The latest right-wing media conspiracy theory about the vote count in the presidential election is both bizarre and highly specific: that a government computer system called “Hammer” and a software program known as “Scorecard” were used to alter the vote totals in key states, literally subtracting votes from President Donald Trump and adding numbers to President-elect Joe Biden. And now this absurd claim has made its way from the fringe of far-right outlets to the airwaves of Fox News.
The Daily Beast reports that this claim now originates from Dennis Montgomery, a former intelligence contractor whose computer programs in the early 2000s — purporting to find hidden Al Qaeda messages in broadcasts from the Qatar-based news network Al-Jazeera — were exposed as a fraud by the French government after it caused several international passenger flights to the United States to be grounded or turned around (and the Bush administration reportedly “even considered shooting down the planes based on Montgomery’s information”). He has also worked with Joe Arpaio, the disgraced, Trump-pardoned former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and he filed a lawsuit in 2017 against former President Barack Obama alleging an illegal surveillance program that the judge dismissed as “a veritable anthology of conspiracy theorists’ complaints.”
This newest theory appeared via a conspiracy site called The American Report a few days before the election and claimed that the Hammer and Scorecard technologies are an outgrowth of Montgomery’s counterterrorism intelligence work — developing the same computer systems that were revealed to be frauds.
The right-wing media’s assorted conspiracy theories since Election Day have hinged on Trump’s earlier reported leads in key states evaporating after days of counting mail-in ballots — a phenomenon dubbed the “red mirage” which was predicted for months due to increased interest in mail-in voting among Democratic-leaning voters as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Just to be clear, though: The mirage has occurred precisely because of decisions made by Republican officials, not Democrats. In the key state of Pennsylvania, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature did not pass changes requested by counties to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day. As a result, they began the day with a tremendous backlog of envelopes to sort through, thus causing Trump to apparently lead among voters on Election Day before the mail-in votes could be sorted and counted.
Last week on Election Day, while voting was still going on, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s War Room livestream featured an appearance from retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney to promote Montgomery’s conspiracy theory. A fixture of right-wing media, McInerney has previously promoted the racist “birther” conspiracy theory, circulated allegations about the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, and he was banned from appearing anymore on Fox News in 2018 after he proclaimed that torture “worked on” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, saying, “That's why they call him ‘Songbird John.’”
McInerney claimed that this Hammer system was “still up and running, Steve, I’m sorry to say,” and that the Democratic National Committee “has been using this tool” in the election to change the votes in the election. He also claimed that this system was used against Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. McInerney also said that there was an attempt to use it against Trump in 2016 “and I can’t say on this radio why it failed, but it failed,” though it has been made “more robust” since then. (These statements echoed claims made in The American Report’s online posting.)
“These are all treasonous activities,” he added later. “And we cannot let them do it tonight. When the count starts coming in is when they put this software, Scorecard, on it. And that’s the danger that we’re facing.”
In the days since the election, this conspiracy theory has picked up steam with appearances on Fox Business by Sidney Powell, the attorney for Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Powell has previously circulated conspiracy theories about special counsel Robert Mueller, the Federal Reserve, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros -- the latter being a frequent target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories from the far right.
Powell appeared on Friday’s edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight and laid out the expansive theories. An approving Dobbs later said: “That's called intervention in our elections irrespective, I guess, if they were Russia or China, we'd refer to them as meddling, but it is intervention, and it's also crooked as hell, rigging this election -- no matter the jurisdiction, whether it is Michigan or Georgia, wherever it might be.”
Powell appeared again Sunday morning with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo, claiming that “they also used an algorithm to calculate the votes they would need to flip, and they used the computers to flip those votes from Biden to — I mean, from Trump to Biden, and from other Republican candidates to their competitors also.”
She also named a specific other Republican, Senate candidate John James in Michigan, who supposedly had victory stolen away from him in this way. (Incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters won by a margin of 1.5 percentage points, with a lead of almost 90,000 raw votes.)
“It wasn’t just President Trump, there were many people affected by this,” Powell added. “We have got to fight tooth and nail in federal court to expose this abject fraud, and the conspiracy behind it, and get a recount and audits in every place it's needed — which is, frankly, most of the country.”
When they returned from a commercial break, Bartiromo claimed that “voting irregularities” involved Dominion Voting Systems, a vendor of many of the voting machines used across the country. (A mistake with data collection and uploading from a county in Michigan, which was spotted and resolved, has led to conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems circulating on sites such as The Gateway Pundit and Breitbart.)
Powell then made the bizarre claim that Biden had openly declared he was committing a mass voter fraud scheme.
Powell also alleged irregularities across several key states from hundreds of thousands of ballots that were cast solely for Biden and not the rest of the Democratic ticket further down the ballot. (While this “undervote” in down-ballot races is one of several routine occurrences in American elections, this topic has become the basis for a rather cartoonish theory in right-wing media: alleging that Democratic fraudsters were in a hurry and only had enough time to falsely mark votes for Biden on the faked ballots, rather than fill out the whole Democratic ticket.)
These strange theories inched ever closer into what passes for the conservative mainstream on Monday, when Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade asked Fox News contributor and longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove about it.
“Sidney Powell has a lot of respect — she came out — in legal circles,” Kilmeade claimed. “She came out and said, ‘I’m going to look at the 450,000 ballots found with only Biden's name checked.’ She goes, ‘I'm also going to examine the software from Hammer and Scorecard used to — that could be used to flip votes from Trump to Biden.’ Do you want to talk about that?”
Rove first explained that it’s “normal” in a presidential election for there to be a number of people who just vote for president on the ballot, then leave the rest blank.
But rather than dismiss outright a conspiracy theory about votes being deliberately changed, Rove pivoted to talk about software glitches that have been known to occur from time to time, and which are caught when the systems are given further scrutiny during the routine double-checking of the vote totals.
“The software -- look, there are software problems,” Rove said. “Antrim County, Michigan, which is a Republican county, discovered that there was a bug in the software. And I'm confident the moment they discovered that there was a bug, everybody who was using that software jumped on top of it to see if they had a similar problem emerge in their count. But this happens as we move into the electronic age.”
While it is true that the occasional software glitch pops up — and is caught in the routine processes of the vote count — the migration of far-out conspiracy theories from the online fringes and into Fox News is more a feature than a bug of the network’s function for conservative media in the electronic age.