Ziriax said even though the claims weren’t credible, he requested an independent investigation by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services’ Oklahoma Cyber Command. That review found Lindell’s claims were “entirely without merit,” Ziriax wrote in a letter to Oklahoma lawmakers.
But Ziriax says he sees both the left and right to blame for stroking distrust and spreading misinformation.
“What concerns me on one hand is the false and exaggerated claims of election fraud,” he said. “And on the other hand, you know, we are seeing false and exaggerated claims of voter suppression and oftentimes mischaracterizing what are legitimate election integrity laws as some kind of suppression or something worse than that.”
Polling, however, has shown that it’s Republicans who are much more likely to question future election results.
A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll released in November found there is a big party divide when it comes to trust in elections. While 86% of Democrats and 60% of independents have a “great deal” or “good amount” of trust that elections are fair, just 34% of Republicans agree.
In a stark contrast to her Republican counterpart, Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said she believes it was the “most secure election” in the nation’s history.
She said she worries that if lies about the election, and the insurrection that followed, continue to spread, there could be another crisis in the near future.
“Here we are 365 days later and we still have folks in prominent positions and in elected positions who are still pretending that they don’t know that what happened last year was dangerous and put our democracy on the brink of destruction,” she said. “I am afraid and I am concerned because next time they might just organize better.”
Motta, the Oklahoma State University researcher, said it is difficult to find solutions to restore faith in the electoral process. In addition to laws or top-down policies or actions from political leaders, he said more fundamental flaws caused by the increased polarization of politics must also be addressed.
“We like each other less and less as people and we see the other side’s victory in an electoral contest as being detrimental to our way of life,” he said. “So that means Democrats and Republicans actually having conversations and hashing things out, but it also means having some element of responsibility to say if you want this democratic experiment, that so far has worked out, you’re going to have to accept that you’re going to lose.”