Rep. Elise Stefanik at a press conference in Washington, D.C. in January 2022. Photo by Hannah Schoenbaum of the Albany Times Union
The false claim that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent or “stolen” lives on.
Former president Donald Trump continues to spread what’s become known as the “Big Lie” — because it’s a baseless myth — to this day.
North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik continues to support Trump, validate his conspiracy theories, and cast doubt over America’s electoral process — a political move that helped catapult her to national prominence and won her a top leadership position in her party.
We’ve been working to document and fact-check Stefanik’s statements about voting and elections, many of which have proved to be misleading or untrue.
Trump’s long history of lies
Former President Trump was making false claims about voter fraud long before the 2020 presidential election, long before he became a presidential candidate. In 2012, after President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term in the White House, Trump called the election “a total sham” and tweeted, “We are not a democracy!”
Then, fearing a loss to Hillary Clinton in October 2016, he falsely claimed that “the election is absolutely being rigged.”
The pattern continued in 2020.
“Now, mail ballots – they cheat. Okay? People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters,” then-President Trump said, at a White House press briefing on April 7, 2020, which was another false statement.
Experts say that while mail-in voting isn’t perfect, it’s generally secure and has long been a standard practice in American elections.
But North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik began echoing Trump’s claims in the lead-up to the election.
Concerns about “ballot integrity”
In an interview with Plattsburgh-based Mountain Lake PBS in October 2020, Stefanik was asked about pandemic-era absentee voting and the possibility of election results being challenged in court.
“We are definitely seeing an increase across the country of people that are voting by absentee, voting by mail. We’re also seeing an increase in ballots being sent to the wrong house, to people that have passed away, to people that have since moved away. So I’m very concerned about ballot integrity,” Stefanik said, without providing specifics or evidence.
Stefanik’s campaign declined to speak with North Country Public Radio or answer our detailed questions for this story. We reached out multiple times.
Traditionally, politicians in the U.S. have been extremely careful not to say anything that could undermine the public’s trust in elections. The fact that Trump and his allies were making these statements was highly unusual.
A dramatic pivot for Stefanik
It also marks a dramatic and surprising pivot for Stefanik, who has spent much of her career working with pro-democracy groups that support free and fair elections around the world, including the National Endowment for Democracy.
Stefanik at a National Endowment for Democracy event honoring human rights activists in October 2021. Screenshot from the endowment’s website, ned.org.
Stefanik sits on its board of directors and spoke at a ceremony there a few months ago.
“And congratulations to all of the Democracy Award winners here today for your courageous work to advance human rights and democracy in your home countries,” Stefanik said, in a speech that also covered authoritarianism and fair elections in Central America.
In a video of the event, a crowd of dignitaries, endowment staff, and human rights activists applauds Stefanik as she poses for photographs with the award winners.
Yet several months before that speech, Stefanik was sowing doubt about the results of the election in which Joe Biden won by more than 7 million in the popular vote, and by 74 electoral votes.
Radio silence, followed by a full embrace
After Biden was announced the winner, Trump quickly escalated his disinformation campaign, openly trying to undermine the results.
“This election was rigged and we can’t let that happen. We can’t let it happen for our country, and this election has to be turned around,” he said in November 2020.
As the Albany Times Union has reported, Stefanik didn’t comment on Trump’s defeat publicly for weeks. She finally broke her silence on December 1, 2020, telling the conservative media outlet Newsmax that she was backing Trump’s effort to challenge the election.
“I support the continued effort by the Trump campaign to make sure every legal ballot and only legal ballots and legal votes are counted. There’s a number of court cases pending, from states like Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to Georgia, and it’s important that the American people continue to have faith in our electoral process,” she said.
Trump’s legal team brought dozens of cases to state and federal courts alleging voter fraud and irregularities. They lost all but one of them.
Stefanik was one of 126 House Republicans who publicly supported a Supreme Court case brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, seeking to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia. Parallel lawsuits in those states were being decisively rejected. The Texas case was widely considered a long shot and was thrown out quickly.
Conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems
The former Trump administration’s own election officials from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, had already debunked other claims Trump made about a company called Dominion Voting Systems.
“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” officials wrote on November 12.
And yet, a couple weeks later – on Dec. 1 – Stefanik continued to amplify those false conspiracy theories.
“I have concerns about the software, the fact that Dominion software – and it’s not just Republicans, it’s Democrats who have raised issues about that process and making sure we have the integrity in the counting process,” Stefanik said in the Newsmax interview.
She didn’t explain her concerns or provide evidence – and again the Congresswoman declined repeated requests for an interview.
So far as NCPR’s reporting could determine, the Congresswoman never acknowledged publicly that her concerns about fraud had been addressed by repeated court decisions.
An unprecedented scheme to overturn the election
Meanwhile, the Trump administration put together a plan to delay the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Biden in Congress. On Jan. 4, 2021, Stefanik said again she was on board with Trump’s plan.
“I plan to object to certain contested electors on January 6th,” Stefanik said, in a video posted to her Twitter account.
“Tens of millions of Americans are rightly concerned that the 2020 election featured unprecedented voting irregularities, unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges ignoring state election laws, and a fundamental lack of ballot integrity and ballot security,” she said.
Again, Congresswoman Stefanik was saying this weeks after courts and election officials had found those concerns to be without basis.
“This is being done for cynical political reasons. It’s undermining the integrity of our election system and it’s incredibly dangerous,” said Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of California Irvine.
Hasen said every election has isolated problems, but the 2020 presidential race was “probably the closest watched election in American history.”
“And there have been no reports with any credible evidence of any kind of election malfeasance or irregularity that would have affected the outcome of the presidential election,” Hasen added.
Across the country, even Republican election officials reached the same conclusion. Yet Stefanik defended her embrace of Trump’s conspiracy theories on Jan. 5, 2021, in an appearance on Fox News.
“Does the lack of evidence not bother you?” asked Fox & Friends anchor Steve Doocy.
“I think there’s ample evidence that laws weren’t followed and that there were numerous actions taken by state governors, by secretaries of state that did not follow the letter of the law. Even in a pandemic, Steve, the constitution applies,” Stefanik replied.
The day after that interview was January 6th.
An attack on the U.S. Capitol
With Trump’s encouragement, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol – illegally breaking into the chambers of Congress and forcing lawmakers, including Stefanik, to shelter in place, fearing for their lives – and, crucially, delaying the certification of the vote.
Some of the rioters that day chanted, “hang Mike Pence.” There was a noose set up on the Capitol grounds. Five people died.
Stefanik was on the House floor when it was evacuated. On Twitter that day, she condemned the violence as “unacceptable” and “anti-American,” and she called on Trump to do the same.
But top Republican leaders including Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy went further, blaming Trump directly for inciting the violence and failing to halt it once the insurrection began. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy later said on the floor of Congress.
When Congress reconvened to certify president-elect Biden’s victory, Congresswoman Stefanik used her vote to try again to block the transfer of power.
“Madam Speaker, I rise to support the objection,” she said on the House floor.
In the weeks and months that followed the violence on January 6th, Elise Stefanik would ally herself more and more closely with Donald Trump, a political move that would catapult her to one of the top leadership positions in her party.
Election objections, debunked
Just hours after police cleared the rioters from the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and more than 140 of her Republican colleagues opposed the electoral college certification of Joe Biden’s election.
Two states’ electors were up for a vote to certify – Pennsylvania and Arizona; Stefanik objected to the Pennsylvania results.
But on the House floor that night, she said misleading or untrue things about the vote in four states in total – statements that local and national media outlets and fact-checkers have thoroughly debunked. Among her claims: that it’s routine for members of Congress to object to certifying results of a presidential election.
“There were objections on this floor to the certification of nearly every Republican President in my lifetime – in 1989, in 2001, in 2005, and in 2017,” Stefanik said.
The New York Times rated that statement “misleading.” According to the paper, there weren’t any such objections in 1989. And in those other years – including 2017, when multiple Democrats objected to Trump’s victory – the loser had already conceded. The votes were symbolic.
By contrast, Trump was still saying that he won.
“The level of disinformation is massive,” said Jack McGuire, a political science professor at SUNY Potsdam. He said Stefanik’s decision to embrace election falsehoods is about political ambition.
“Her ambitions within the institution are tied to keeping that right fringe of her party happy. If she doesn’t do that, then, she doesn’t potentially get committee chairs […] and anything else she wants in the institution.”
He said look at what happened to Republicans who didn’t get on board with Trump’s ‘Big Lie’, in particular Congresswoman Liz Cheney from Wyoming, who voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection.
“President Trump claimed for months that the election was stolen, and then apparently set about to do everything he could to steal it himself. And that ended up in an attack on the Capitol. Five people killed that day. That’s the kind of attack that can never happen again,” Cheney told Fox News. “Don’t look past what happened on January 6th.”
Stefanik voted against impeachment, and she launched a campaign to replace Cheney as House Conference Chair.
Riding the ‘Big Lie’ to a big promotion
Even though she had acknowledged in January 2021 that Joe Biden was president, Stefanik kept digging in deeper on the ‘Big Lie’ as she rallied support for the new leadership position. She appeared on right-wing media outlets that were all in on Trump’s narrative – shows like “America First” with Sebastian Gorka, and Steve Bannon’s “War Room.”
“I fully support the audit in Arizona. We want transparency and answers for the American people. What are the Democrats so afraid of?” she said on Bannon’s show in early May, months after Biden had already been in the White House. “Transparency is a good thing. We need to fix these election security issues going into the future.”
At that time, a post-election recount was underway in Maricopa County, Arizona. It was roundly criticized as a partisan exercise. A pro-Trump company called Cyber Ninjas was running the audit, and they were reportedly looking for bamboo fibers – motivated by a baseless conspiracy theory that ballots were smuggled in from China.
But even that audit concluded that President Biden received more votes than former President Trump. The fact that Stefanik still supported it, and doubled down on falsehoods and conspiracy theories, made even some conservatives recoil.
That includes Bill Kristol, a prominent commentator who was one of the founders of the conservative movement. He also started a think-tank called the Foreign Policy Initiative, where Stefanik worked early in her career. Kristol donated to Stefanik when she first ran for Congress.
“This is amazing. Let’s just take a second on this. January 6th she did not vote to overturn the electors in Arizona. Even she thought that was nuts, right? She voted to overturn the electors from Pennsylvania,” Kristol said on MSNBC on May 6, 2021, adding that Stefanik “started out as a reasonable person.”
“Now she’s on Steve Bannon’s show, a guy who himself was indicted and pardoned by Donald Trump […] and she’s on Bannon’s show and she supports the ludicrous Arizona recount. I mean the generation of the party is really astonishing,” Kristol said.
But for Stefanik, it paid off.
On May 14, Republican leaders announced that Stefanik was the new House Conference Chair. She replaced Cheney – becoming the third most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives.
Stoking the flames on Parler
Stefanik continued talking about election audits over the summer. On Parler, a social media site popular with conservatives, Stefanik wrote in July: “Millions of patriots (and myself) are closely observing the forensic audits across the country.”
“The American people want answers, transparency, & secure elections,” her post continued.
“Those are things that would be uncontroversial – transparency and secure elections – everybody wants that,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of rhetoric at Texas A&M University. “But you know, of course, she means that in a specific way.”
Mercieca has spent years studying Donald Trump’s language and tactics. Stefanik’s posts follow some of the same patterns as Trump’s, she said, and that’s likely on purpose.
“’Millions of patriots,’ right? So that’s an ad populum appeal, appealing to the wisdom of the crowd,” Mercieca said.
Stefanik’s post doesn’t say the election was “stolen” or “rigged.” She doesn’t go as far as Trump. But she uses his hashtag, “#SaveAmerica,” and rails against the “far-left.”
And again, it worked. Other Parler users got fired up. One commenter wrote, “We already know the election was stolen.” Another user said, “TRUMP WON in a landslide!”
Undermining the vote in New York
Stefanik’s stoking fears of election instability hasn’t been limited to the 2020 presidential election.
Last fall, there was a ballot referendum to expand voting rights in New York State. Stefanik’s campaign posted an ad on Facebook – warning that “Radical Democrats” are planning “a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.”
“Really interesting phrase. Scary and interesting,” Mercieca said.
The ad shows huge crowds of migrants, reflected in President Biden’s sunglasses. And it says Democrats’ plan to “grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate.”
“It connects with real sociological data about the population and the shift in demographics,” Mercieca said. “It also connects very closely with white nationalist talking points. Over the last 10 years, they’ve really tried to push this idea that the United States is a white nation explicitly.”
Stefanik has previously responded to that criticism, telling Breitbart News, in part: “To equate the Republicans’ long-held policy position to white supremacy is outrageous and shows how desperate the Far Left is.”
Dancing right up to the line
Not all of Stefanik’s statements about voting and elections are false. She’s talked a lot about New York’s 22nd Congressional district – a rare case where there were legitimate voting problems.
It’s the constant drumbeat of questioning elections, in general, that’s dangerous, said Hasen, the election law expert from U.C. Irvine.
“If you tell a lie repeatedly enough and you embellish it with the veneer of telling a factual story […] many people are going to believe it,” Hasen said.
Stefanik is careful to stay just shy of Trump’s most outlandish claims that the election was “rigged” or that he won by a “landslide.”
“That’s the sort of plausible deniability,” said SUNY Potsdam political science professor McGuire. “It’s like, ‘Well, I never said that. Look back at the record.’”
“You dance right up to the line and then you back away. That’s what she does,” McGuire said.
This month, Stefanik continued her focus on issues of “election integrity.”
New York City recently passed a new law allowing more than 800,000 legal non-citizens and “Dreamers” to vote in local elections.
While pro-immigrant groups praised the new policy as a dramatic expansion of democracy, Stefanik has said it’s “unconstitutional” and that “every American should be opposed to this.”
Stefanik’s campaign declined to comment for this story. We reached out multiple times.
Troubling data on the Big Lie’s persistence
Meanwhile, huge swaths of the population believe that Joe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate.
According to a recent poll by the University of Chicago, 62 million Americans think the election was “stolen,” and a third of that group – 21 million people – said they believe violence is justified to restore Trump to the White House.
Trump himself has continued to spread lies and conspiracy theories. “Last year we had a rigged election and the proof is all over the place, we have a lot of proof and they know it’s proof,” Trump said at a rally in Arizona this month.
“They always talk about the ‘Big Lie.’ They’re the ‘Big Lie,’” he added, pointing at the reporters covering the event.