'Dark Money' Is Funding The 2020 Election Challenge — And Could Challenge 2024

Aug 5, 2021
Originally published on August 5, 2021 8:08 pm

President Biden was sworn into office more than six months ago, but officials in Maricopa County, Ariz., are still searching for evidence that Biden's victory in their state was based on massive voter fraud — even after multiple audits found no issues.

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer says the Arizona audit is an unprecedented undertaking, with potentially explosive consequences for American democracy.

Mayer notes that although the audit appears to be the work of local extremists, it's actually being funded by sophisticated national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country's wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives.

"The 2020 election is long since over in most people's minds and settled and decided," Mayer says. "But these groups are doubling down in the money they're putting into, and the effort they're putting into, trying to push the idea of fraud — potentially in order to challenge the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election."

Mayer writes about what she calls the "dark money" behind the challenges to Biden's victory in her latest article, "The Big Money Behind the Big Lie." She says a well-funded national movement has been exploiting Trump's false claims of widespread fraud to promote alterations in the way that ballots are cast and counted in 49 states. And, she adds, 18 states have already passed new voting laws in the past six months, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Mayer notes that while some of the challenges are coming from extremist groups, established conservative organizations — including the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council — are also getting involved.

"Organizations that we have come to think of as pillars of the conservative movement ... [are] throwing their efforts behind a very anti-democratic movement here that is scaring even some Republican election officials and is also scaring election law experts," she says. "They are really going all in on this Trump lie."


Interview Highlights

On the 2020 election audit in Maricopa County, Ariz., which is still ongoing

I think that some of the people who are carrying out this audit, you have to understand, are hardcore conspiracy theorists. And they're setting out to prove that Trump really won. And Maricopa County is not just like any old little county in America. It's the largest county in Arizona, and it's the majority of votes for Arizona — it's 2.1 million votes. So if they could move 10,000 votes and say 10,000 were fraudulent, they may be able to say that Trump did win. I think more likely ... they're laying the groundwork to challenge American elections in the future, and the one there in 2020. They're spreading distrust.

On the push to allow state legislatures to select electors

Since the 19th century, the states have allowed the popular vote to determine which electors were elected and then cast their ballots and pick the president. It's an indirect form of direct democracy. What's being talked about now and experimented with in Arizona is the idea that the state legislatures themselves would pick the electors. ...

Now, this is a radical doctrine, but it's being promoted by lawyers on the right and nonprofit groups that are heavily funded on the right. And it is being truly experimented with in Arizona, where there was a piece of legislation that was a bill proposed to do exactly that — to allow the state legislature in Arizona to overturn a presidential election and decide itself where the electors should cast their ballots and for whom.

On the state of voting rights legislation

In 18 states now, legislation has been passed that cracks down on voting rights in various ways. So there's certainly been an effort to limit things like mail-in voting and same-day voting and make registration more difficult. There were bills introduced in 49 states. So I think you'll see another wave of that kind of legislation. And you may also see more of this argument being made — that is, this kind of radical independent legislature doctrine argument that's being made by legal organizations on the right that argues that the legislatures have the right to intercede and even overrule the popular vote if there's been something wrong with the election, if they can argue that there's been fraud.

On discovering the source of the audit in Arizona

I went out to Arizona to take a look at this audit, and what I discovered was it's not taking place in a vacuum. And it's actually not just an Arizona thing. It's being funded by out-of-state interests, deep-pocketed people who are allies of Donald Trump — that's specifically the audit — and it's taking place against a backdrop of this spreading belief that voter fraud is rife in America and that elections can't be trusted. And that is being spread by national groups, some of them quite well-known and established in Republican circles. And so I kept sort of peeling back the onion to try to figure out, where is this coming from? And the picture began to clarify that actually there's a money stream and an awful lot of it is coming from one single huge foundation in Milwaukee, Wis., which is funding all of these other groups that are pushing the idea that voter fraud is a serious problem in America and that we can't trust our elections. And that one huge foundation is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The Bradley family — these two brothers that founded this company, the Allen-Bradley Company — they defined the far-right fringe. They were dedicated anti-communist zealots who feared that the United States government was run by communists. And they were fringe figures politically, but they were extraordinarily rich by the time they died. And their fortune has funded this far-right foundation.

On Cleta Mitchell, who is on the board of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

People may not know Cleta Mitchell's name, or they may not have known it until news stories broke right at the beginning of this year that there was a lawyer on the call with Trump — it was a conference call to Georgia election officials. And Trump was basically berating them, saying, I just need to have 11,780 more votes because that will make me win in Georgia. Just find the votes. And it sounded as if they were just trying to overturn the election in Georgia.

And on that call was a lawyer named Cleta Mitchell. And it turns out Cleta Mitchell is fundamental to this movement to argue that voter fraud is rampant in America and that Georgia's election was a fraud and that Trump really won it. And she's been deeply involved in these issues, at least as far back as 2012. And she is on the board of the Bradley Foundation, where they have $850 million in their treasury to spend on all kinds of issues, including this.

On Public Interest Legal Foundation, also founded by the Bradley Foundation. Cleta Mitchell is its chair.

That group is based in Indiana, and it litigates all over the country, accusing people and election officials of voter fraud. If you take a close look at it, what you can see is there's just a short leap from accusing people of voter fraud to then arguing that an election should be nullified. And this is where it gets really radical. Among the directors of the Public Interest Legal Foundation is, for instance, a lawyer named John Eastman who was one of the speakers at Trump's rally on Jan. 6. And at that rally, he argued that people needed to challenge the election returns and stop the certification of the vote on Jan. 6. As we all know, that just preceded by a couple hours the crowd charging the capital, ransacking it and trying to stop the certification. So you can see the connections between a huge foundation on the right, the Bradley Foundation, which funds the Public Interest Legal Foundation, whose director spoke at the Jan. 6 rally and tried to overturn that election or at least stop it, halt it at that moment. And the money flows from one to the other, and the same characters are involved.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Dana Farrington adapted it for the web.

: 8/04/21

An earlier version of this piece misspelled the Allen-Bradley Company as the Alan Bradley Company.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie" is the title of my guest Jane Mayer's new article in The New Yorker. The Big Lie is, of course, that Donald Trump really won the election. Mayer's article focuses on the money behind the efforts to restrict voting and challenge Joe Biden's victory. She focuses in part on the ballot audit in Maricopa County, Ariz., that's searching - in vain - for evidence that Biden's victory in Arizona was based on massive voter fraud. Mayer writes that although the audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it's been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country's wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives who are determined to win at all costs.

Her article reports on those conservative groups and their leaders. These groups aren't just focused on Arizona. Mayer says a well-funded national movement has been exploiting Trump's claims of fraud in order to promote alterations in the way that ballots are cast and counted in 49 states, 18 of which have already passed new voting laws in the past six months. Jane Mayer is The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent and is the author of the book "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I always get so excited when you have a new article.

JANE MAYER: Oh, thanks so much. It's great to be with you.

GROSS: So what is the status of the ballot audit now in Maricopa County, Ariz., where Biden won by over 10,000 votes in the state?

MAYER: Amazingly enough, it's still ongoing more than six months after the election. What's happened most recently is that the auditors have sent the ballots back to Maricopa County they have done with the hand recount. But they've now demanded and subpoenaed the computer servers that the election officials used. And they're saying they have to have access to those servers in order to see if there's fraud. And the Maricopa County election officials, the Board of Supervisors, is saying forget it. They said literally, you know, enough of this. You're in Never, Never Land, and we don't have time for this.

GROSS: I think they must realize that this is a pointless pursuit, the people behind the recount, because there's no way that there's 10,000 fraudulent votes in Maricopa County. So what is this really about? Is Maricopa County a laboratory to test things out for the larger movement?

MAYER: In part. I'm not sure that I agree that they think it's pointless still. I think that - some of the people who are carrying out this audit, you have to understand, are hardcore conspiracy theorists. And they're setting out to prove that Trump really won. And Maricopa County is not just like any old little county in America. It's the largest county in Arizona, and it's the majority of votes for Arizona. It's 2.1 million votes. So if they could move 10,000 votes and say 100,000, whatever, were fraudulent, they may be able to say that Trump did win. I think more likely they just want to try to prove that the election was riddled with irregularities and fraud and not to be trusted. They're laying the groundwork to challenge American elections in the future and the one there in 2020. They're spreading distrust.

GROSS: So you say that the effort is being run in part by conspiracy theorists. Give us a sense of some of the beliefs of some of the people behind the recount in Arizona.

MAYER: Well, among the things that the audit firm, which calls itself Cyber Ninjas, has suggested is that there may be ballots that were counterfeits that were dumped by Asia and printed in Asia. And so they've been looking - when I went to observe them, they were looking through microscopes to try to see if there were bamboo fibers so they could say that they'd come from Asia, apparently. And they were also examining the folds in the ballots to see if they had been properly sent by mail if they were mail-in ballots, even though, in truth, many mail-in ballots can be dropped off in places. So it's not dispositive.

There were just all kinds of wacky theories that they were looking into. And it was a completely bizarre scene to observe - huge auditorium, a coliseum in Phoenix. And at the bottom of it, it was - all the bleachers were empty. And at the bottom, there were these sort of ant-like figures marching around with boxes of ballots, performing these strange rituals on them. Some of them were on tables that had lazy Susans. And three would sit there in a row, kind of all adding up the numbers independently to see if they matched.

GROSS: A film was shown in Arizona that's also online called "The Deep Rig." And the filmmaker, his previous film exposed what he contended was the real perpetrators of 9/11, who were space aliens. Wow.

MAYER: Wow. Right. The track record of the people who have been put in charge of the audit in Arizona by the Republican Senate in Arizona, the track record is really checkered and strange. And so you're dealing with people, including the head of the Cyber Ninjas company, who's in this film - who has an anonymous role, but he's exposed himself now in this film - where he just floats this kind of untethered theory that maybe the CIA is involved in spreading disinformation about the ballots and the election. It's crazy stuff. And it's easy to laugh at, but it's actually, when you think about it, not so funny.

GROSS: So the national movement that you're describing from the far-right, you say they're exploiting claims of fraud in order to promote alterations in the way that ballots are cast and counted. And I think more attention has been paid to voter restrictions than on how ballots are counted and who appoints legislators. One of the goals that you describe in your piece is to let state legislatures, Republican-controlled state legislatures, choose the electors in presidential elections instead of having the voters choose the electors, the electors being the people who go to the Electoral College. What is the constitutional rationale that is being proposed to have state legislators choose who votes in the Electoral College?

MAYER: Right. I mean, and so what you're describing is this very radical attack on the way American elections have functioned since the 19th century. And since the 19th century, the states have allowed the popular vote to determine which electors were elected and then cast their ballots and pick the president. It's, you know, an indirect form of direct - democracy. What's being talked about now and experimented with even in Arizona is the idea that the state legislatures themselves would pick the electors, and they would basically pick the president. And since, as we know, there are a number of states with very Republican state legislatures, this would obviously throw off the results of presidential elections.

Now, this is - it's a kind of a radical doctrine, but it's being promoted by lawyers on the right and groups that are nonprofit groups that are heavily funded on the right. And it is being truly experimented with in Arizona, where there was a piece of legislation that was a bill proposed to do exactly that, to allow the state legislature in Arizona to overturn a presidential election and decide itself where the electors should cast their ballots and for whom.

GROSS: And is the rationale supposed to be, if the state legislature decides that there has been fraud in the election, that they could decide, well, we're not going to count the voters decided to choose as electors in the presidential election. We're going to just take over and appoint them ourselves because the election is illegitimate.

MAYER: Exactly right. So this business of claiming there's fraud where there's actually not fraud is very important because it sets the stage for the state legislatures to then say, look, this election was a mess. We can't rely on the results. We're going to have to take it into our own hands. And so these go hand in glove together, basically, the idea of election fraud and of the legislatures taking over. It's - there's a name for it. It's called the independent legislature doctrine. And it is something that we've started to see bubbling up even before the 2020 election, right before it.

And it's something that is sort of gaining some momentum in a scary way, at least according to election experts who I interviewed, including Rick Hasen, who is one of the foremost election law experts in the country. And what he told me was fascinating, which was people have been focused on voter suppression issues, the changes in voting rules and who can vote. But he said the thing that really scares him the most and scares the daylights out of him is what he calls elections subversion, the possibility that in states with Republican legislatures, they may put in place election officials who will overrule the popular vote.

GROSS: The Constitution gives states the authority to choose their presidential electors in, quote, "such manner as the legislature thereof may direct." That's a little vague, like may direct when, why, how?

MAYER: Yeah, it is vague, but it's an open door. And basically, the door got a big push back in 2000 in the case that people will remember is Bush v. Gore, that disputed presidential election. It went to the Supreme Court. And three of the conservatives on the Supreme Court at the time signed onto a consenting opinion that was written by William Rehnquist, who was the chief judge at the time, that pounced on that language in the Constitution to say state legislatures have the right. They have a sort of plenary power to decide how elections are administered.

And that opinion is something that conservatives are now revivifying and using as the grounds on which to lay this theory. It's kind of flimsy in some ways. According to election experts I interviewed, I spoke with Nate Persily, who is also a tremendously well-regarded election law expert. He teaches at Stanford Law School. And he said that that language is being used to give respectability to an insane and anti-democratic theory. But, you know, it is being used that way.

GROSS: All right. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her new article is called "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer. Her new article in The New Yorker is titled "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie." The subtitle is Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs.

Jane, let's talk about some of the money behind this movement to claim that there was fraud and therefore an election that is illegitimate or to claim that the state legislature should really be the ones who choose the electors, not the popular vote. So you write that, say, the audit in Arizona is entirely privately funded. And it's mostly from nonprofit groups led by Trump allies who live outside of Arizona. And these groups are also funding a national movement. And this movement isn't just about 2020, it's about 2022 and 2024. Why is this movement really about the future?

MAYER: Well, I went out to Arizona to take a look at this audit. And what I discovered was it's not taking place in a vacuum. And it's actually not just an Arizona thing. It's being funded by out-of-state interests, deep-pocketed people who are allies of Donald Trump - that's specifically the audit. And it's taking place against a backdrop of this spreading belief that voter fraud is is rife in America and that elections can't be trusted. And that is being spread by national groups that are - some of them, quite well known and established in Republican circles.

And so I kept sort of peeling back the onion to try to figure out, where is this coming from? And the picture begin to clarify that, actually, there's a money stream. And an awful lot of it is coming from one single huge foundation in Milwaukee, Wis., which is funding all of these other groups that are pushing the idea that there's voter fraud is a serious problem in America and that we can't trust our elections. And that one huge foundation is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wis.

GROSS: And the person who's fortune is behind this foundation, Harry Bradley, he was a founding member of the John Birch Society. So refresh our memory about the John Birch Society.

MAYER: Right. So what you're getting is the Bradley family, these two brothers that founded this company, the Allen-Bradley Company, they defined the far-right fringe. They were, you know, dedicated anti-communist zealots who feared that the United States government was run by communists. And they were, you know, fringe figures politically, but they were extraordinarily rich by the time they died. And their fortune has funded this far-right foundation.

GROSS: So one of the board members of the mind and Harry Bradley Foundation is Cleta Mitchell, and she seems to turn up everywhere. She was connected to a lot of the groups behind this effort to challenge elections and to, you know, challenge voter fraud. She's also legal counsel to the far-right media organization Newsmax. People might be familiar with her because she was on an important call with Trump when he threatened election officials in Georgia. Would you refresh our memory? What happened on that call?

MAYER: So a lot of people may not know Cleta Mitchell's name, or they may not have known it until news stories broke right at the beginning of this year that there was a lawyer on the call with Trump. It was a conference call to Georgia election officials. And Trump was basically berating them, saying, I just need to have 11,780 more votes because that will make me win in Georgia. Just find the votes. And it sounded as if they were just trying to overturn the election in Georgia.

And on that call was a lawyer named Cleta Mitchell. And it turns out Cleta Mitchell is fundamental to this movement to argue that voter fraud is rampant in America and that Georgia's election was a fraud and that Trump really won it. And she's been deeply involved in these issues at least as far back as 2012. And she is on the board of the Bradley Foundation, where they have $850 million in their treasury to spend on all kinds of issues, including this.

GROSS: So one of the groups supported by money from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is called True the Vote. And Cleta Mitchell is its legal counsel, just to show these interconnections. So tell us about that group, True the Vote.

MAYER: So True the Vote is an organization that grew out of the Tea Party movement. It's based in Texas, and it's been accused of intimidating voters. It trains people to police the polls and challenge voters. I've interviewed people who - I've interviewed a Black family in Ohio that was - had to go and prove that they were legally registered to vote because True the Vote had challenged them. They go through voter rolls and try to purge them of people, and it's been accused of being racist.

Anyway, this organization is one that Cleta Mitchell has argued should be a nonprofit charity. She's argued that in - I took a look at a letter she wrote to the IRS where she said voter fraud is real. And she cited an example of a case that goes back to 2011. And I went back and took a look at it, and the whole case just fell apart. The charges were all dismissed, and the judge found that there was no intent at fraud. So a lot of these cases fall apart when you take a closer look at them. But Cleta Mitchell has continued to crusade about this particular subject. She's up to her eyeballs in it. And she's been - I have to say, you cannot underestimate her. She's been tremendously effective and connected.

GROSS: So there's another group called the Public Interest Legal Foundation that is also funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. And Cleta Mitchell is its chair and is on the board of directors. So what does this group do?

MAYER: So that group is based in Indiana, and it litigates. And it litigates all over the country, accusing people and election officials of voter fraud. And it is a really interesting group because if you take a close look at it, what you can see is there's just a short leap from accusing people of voter fraud to then arguing that an election should be nullified. And this is where it gets really radical. And so among the directors of the Public Interest Legal Foundation is, for instance, a lawyer named John Eastman, who was one of the speakers at Trump's rally on January 6. And at that rally, he argued that people needed to challenge the election returns and stop the certification of the vote on January 6. As we all know, that just preceded by a couple hours, the crowd charging the Capitol, ransacking it and trying to stop the certification.

So you can see the connections between a huge foundation on the right, the Bradley Foundation, which funds the Public Interest Legal Foundation, whose director spoke at the January 6 rally and tried to overturn that election - or at least stop it, halt it at that moment. And the money flows from one to the other, and the same characters are involved.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. Her new piece in The New Yorker is titled "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie." We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER AND LEON PARKER'S "THE LAST TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie," with the subtitle Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs.

So there's more interconnections here. So another board member of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which you've just been describing, is Hans von Spakovsky, who now heads the Heritage Foundation's Election Law Reform Initiative, which is funded in part by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation - so again, all these interconnections. So who is Hans von Spakovsky? And what is the Election Law Reform Initiative?

MAYER: So Hans von Spakovsky is one of the better-known right-wing lawyers who has also crusaded against election fraud and voter fraud. He's been at this for a number of years. And he does run this center at the Heritage Foundation, you know, a major think tank in Washington. And he is - as you say, his center is funded, again, by the Bradley Foundation. So the connections - it's the same pot of money that's funding this in all of these different places. Spakovsky has litigated all over the country. He also keeps a website that tallies voter fraud around the country. I looked at it. I was curious to see what really - what did they say, how much voter fraud is there? And he tallied up the numbers for Arizona. And, you know, it actually was amazingly unimpressive.

If you take a close look at the fine print, I think what it had was something like nine cases of people who have been charged with some sort of form of voter fraud. Most of it was people who voted in two different states in the same election. And that was nine people since, I think, 20 - including 2016, all the way up until - through 2020. I mean, there are millions and millions of votes cast. That nine people is not enough to make a difference in the dogcatcher's race.

GROSS: I should say, the details of all of this are confusing because there's a lot of groups. There's a big cast of characters. But is it fair to say the main takeaway is, as you've said, so many of them are interconnected? There's different groups with different names in different places. But there are links connecting them. And I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist. But as you're saying, there's a few pools of money that appear to be funding most of these efforts.

MAYER: Yeah. And I think, for me, some of the takeaway also was that organizations that we have come to think of as kind of pillars of the conservative movement, and we don't think of them as trying to overthrow American elections. They're just plain, you know, kind of standard, established, conservative organizations, like the Heritage Foundation and ALEC. You know, these are groups that if you follow this stuff, you know these groups. They're kind of old hat. But, in fact, what's interesting is they're throwing their efforts behind very anti-democratic movement here that is scaring election officials and scaring even some Republican election officials and is also scaring election law experts. I mean, it's - they are really going all-in on this Trump lie and this movement.

GROSS: Do you know why they took such a turn to the far right and are signing onto what has become known as the big lie?

MAYER: Yes. I think, you know, it's a guess. I mean, I've interviewed some of them. But I think if you stand back, what you can see is it's a tremendously useful lie. It's a lie that allows people to tamper with the guardrails of democracy and sort of trying to help their side win. And so, you know, these are people who are hard core believers in certain policies. And they see an opportunity here to tailor who gets to vote and maybe even overturn the results under some circumstances.

GROSS: You know, as I was reading your article, I was thinking, well, Jane Mayer has written so much about the Koch Foundation. Like, where do the Kochs figure into this, because I'm not seeing them yet? And, like, sure enough (laughter), FreedomWorks, which is one of the groups that they fund, figures into this story. And Cleta Mitchell, the woman we talked about earlier on in the interview, she is affiliated with FreedomWorks. So tell us about that connection and what FreedomWorks is up to.

MAYER: Yeah. I mean, FreedomWorks is a sort of a libertarian, anti-regulatory group. And it was originally founded by the Kochs. It broke off from them. But at any rate, it was kind of big in the Tea Party movement. And what interested me was - and it's now hired Cleta Mitchell. It's given her some kind of perch there. But, you know, these - this organization that sort of prides itself on busting regulations is now calling for more regulations. But they want regulations on voters at this point. So she's heading up a project there.

I mean, all these groups - the thing that's interesting is this election - the 2020 election, as we know, is long since over in most people's minds and settled and decided. But these groups are doubling down in the money they're putting into and the effort they're putting into trying to push the idea of fraud, potentially in order to challenge the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election, at least according to people I interviewed, who - that's what they're looking at. And they see this thing moving forward.

GROSS: As a result of all of these claims of fraud, a lot of election officials around the country have been harassed and intimidated and threatened. And you spoke to one election official in Arizona who actually had to flee. His name is Bill Gates. Tell us about him. And I should mention here, it's not the Bill Gates. It's a different Bill Gates. Yes.

MAYER: Yeah. This was so amazing to me. And I hope, if people get a chance to read this long story, they get to the end where Bill Gates really gets to speak because he is sort of ground zero for what this is all about. And he is a long-time Republican, a seriously conservative Republican who got himself to Harvard Law School, where he was very involved in conservative groups. He's sort of a child of the Reagan revolution, a true believer in Reagan's doctrine of challenging authoritarianism around the world.

He got very interested in election law. And that's one of his specialties. And he's, you know, sort of a fighter for democracy around the world. That was his interest. He imagined that someday, maybe he would go and - his dream was to spend his retirement years sort of spreading democracy in places like Tajikistan, he told me. And at any rate, instead, he's one of the supervisors on the board of supervisors in Maricopa County. And he's just overseeing this last election, which is, you know, what his job is. And he's stunned to find that he has become the target of right-wing attacks, claiming that there's fraud in the election. He knows there's not. He's run the election. He knows it's fair. He knows it's gone through three recounts that have upheld the results. He's 100% sure that it's fine.

But he is being attacked right and left, called a, you know, a traitor by people that he knows. And he said to me, you know, he always wanted to fight authoritarianism in other parts of the world. He could not believe that he's fighting it at home in Maricopa County, Ariz., but he feels that's what's going on.

GROSS: What was the last straw that made him think he had to flee from his home?

MAYER: Well, I mean, he was getting death threats. And he was told by the chairman of the Maricopa County supervisors that - the chairman said he had 90 people screaming outside his house, and watch out, they may be coming to Bill Gates' house next. You know, he's worrying about his - he's got three daughters and a wife. And they had to - they fled to an Airbnb at one point.

GROSS: I think we need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie." It's subtitled Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs.

Do you have any idea what's being planned for the future? We've been talking about this network, this interconnected group of right-wing organizations and conservative funders and how they're trying to change the way elections are run in the country to benefit the right, to benefit conservatives. What are they planning for the future?

MAYER: Well, I mean, what you can see is that in 18 states now, legislation has been passed that cracks down on voting rights in various ways. So there's certainly been an effort to sort of limit things like mail-in voting and same-day voting and make registration more difficult. So those kinds of things are taking place. There were bills introduced in 49 states, and as I said, only - they've been passed so far in 18. So I think you'll see another wave of that kind of legislation.

And you may also see more of this argument being made that is this kind of radical independent legislature doctrine argument that's being made by legal organizations on the right that suggests and it argues that the legislatures have the right to intercede and even overrule the popular vote if there's been something wrong with the election, if they can argue that there's been fraud.

GROSS: So we're really looking at two fronts here. One is to limit who can vote, and the other is to change who decides how elections are interpreted and who runs those elections.

MAYER: Exactly. And the latter category is called elections subversion by experts such as Rick Hasen, who is an election law expert and professor at the University of California. So, yeah, this is what the experts are kind of blowing the whistle, ringing the alarm bell, saying, watch out. Watch out. Look what's going on here.

GROSS: Are you expecting that future elections will end in chaos because neither side will trust them? The right will say, oh, there was fraud, we can't count your vote or you're not allowed to vote. And Democrats will be saying you're manipulating who gets to vote, and there was so much voter suppression, we can't trust the vote.

MAYER: Well, I hope not. I mean, the thing is, this whole idea of voter fraud is really something of a fraud itself. And if the facts prevail, then we ought to be able to have stable elections because there really is very little voter fraud in this country. And elections, as Trump's own official said, after the 2020 election, they said this was the safest and most secure election in modern history. So the facts are opposite this kind of fear mongering. And if the facts win out, we ought to be in good shape. But the problem is the disinformation.

GROSS: So there's disinformation on the voter fraud side, but the voting restriction side, that's real.

MAYER: It is. I mean, and so what's happening is that the disinformation is being exploited by state legislators who are very ideological and aligned with these far-right groups. It's being exploited to put through laws that crack down on the way we've gotten used to voting and counting the votes.

GROSS: I want to introduce one more character into the story, and that's Leonard Leo, who's the founder of the Federalist Society, whose mission has been for years to bring up conservative lawyers through the ranks and then get them promoted to the position of judges at various levels. And they've been very successful. What has his role been in this new movement?

MAYER: So Leonard Leo is deep in the thick of this, but kind of beneath the surface. And he has an organization that was called the Judicial Education Project. And lo and behold, it popped up with a new name in 2020 that was called the Honest Elections Project. It's actually the same group. And it started litigating and challenging in Pennsylvania, in particular, challenging - it was arguing that the state legislature had the right to decide how the election was run. It seems to be a forerunner of this argument that legislatures should have plenary power to decide how elections are administered and maybe even decided. So Leonard Leo's groups are right in the thick of this thing.

GROSS: I'm wondering how much of what you found in your investigation for this new article was kind of hidden, and how much of it is people who are really proud of what they're doing and it's totally on the surface in public?

MAYER: Well, you know, a lot of these people, including Leonard Leo, declined to talk about what they're doing. You would think if they were proud of it, they might come forward and lay out why they think this is worth doing. But instead, they seem to be kind of beneath the surface, lurking. And the money is dark money. It's money that's secret money because it's not disclosed. It's coming from organizations that claim they're charities, and so they don't have to reveal their donors.

GROSS: I don't know if you can answer this question 'cause I don't know if you can really know somebody else's motivations. But based on your reporting and your observations, how much of this, you know, so-called election subversion movement is being organized by people who truly believe that elections have been fraudulent and that you can't trust the vote, that you have to have state legislatures appoint electors in presidential elections? And how much of it is being run by people who just want more power for their conservative agenda, and the way to get it is to control elections?

MAYER: You know, I mean, that was a question that I was somewhat obsessed with, too. I think it's fascinating to know - you know, does Cleta Mitchell really believe this, or is this just instrumental and useful? And it's just very, very hard to tell. I spent a lot of time talking to her. And, you know, in the end, I think it's interesting to know, but the impact is the same. Whether she believes it or she's just using it, either way, it's affecting American elections. And so it's very hard to know. I mean, Bill Gates, the Maricopa County supervisor who I interviewed and spent a lot of time with, he basically says in the end of this story, you know, the sad thing from his standpoint is an awful lot of Americans who are just, you know, good people are getting gulled from his point of view. They're getting - they believe all of this misinformation about there being voter fraud. And he said, you know, the people at the top, they know better. He thinks they have to know.

GROSS: Are you surprised at how relatively big and relatively powerful this election subversion movement is?

MAYER: Yeah. It's worse than I thought it was. I mean, I thought it was just a few fringe figures in a few states. I didn't really realize till I started digging into it that it really is a national movement funded by very deep pockets.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for joining us again. It's always great to talk with you, and thank you for your great reporting.

MAYER: Thanks so much, Terry. Wonderful to be with you.

GROSS: Jane Mayer's new article, "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie," is in the latest issue of The New Yorker. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Annette," starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a celebrity couple. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY BURTON'S "MOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.