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Kathy Barnette’s hunt for election fraud has rippled across the American election denial movement and made her a GOP contender for Senate in Pennsylvania.

The election wasn’t close. Pretty much no one expected Kathy Barnette to win, and there was certainly no shame in losing this one.

But for weeks after an almost 20-point drubbing in a strongly Democratic district in the Philly suburbs, Barnette, the losing Republican candidate, couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t add up.

It started to make sense for her, she recalled, as she was watching TV in late November, about a month after her loss to Democratic Congresswoman Madeleine Dean. Across the country in Arizona, a man was claiming as many as 306,000 “fake people” had voted in that state’s election. And he said he had spreadsheets to prove it.

Of course, “fake people” don’t vote in the United States. When Bobby Piton made that baseless charge — as Barnette watched from 2,300 miles away — it was an unremarkable moment in the evolution of Donald Trump’s political movement into one increasingly defined by his lies of a stolen election.

A few days later, Barnette said, she contacted Piton, an Illinois financial planner who spoke of “phantom” voters inflating Joe Biden’s numbers. With his data, Barnette and her supporters started knocking on hundreds of doors in the Democratic stronghold of Montgomery County, looking for evidence her defeat was tainted.

It was the beginning of a hunt for voter fraud that rippled across the American election denial movement.

The hunt helped launch the career of a once-obscure Cincinnati schoolteacher-turned-election denier whose ideas have now reached Trump himself. It led to meetings between Barnette’s team and state lawmakers as they undertook a massive election overhaul. It helped stir the frenzy for a new, partisan election investigation in Pennsylvania. It drew in a programmer who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy — and eventually attracted Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and most indefatigable election denier of them all.

And as Barnette energized the denial movement with her futile hunt for voter fraud on Philadelphia’s Main Line, which hasn’t been previously reported, the movement elevated her.

She’s now running in Pennsylvania’s critical 2022 Senate race, raising more money than better-known opponents. She’s become a familiar face in the MAGA media universe, with regular appearances on Newsmax and OAN. She even got an endorsement from Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who’s become an icon on the pro-Trump right.

Meanwhile, two Barnette advisers are now working with a group that’s pushing Pennsylvania lawmakers for an Arizona-style partisan election review. Another parlayed his work into a job for Lindell. And Piton worked on the Arizona probe, collaborated with a prominent QAnon figure, and is now running for Senate in Illinois.

Barnette’s hunt shows how deep the election fervor runs in Republican politics, and how entangled it is with other movements like QAnon. It also reflects what researchers call a growing problem: the proliferation of misleading or outright bogus statistics used to manipulate public opinion, a kind of faux professionalization of election denial.

“It gives this veneer of scientific rigor to the sort of natural impulse people have, that they don’t want to agree that this person they got really excited about voting against … actually won the election,” said Justin Grimmer, a Stanford political scientist who studies election misinformation.

In an interview this spring, Barnette downplayed her efforts to uncover fraud. She said she hired Piton, and later the election denier who eventually reached Trump’s and Lindell’s orbit, only to better understand voter registration data.

“Running in this congressional race, I believe I had a duty to try to get as much information as possible,” she said.

Barnette, 49, said she accepts the results of her campaign and doesn’t think Pennsylvania’s elections are rigged — despite the fact that both analysts she hired concluded exactly that.

“I certainly don’t believe that that is the case,” she said, pointing to the Senate bid she launched in April. “Otherwise why would I even bother running?”

But Barnette also echoes and has sometimes supported Trump’s election fiction. She brought supporters with her to Washington for the Jan. 6 Trump rally that turned into a bloody attack on the Capitol.

“Something horribly wrong took place in this election,” she told a conservative podcaster days before the Capitol riot. “You might as well not run for dogcatcher in my county.”

In a statement last week, Barnette dismissed Piton as “an unscrupulous individual” and said she “cut ties with him” after he was “spouting crazy theories on social media.” She did not address her work with other election deniers.

» READ MORE: Supporting Trump’s election lies is becoming a litmus test for Pennsylvania Republicans seeking higher office

The political incentive to further the stolen election myth has only grown stronger with Trump’s grip on the GOP.

Sean Parnell, a friend of Donald Trump Jr. who sued to throw out 2.6 million mail ballots after losing his own Pennsylvania congressional race, is now also running for Senate. State Sen. Doug Mastriano is leading the charge for a new election review, making him the de facto leader of the movement in Pennsylvania and an early GOP front-runner for governor.

When Mastriano appeared at a June event with Flynn — just weeks after Flynn called for a Myanmar-style coup in the U.S. while speaking at a QAnon conference — the senator got a round of applause calling for an election probe.

Then Mastriano introduced the featured speaker: Kathy Barnette.

Looking for ‘phantom voters’

Leaders of both parties expected Dean to cruise last year in Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District. It spans most of Montgomery County, where Biden won 63% of the vote. Dean won by 27 percentage points in 2018.

Barnette is used to overcoming long odds. “I understand the providential set of circumstances that would allow a little Black girl who grew up on a pig farm in southern Alabama to be standing here today,” she says in a 2020 campaign video.

She has written and spoken of being a “byproduct of rape” when her mother was 11, an experience that helped shape her views as a Christian and an abortion opponent. When Harrisburg Republicans introduced antiabortion legislation in March, Barnette was there to tell her story.

“I believe I had a duty to try to get as much information as possible.”

Kathy Barnette, U.S. Senate candidate

She served in the U.S. Army Reserves, worked in finance, and moved to Pennsylvania about seven years ago. She became a conservative commentator and now lives in Huntingdon Valley, where she homeschools her two children.

Barnette didn’t follow a traditional political path. But she understood the new right-wing media landscape. As she went to vote in 2014, she posted a video of herself criticizing remarks Michelle Obama had made urging Black people to vote Democratic. “Yes, I’m Black, but I am not voting Democrat,” Barnette says in the video.

Fox News reached out, and Fox & Friends appearances soon followed.

She published a book last year titled Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America, in which she recounts her “journey off the Democrat plantation.” She argues Trump fought harder for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln — a claim Trump often made himself. If she wins in 2022, she would be both the first woman and the first Black person elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania.

Barnette ran unopposed in the 2020 primary. Dean won the general election by 19 percentage points. While Pennsylvania waited days for results in the close presidential contest, the Associated Press called her race hours after polls closed on Election Day.

But that wasn’t the end for Barnette. She sued to throw out mail ballots with problems like missing dates that elections officials allowed voters to fix. A judge expressed skepticism and Barnette withdrew the lawsuit.

She also allied herself with efforts to overturn Trump’s loss in Pennsylvania, including pressing lawmakers to ignore the will of the voters and send a pro-Trump slate to the Electoral College. She traveled to Gettysburg for the Nov. 25 GOP hearing where Rudy Giuliani held his phone up to the mic for Trump to dial in.

» READ MORE: Trump and his allies tried to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results for months. Here are the highlights.

It was Piton’s speech in Arizona five days later — at another hearing featuring Giuliani — that caught Barnette’s eye. Piton, 45, claimed Arizona’s voter rolls were tainted. His theory revolved around what he called “U voters” — those who don’t specify their gender when they register. (In Pennsylvania, when a voter leaves that field blank, it’s entered as “undesignated.”)

Using census and voter registration data, Piton claimed to have developed an algorithm that could predict whether these “U” voters were “phantom voters” ― people who were dead or otherwise ineligible. Barnette hired him.

Piton told her that as many as 120,000 voters in the 4th District were “potentially suspect,” and gave her a list of about 1,600. Barnette and a team of about 100 volunteers spent four days in December knocking on doors. About a third of the homes they visited “had something awry going on,” Barnette said. For example, she said, at one listed as an address for four people who cast ballots, the couple who answered the door said they weren’t citizens so they didn’t vote.

Barnette wouldn’t detail her findings to The Inquirer. But a multitude of studies have long made clear voter fraud is exceedingly rare. And two non-citizens living at a house where four voters are listed as presiding isn’t evidence of fraud anyway. There are nine million voters in Pennsylvania, and they often don’t update their registered address as soon as they move.

By late December, Piton was getting antsy. There was a dispute over payment, including whether Barnette had agreed to a $50,000 bonus if he helped overturn her loss. And Piton wanted her to make his data public.

In a Dec. 27 email, Barnette told Piton she’d already paid him $5,000 and he’d get another $5,000 once he explained how his algorithm worked. She asked him to stop sharing their work on social media and said she “never agreed” to a $50,000 bonus.

Piton posted images of this email and others months later on YouTube as their relationship soured to the point that he never cashed the $5,000 check she did pay him.

Barnette didn’t dispute the messages’ authenticity. Piton didn’t respond to questions.

“I’m elevating the research now and we’re about to expose it to a higher and more effective level,” Barnette told him in a Dec. 27 message. “But you need to stop revealing our hand.”

The scientist and his algorithm

Douglas G. Frank acknowledges he’s no elections expert.

A 60-year-old scientist and Cincinnati school teacher, he has a PhD in chemistry, according to a resume submitted in a court case. Frank said he spent much of 2020 modeling COVID-19 data with his students. He posted charts and analyses claiming the government was vastly overstating the risks. At one point last summer, he wrongly argued in a widely viewed Facebook post that the virus was fading in the U.S.

Frank attracted 150,000 followers on social media before his accounts were suspended.

Kathy Barnette had seen the posts and spoken with Frank about the pandemic. So when she wanted someone else to scrutinize her defeat, she turned to him.

“I don’t think she thought of me as an election person, which I’m not,” Frank said in an interview.

Still, using his own methodology, Frank said, he reached conclusions similar to Piton’s: there were potentially 120,000 “phantom” voters on Montgomery County’s voter rolls. Barnette’s campaign paid Frank $5,000.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election by Trump and his allies

Frank claimed that patterns in demographics and voter data were evidence an algorithm manipulated the results in multiple battleground states.

His analysis was later included in a lawsuit alleging fraud in Michigan, which a judge dismissed in May. A panel commissioned by the GOP-led Michigan Senate said in June that Frank’s conclusions weren’t sound. He cites incorrect data based on outdated census estimates, the panel said, and many counties he claimed were hacked “do not even have modems or make any online connection to submit results.”

Experts who looked into his claims said they were fundamentally flawed and relied on both a misunderstanding of election data and on basic statistical errors.

Frank claims that the number of registered voters is suspiciously high, for example, but that ignores the fact that voter registration databases contain inactive voters, such as those who move away without updating their information, said Will Adler, senior technologist at the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology.

And Frank’s main claim — that he’s too easily and accurately able to predict turnout based on voter roll and census data — is based on a statistical mistake, said Grimmer, the Stanford political scientist, who worked with a graduate student to review Frank’s work for The Inquirer. They replicated his analysis in more than 40 states and found there was nothing unique to swing states and that his analysis returns essentially the same results regardless of what they input.

But for those already inclined to suspect fraud, Frank’s charts, talk of sixth-degree polynomials, and PhD credentials are persuasive enough.

They’ve even drawn notice in Trump’s orbit.

In late June, as thousands of supporters waited for Trump in Ohio at his first post-presidency rally, Frank himself warmed up the crowd with a presentation on voter fraud.

His PowerPoint included a slide on Pennsylvania’s 4th District.

‘A big team’

In January, Kathy Barnette and Douglas Frank took her fraud claims to Harrisburg. A GOP-led committee was preparing to hold a series of election hearings. Two Republican members, State Reps. Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan, agreed to meet them separately over Zoom.

“We were a big team,” Douglas Frank recalled. “I was coming in with mathematics.”

“And they were confirming my predictions on the ground with forensic evidence,” he said of Barnette and the lawmakers.

The goal, Frank said, was to reverse Barnette’s loss in court.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking Trump’s false claims about Pennsylvania’s election before his supporters attacked the Capitol

Ryan and Diamond had joined dozens of other Republican lawmakers in urging Congress to overturn Biden’s Pennsylvania win. Ryan had also drawn attention for an analysis that said there were about 200,000 more votes counted than people who voted in the state — a faulty claim often repeated, including by Trump, based on incomplete data.

Diamond, a conservative firebrand who opposed coronavirus mask mandates last year, said Frank was “absolutely helpful” in developing questions to ask at the hearings. Those hearings became the basis for a Republican-written election overhaul that passed in June before being vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

“I was surprised,” Diamond said of Barnette. “She got some people together to go out and knock on doors.”

Diamond said their meetings helped “lead us to some puzzling and/or troubling discoveries” about the state’s voter registration system. In the hearings, Diamond and Ryan pressed state elections officials about a method third-party groups can use to submit voter registrations online. They also questioned whether groups had been authorized to apply for mail ballots on behalf of voters.

Third-party groups can’t do that, officials said, and the online tool works just like an in-person voter drive: All kinds of groups regularly help people register. The tool submits applications but, like a paper form, does not directly change voter data.

Ryan said he’s concerned county elections officials didn’t adequately vet those registrations to determine eligibility. But Frank went further, claiming vendors may have tampered with the voter rolls. State officials say the process is secure.

Among the many changes in the vetoed GOP election bill: prohibiting online voter registration through third-party groups.

State Rep. Seth Grove, the bill’s author, said he has ”never been in contact with Doug Frank,” nor has his committee, where the legislation was drafted, “ever worked with him in any capacity.”

While Diamond and Ryan offered a sympathetic ear, by mid-February it was clear they wouldn’t go public with Barnette and Frank’s claims, Frank said.

Ryan said Frank’s ideas “seemed very sound and logical,” but that he lacked the expertise to fully understand them. Ultimately, Ryan said, Frank’s approach “was so substantially different than the approach I was using, they weren’t able to be melded together. I didn’t go down that path.”

Barnette ultimately did not bring a lawsuit based on Frank’s findings.

“I think she and [Ryan] and [Diamond] agreed that she was never gonna get the courts and the legislature to address her election,” Frank said.

“And she’s running for Senate instead,” he added. “That was the decision she made — to not look back but to look forward.”

The hunt continues — and evolves

After coming up short in Harrisburg, Barnette found another partner to elevate her cause.

Mike Lindell said he met Barnette several months ago in Washington. By then, the MyPillow CEO had established himself as one of the country’s foremost purveyors of election conspiracy theories. He visited Trump multiple times in his final days as president.

But even Lindell was impressed by Barnette.

“I never heard of anyone being so tenacious,” he said in an interview in June. “She is just an amazing person.”

Barnette helped introduce Lindell to Frank, and in March the pillow executive interviewed the scientist for a documentary that features Michael Flynn. Lindell also interviewed Frank for a video in which they discuss Pennsylvania’s 4th District.

When that video was released in April, it quickly got attention on a QAnon message board called The Great Awakening. The video “features evidence I personally worked on with Dr. Frank,” a user wrote under the account @Brioux.

“Together we laid the basis for what Dr. Frank ultimately discovered to be algorithms controlling the election outcome,” @Brioux wrote.

The @Brioux account doesn’t disclose the user’s identity — the cloak of anonymity offered by the Internet helped propel QAnon in the first place. But it appears to belong to Vico Bertogli III, a 29-year-old programmer, onetime Abington school board candidate, and staffer on Barnette’s 2020 campaign.

Bertogli has said on Facebook that he uses the same handle on Gab, a social media platform popular on the right. Both accounts feature similar pro-QAnon content. Bertogli didn’t respond to multiple phone and email messages, and he declined to speak to a reporter who came to his house.

Adherents of QAnon — a movement that became familiar to many who watched footage of the Capitol riot — believe Trump’s presidency was part of an epic fight against a global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Some followers were losing faith after predictions of Democrats being arrested en masse by Trump failed to materialize, and one Great Awakening user asked @Brioux whether “meaningful action” might be taken as a result of his work with Frank. “I trust the plan,” @Brioux responded.

“We’re trying to get this information out to the public now,” he added.

Bertogli has been doing that by collaborating with a group of pro-Trump activists pushing for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania. That group, Audit the Vote PA, also met with Doug Frank and has received free legal advice from Andrew Teitelman, a Barnette campaign lawyer.

In May, Audit the Vote emailed state lawmakers with “a summary sheet of data that we received as a result of our effort working with Dr. Doug Frank and data analyst Vico Bertogli,” according to a copy of the message the group posted on the messaging app Telegram.

The group also met with State Sen. Dave Argall, who chairs a committee overseeing elections and has voiced support for a new probe. And this month, State Sen. Doug Mastriano demanded election-related equipment from three counties, including Philadelphia, for his “forensic investigation.” Mastriano appeared with Audit the Vote leaders at a “Western PA Patriot Party” later in the month.

As Frank and other election deniers work to send their own to Washington and Harrisburg, they’re also making common cause with other far-right activists.

Over the July Fourth weekend, a few dozen such activists convened in Philadelphia to “deliver the peaceful and legal revolution that will save our beloved republic.” Gathered across the street from where the colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776, they called it the “Third Continental Congress.”

“It’s funny how things all come back to this part of the country. This is where things are born,” Frank told the crowd while standing next to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was pardoned by Trump. “I would not have even entered into the whole election discussion had I not been invited to look at the Montgomery County data.”

Meanwhile, Bobby Piton told The Daily Beast he worked in an unofficial capacity on the Arizona election review. He’s also collaborated with Ron Watkins, the subject of a recent HBO documentary series that suggests he is “Q,” the leader of QAnon (Watkins denies that). Piton has said he doesn’t believe in the QAnon conspiracy. He continues to lash out at Barnette on social media while he runs for Senate in Illinois, accusing her of hiding fraud and suggesting she might be a secret Democratic plant who cost Trump the election in Pennsylvania.

Barnette says she’s focused on her campaign. She raised almost $600,000 in the quarter that ended June 30, outpacing the two GOP contenders who have received the most attention, Jeff Bartos and Sean Parnell.

In June, Barnette supporters held a fundraiser at the Montgomery County home of Stan Casacio, a radio host who served as her campaign treasurer last year. Listed as “special guests” on the invitation were Doug Mastriano and Kimberly Klacik, who lost a Baltimore congressional race by 40 points last year and then investigated her defeat.

Earlier that day, Casacio had organized something of a virtual Kathy Barnette reunion on his show, bringing on Teitelman, Frank, and leaders of Audit the Vote PA.

They aired their grievances about the 2020 election, encouraged listeners to help send Barnette to Washington, and thanked the person who brought them all together in the first place.

As Teitelman put it: “It’s because of Kathy Barnette.”

Staff contributors
Reporting: Andrew Seidman
Editing: Dan Hirschhorn, Jonathan Lai
Illustration: George Wylesol, For The Inquirer
Digital: Sam Morris, Patricia Madej
Copy editing: Brian Leighton