Two Trump supporters who attended the "Stop the Steal" rally ahead of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, including a former Oath Keeper, are behind a ballot initiative campaign that would force yet another "forensic" audit, this time of the 2020 presidential election in Michigan.
Jon Rocha, a Republican congressional candidate and the president of Audit MI, and Jon-Paul Rutan, the campaign's co-founder and treasurer, both attended the protest ahead of the riot. Both men deny going inside the Capitol and say they did nothing wrong. They have not been charged with any crimes.
Rutan told Salon in a phone interview that he is a former member of the Oath Keepers, though he said his membership with the group lapsed in 2020.
"I paid membership, I got a sticker," he said. "Boy, that makes me dangerous."
Eleven members of the Oath Keepers were charged earlier this month with seditious conspiracy for their alleged plot surrounding the certification of President Joe Biden's election win. All have pleaded not guilty. Rutan dismissed the arrests, arguing that the Justice Department only filed the charges after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioned why the DOJ had not charged anyone with insurrection or sedition.
Rutan told Salon that he attended the Capitol demonstration because he "sensed that there was something wrong with the vote." He said he hoped the demonstration would give Congress more time to "investigate and then see if there was any fraud."
Rutan said he saw no violence on Jan. 6 and criticized the media for conflating actual rioters, who he said deserved to be punished, with peaceful protesters who did nothing wrong. He argued that it is similarly wrong when conservatives conflate Black Lives Matter protesters with looters and rioters.
Rutan said he was contacted by the FBI after attending the rally.
"I'm here talking to you and I'm not in jail," he said. "Because I didn't do anything wrong."
Rocha did not respond to a request for comment. Bridge Michigan previously reported that he was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 before launching a primary campaign against Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who voted to impeach Trump after the riot. Rocha told the outlet that he was "too far away" from the Capitol to see what was happening and "didn't even know anybody had broken into the Capitol" until driving away.
Rocha has denied any knowledge of Rutan's Oath Keeper ties but has said he has no have a problem with the group, comparing it to being a member of Black Lives Matter in an interview with the Daily Dot, which first reported links between the Capitol riot and the Michigan ballot initiative. Rocha insisted that the audit initiative was "nonpartisan," while also accusing Michigan officials of refusing to accept 10,000 affidavits from people who claimed they saw something suspicious during the 2020 election.
"That is an absolute travesty, and I don't care which party you're a part of," he said.
The Michigan Board of State Canvassers last week approved summary language for the Audit MI petition last week, though the petition itself must still be approved before the group can begin collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot. The petition would force a "forensic" audit of the 2020 race, even though repeated investigations have found no evidence of any significant irregularities, and would also create criteria to trigger such audits in future elections, according to the Detroit News.
Democrats slammed the campaign as an effort to undermine elections.
"Let's be clear. This movement that spurred the violent and deadly insurrection on our nation's Capitol and resulted in Michigan's vote tallies getting audited over 250 times to date, has nothing to do with uncovering fraud," Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said in a statement. "It's about dismantling reality and democracy alike in order to install, rather than elect, our future cycles of leaders." Barnes called Rutan the "Audit MI ringleader and insurrectionist," saying he was "demanding an Arizona-style audit despite it ultimately netting fewer votes for the candidate these rabid conspiracy theorists are still trying to flip 2020 for and costing taxpayers millions. This pursuit fueled by baseless lies will never end and is dangerous to the future of our state and democracy."
This ballot initiative may never actually make it before the voters, according to Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a former Democratic state lawmaker. A quirk in Michigan's constitution allows the state legislature — currently dominated by Republicans — to enact ballot initiatives by majority vote, with no possibility of veto, once an initiative gathers roughly 340,000 signatures from voters. Republicans are now trying to enact voting restrictions in similar fashion, in an effort to circumvent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's almost certain veto.
"The only reason that would go on the ballot is if the legislature voted it down," Byrum told Salon.
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The push for new voting laws comes even after a Republican-led investigation by the state legislature found "no evidence of widespread or systemic fraud," and even called for legal action against those that used false claims about the election to "raise money or publicity for their own ends." The state also completed 250 election audits involving 1,300 Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan clerks, all of which found no improprieties or errors in the election results. Other states have similarly found no evidence of widespread fraud, including the ill-fated "forensic audit" in Arizona's Maricopa County.
"Yet calls persist from those who have been lied to and taken advantage of by partisan state legislators, national figures, and others for unofficial, illegitimate reviews of the election results," Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement. "Over a year into this grift their goal is now clear. They no longer want only to change the outcome of the 2020 election, but to also undermine citizens' faith in our democracy and dissuade them from being engaged and informed voters in future elections. This small group of grifters and wealthy supporters is pursuing a political strategy that threatens the survival of our democracy, and our nation."
Byrum said she is not surprised that the latest effort is led by Trump supporters who were at the Capitol last January, noting that Rutan, who has run unsuccessfully for sheriff in the past, has a history of promoting conspiracy theories.
"I'm not surprised, as all indications are that he is a conspiracy believer and a proponent of the Big Lie," she said.
The Capitol insurrection last Jan. 6 came two months after the presidential election, and after Trump administration officials, the Justice Department and countless state and local election officials and judges had reported finding no evidence of any kind of fraud that could have affected the outcome.
Rutan, however, insists that he remains agnostic on that point. "I don't know if there was or wasn't" fraud," he said. "Nobody can say whether there was or wasn't." He does not consider the 250 audits conducted by the state of Michigan legitimate, he said. The only "satisfactory" form of audit, Rutan contended, would involve going through the poll books to determine if "more people voted than what we have on the books."
That particular conspiracy theory has been floated many times about many different locations, particularly on right-wing media. Actual turnout data shows there were no instances where more people voted than were registered in any jurisdiction, setting aside a handful of minor reporting errors that were later corrected.
"There's no evidence because there was no fraud," Byrum said, adding that hundreds of audits and recounts have proven that the November 2020 election results are accurate. "It is so frustrating that with all of the evidence presented, these conspiracy believers refuse to admit that they're wrong and refuse to admit that the results are accurate, and that Joe Biden is the president."
Rutan argued that the push to investigate the election is no different from the Justice Department's investigation into allegations of collusion between Trump and Russia.
"We humored the Democrats when they said there was a problem with the 2016 election," he said. "We humored them because we need to investigate if people have concerns about that."
There is not much public appetite to spend taxpayer dollars on endless investigations of an election that happened 14 months ago, and the Audit MI initiative would allow private donations to fund the audit, as did to the Arizona audit. Meanwhile, Republicans are simultaneously pushing the Secure MI Vote initiative, which would ban election clerks from accepting private donations to help conduct elections, as many did in 2020 amid worker and resource shortages caused by the pandemic.
"Funding has been drained from the Bureau of Elections, municipal funding has been decreased," Byrum said. "All of this funds local clerks and our elections."
Those concerned about election integrity, she argued, should instead listen to the clerks that actually administer the elections.
"Local clerks have made requests to the legislature to assist, but the Republicans continue to push other alleged election reforms that would make election administration more difficult, make voting more difficult, and not any more secure," she said. "It seems as though Republicans in Michigan — and this is probably true in many other states — care not what election administrators want or need but rather what their base desires and demands."
Read more on the Republican voter-suppression campaign in Michigan and nationwide: