Letters warning of fraud, calls to form ‘your militia’: Election conspiracies spread in Nebraska

A grassroots group is pushing claims of voter fraud. A Loup City woman is sending 1,500 letters suggesting Nebraskans’ identities are being stolen to move foreign money into U.S. campaigns. Experts say these claims have no basis in fact.

Most nights you can find Beverly Pop sitting in her Loup City living room, signing hundreds of letters she’s mailing across Nebraska. In the background, the voice of Steve Bannon, former Trump adviser-turned-podcast host, plays on her television. 

The retired Grand Island teacher plans to send nearly 1,500 letters to Nebraskans, all of whom have made what she thinks are a suspicious number of donations to political campaigns.

Pop says she is warning people that their identities may have been stolen; part of a vast conspiracy to launder foreign money and use it to fund mostly Democratic politicians. She feels so strongly that she’s paying for the postage, paper and envelopes herself. 

“This is because I don’t smoke and drink, so this is my play money,” Pop said in an interview.

But Pop’s effort is based on a conspiracy theory with no basis in fact, say federal campaign finance experts. To the voters receiving the letters, it feels more like harassment than a friendly neighbor keeping them informed. Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen says he’s never seen anything like it.

Pop’s letter-writing campaign is one piece of something called the Nebraska Voter Accuracy Project – a group spreading unfounded claims of rigged elections in Nebraska through in-person presentations, the right-wing video platform Rumble and online chat groups. The 2020 and 2022 elections were “stolen,” they’ve said while speaking at county board meetings across the state, rigged by a computer algorithm decided by an unnamed “they.” 

Since 2020, former President Donald Trump has pushed unfounded claims that his loss to President Joe Biden was rigged. National speakers spreading the same message have made their way to Nebraska, giving hours-long presentations they say prove that elections and election officials can’t be trusted. At a recent meeting at the York County Fairgrounds attended by a Flatwater Free Press reporter, one speaker suggested that local Republicans should form militias heading into the 2024 election.

These ideas have been aided by the Nebraska Voter Accuracy Project, which has given nearly three dozen presentations sowing doubts about local Nebraska elections. The group has two Telegram groups where 800 members, including Pop, discuss election fraud daily.  

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A frequent topic of conversation: The conspiracy theory that laundered money is being funneled to mostly Democratic politicians via Nebraskans’ campaign contributions. It’s the task Pop has taken upon herself from her living room in Sherman County. 

“I’m a peon in this. I’m just doing one little thing,” Pop said. “I’m sending the letters out, I’m asking the questions.” 

***

In a University of Nebraska-Lincoln auditorium, Larry Ortega stands before a group of about 10 people. The event hosted by the Nebraska Voter Accuracy Project was meant to draw college Republicans. Instead, the crowd is mostly retirement age. The speaker says it’s his smallest crowd in more than a year.

Wearing his military pins, Ortega shares his math and science qualifications. He spent time testing jets and training astronauts for the Air Force and NASA. His rocket test data was later used by Elon Musk to develop SpaceX, he says. And now he’s analyzing election statistics. 

“They’re cheating,” Ortega tells the small group. “They’re cheating in every single county in Nebraska, even the little dinky ones with 400, 600, 800 people. And not only are they cheating there, they’re cheating in every single county in every single state in the entire United States.”

Ortega spends the next two hours walking through a litany of reasons why he thinks the 2020 election was stolen. His main claim: Nebraska’s elections – from federal races down to school boards – are decided by an algorithm.

He flashes dozens of charts and graphs on a screen to back up his point, sprinkling in math terminology like “regression lines” and “six degree polynomial.”

“We have 900 elected Democrats in the state of Nebraska, a state that’s 60% Republican. How the heck can that happen in Nebraska?” Ortega says. “Those 900 elected Democrats, they’re in the school boards, they’re in the utility districts. They’re the county clerks, they’re the city council, and they are the mayors … this is where the cheating occurs.” 

From the governor to the smallest village boards, there are roughly 6,400 elected officials in Nebraska. Using Ortega’s own figure, 1 of every 7 elected officials is a Democrat. Ortega doesn’t address Nebraska’s nonpartisan elections, meaning that sometimes candidates don’t have an R or D next to their name on the ballot. He doesn’t speak to the number of local elected officials, especially those in small towns, who run unopposed – elected because no one else wants the job.  

Many of the Nebraska Voter Accuracy Project’s claims come from election deniers from other states – national speakers who travel the country with their own presentations claiming to prove fraud.

Larry Ortega, a founder of the Nebraska Voter Accuracy Project, makes a presentation to the Central Nebraska Patriots Group in Kearney in October 2023. Ortega has made more than 30 presentations around the state, showing what he says is proof the 2020 election was stolen. Courtesy photo

Across the country, those claims have been debunked by journalists, researchers, investigators and the courts. 

Evnen, a Republican, has a section on the Secretary of State website devoted to disproving the claims of Nebraska election deniers.  

“A lot of the information is just incorrect,” Evnen said during an interview. “To try to excite people over misinformation is not something anybody ought to aspire to. On the other hand, people have the right to go out and express themselves. We try to meet it by looking into claims that are made, and report what we’ve found.”

The claim that an algorithm controls election results originates with Douglas Frank, a former Ohio math teacher who now travels the country talking about election fraud. He’s spoken at Trump rallies and appeared in films produced by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. He’s presented in Nebraska multiple times since 2021. 

“He thinks what’s going on is that at some point on election night, some unnamed group decides how many votes they need to allocate for their candidate to win,” said Justin Grimmer, a Stanford University political science professor who’s written academic papers disproving Frank’s claims. 

Grimmer’s research lab has debunked Frank’s claim that state-by-state, every age group votes at the same rate in every county. Evnen and county clerks have said that claim is false. 

“I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers,” said Lisa Poff, Buffalo County election commissioner for 27 years. “Why would we go through all this work and not count something?”

Frank’s statistical analysis – which the Voter Accuracy Project uses in its presentations – artificially inflates correlations, Grimmer said. 

“The key idea for what’s wrong with Doug Frank’s math is that he’s discovered the unremarkable fact that age groups with more people in them have more people who turn out to vote,” Grimmer said. 

During a presentation to the York County GOP in May, Frank’s presentation veered further away from math and statistics.

He began by telling the crowd of about 40 that it was time to “wake up.” “This is war,” he said. 

He asked how many people had heard his talk in-person before. About two-thirds of the room raised their hands. 

During the 160-minute talk, while walking through graphs and charts, he compared himself to Johnny Appleseed, spreading his message of election fraud at more than 600 in-person events since 2021. He compared his grassroots movement to Jesus Christ’s.  

“(Jesus) went town to town training small teams. He didn’t send emails,” Frank said. “And that’s what I’m doing, I’m going town to town, forming small teams. And that is working.” 

He did an impression of Lindell, drawing laughter. He encouraged the crowd to buy from MyPillow to save Lindell from bankruptcy. A coupon code flashed on the screen behind him. 

Then he started talking about steps the crowd should take to “take back your elections.” 

“Picket (elected officials) at their houses and where they take their kids to school,” he said. 

“If your militia isn’t tuned up, get it tuned up.” 

***

In December, Rosalie Goldberg received a letter from a stranger. 

It listed out the Kearney resident’s contributions to ActBlue, a political action committee and fundraising platform for Democratic candidates and progressive nonprofits. 

The letter warned her: Foreigners may be using her name to sway American elections. 

“Most people find this money was not taken from their account, rather their names were used to hide other larger donations or foreign funds to American political races which is illegal!” the letter sent by Pop read. “Do you feel that someone may be taking advantage of your name?” 

At first, Goldberg was alarmed. 

She followed the letter’s instructions and looked up her name on the Federal Election Commission’s online database of individual contributions. 

Her campaign contributions that Pop questioned were all legitimate. 

“They’re interested in discrediting and causing mistrust,” Goldberg said in an interview. She noted the letter’s emphasis on foreign funds influencing U.S. elections. “I think that’s the crux of it right there. To be mistrustful of donating, so maybe you won’t.”

Pop herself has donated to the Republican fundraising platform WinRed dozens of times, according to FEC data.

Pop has been sending her letters since the fall, using public data another Voter Accuracy Project member downloaded from the FEC website. 

She’s searched out every Nebraskan who made more than 50 campaign contributions from 2019 to 2022. She’s found Nebraskans who appear to have made hundreds, sometimes thousands, of political donations, sometimes on the same day. The donations sometimes looked like spare change, 5 cents donated multiple times in one day. 

The donors are often retired, older. Most of them are donating to ActBlue, Pop said. 

It all looks highly suspicious to the retired teacher, as she’s listened to national and local figures like Bannon, Frank and Ortega sow doubt about elections, and offer detail on how they’re fraudulent. 

And some of the letters she’s tried to send to Nebraskans have been returned to her, making her more suspicious still. Do these people even exist?

“I’m not aware of any evidence of the type of scheme being alleged in the letters,” says former FEC lawyer Adav Noti, who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

There have been many instances of “self-appointed investigators” like Pop digging through ActBlue records and “trying to prove that they are in some way false or fraudulent,” Noti said. 

There are many explanations for the multiple donations Pop is seeing, Noti said, specifically having to do with how donations to conduit committees like ActBlue and WinRed are reported.

A donation to ActBlue or WinRed shows up in FEC data at least twice – once as a donation to the committee, and a second time as a donation to the candidate the money’s intended for. 

Often, these platforms will take donations for multiple candidates in one transaction. That would show up as multiple entries in the FEC’s database. 

“For example, you could donate to every Democratic congressional candidate in a contested race. Or to every Republican candidate running in New York,” Noti said. “It could be 20 or more candidates at one time.” 

Say a person donates $10 to WinRed on a page collecting money for 20 candidates. That would show up as 40 separate 50-cent contributions in FEC data – reported once as a contribution to WinRed, and a second time to the actual candidate. 

“It’s not suspicious at all, it happens all the time,” Noti said. “If they’re a monthly donor, that’s going to show up 40 times per month. Over the course of a year, it’s going to look like they made (more than) 400 contributions, when it’s just 12 monthly $10 charges.” 

If donors decide to add a tip to cover transaction fees, that shows up as its own line in FEC reports as well. 

“Well that is new information for me,” Pop said when this was explained to her. “That’s context. I need to know if what I thought was suspicious, or if there’s an actual reason for it.” 

She doesn’t think it’s wrong to be asking people if they actually made their donations, though. 

“This election finance stuff in general, why is it so difficult? That bothers me,” Pop said. “Anytime people try to make things difficult, there’s a reason and it’s usually nefarious.” 

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said several members have reported Pop’s letters questioning their contributions to ActBlue. The Nebraska GOP didn’t respond to multiple requests asking if their members had received similar letters about their contributions to WinRed.

“I think that they believe that they are actually uncovering a conspiracy,” Kleeb said. “The harm is that it puts fear in people. Now I can’t even donate to candidates without people harassing me.” 

Kleeb said she asked the party’s legal counsel if anything could be done. While the letters might be “weird and creepy,” she said, there wasn’t anything the party could do legally to stop them – FEC data is public record. She asked the Secretary of State’s office – they’d heard about the letters, too.

Nebraska Secretary of State speaks at a leadership training conducted by the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce in March. Evnen has spent much of this year speaking to groups about election security and misinformation. Courtesy photo

“With respect to this letter, it hasn’t been so broadly circulated and hasn’t caused a great deal of consternation on the part of voters that we have concluded that we need to do anything,” Evnen said in an interview. “We have 1.23 million registered voters in the state of Nebraska. So to the extent that that gives you any context for the scope here, that may be helpful.” 

Three people spoke to the Flatwater Free Press about receiving a letter from Pop. The three come from different parts of the state: Kearney, Wayne and Lincoln. All three donated to ActBlue. All three said their donations were legitimate.  

All three felt disturbed at the letter, they said. 

“Keep your nose out of my political contributions,” said Sherry Dorman of Wayne. “I’m 70 years old. I’ve been politically active for most of that time. I’ve never in all my years gotten anything like this.” 

Clayton Naff of Lincoln said his “eyes popped out cartoon-style” when he read Pop’s letter. 

“At first I thought, this is an invasion of privacy,” Naff said. “But then I thought, well actually, political contributions aren’t truly private. They’re a matter of record. And they should be. But it still felt odd.” 

Out of the hundreds of letters Pop has sent so far, she said two people have gotten back to her saying their donations look questionable. Many more have called to tell her she’s being bamboozled, that they’re going to report her for harassment. 

“If they gave a donation, I am happy for them, because I respect people who put their money where their mouth is,” she said. “All I want to know is that you gave the money that the federal government says you gave.” 

In Kearney, Goldberg decided to write a letter back to Pop in December. She told her the donations listed were accurate. She wished her a Merry Christmas. 

“I donated that money, but I feel that it is a much smaller amount than I realized,” Goldberg wrote. “Since receiving your letter, know that I will be donating more in this new election cycle.”

By Natalia Alamdari

Natalia Alamdari has worked at newspapers throughout the country. Her reporting has taken her to small town shooting ranges in Missouri, contentious school board meetings in Delaware, and aquariums in Texas. Working at the Flatwater Free Press is a return to Nebraska — in college, she spent a summer interning at the Omaha World-Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and native Texan. When she’s not reporting, you can probably find her baking, petting her cat, or trying out a new crafty hobby.

6 Comments

Thank you for this important reporting. I had no idea this is going on, and the references to militia are disturbing. Please keep reporting on this as the election season continues!

Just one more of the many, many organized efforts to sabotage trust in the essential institutions of our country, including the electoral process, the courts, law enforcement, and most troubling, a free press that investigates and tells the truth.
And we all know who is behind it, since he freely admits it.

Thanks for your excellent reporting! I’m deeply worried about this national effort to cast doubt on our elections, which might provide a justification for an even more violent response in November whenever the conservative candidate loses.

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