Election denier Douglas Frank presents conspiracies in Great Falls, meets with elections officer

Some in the crowd push back against conspiracies

By: - August 30, 2023 9:20 pm

Election conspiracist Douglas Frank speaks in Great Falls on Aug. 29, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

GREAT FALLS– Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant sat in the third row from the back of a filled lecture hall at Great Falls College on Tuesday night to hear a presentation from election conspiracist Douglas Frank.

Frank is known nationally as an elections skeptic who has toured the nation giving hundreds of presentations to push false and unfounded conspiracy theories surrounding election machines and urge audiences to “wake up” and investigate “fraud” in their communities.

“In the end you don’t win with evidence,” Frank told the crowd. “You win with a movement.”

Frank’s theories, rooted in the baseless denial of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory, have been debunked as meaningless, yet he still draws crowds. An estimated 90 people attended in Great Falls.

Prior to taking her seat, Merchant confirmed Frank visited her office earlier in the day — a meeting Frank referred to throughout his presentation. She told the Daily Montanan it was “interesting hearing what he had to say” during their meeting and was eager to hear more.

“You guys already have a lot of activity in this area; you’ve just replaced your county clerk, right?” Frank said. “I always encourage the communities, especially at the beginning – cooperate with your clerk, work with your clerk – but you just have somebody extra good to work with.”

Merchant, who is known in the community as an election denier, said following the presentation she had a lot of information to digest and wanted to verify and look into Frank’s claims more. She said being a clerk gave her a leg up understanding the processes Frank discussed.

“Although, still, all those graphs, I gotta think about that,” she said, speaking to the lengthy presentation and all she had to chew over.

Frank claims to have data that proves non-governmental organizations – like The Center for Tech and Civic Life , which received $350 million in donations from Mark Zuckerburg, which spurred the “Zuckerbucks” conspiracy – are involved in stuffing ballot boxes. He said he doesn’t want machines running before polls are closed because “the machines tell the bad guys what the tallies are before the election.”

He asked the crowd to organize and conduct investigations to present to Merchant and Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter in order for them to “verify” the groundwork they conduct and not add to their respective workloads.

Election deniers have been active in Great Falls since the 2020 election but, prior to Merchant, no irregularities had ever been found.

Spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office Richie Melby said elections are safe in Montana and have become even safer with recent legislation, including a law that allows county commissions to request post-election audits. He pointed to several election best practices the state follows, including public pre-election testing of voting equipment; using tabulating equipment that doesn’t connect to the internet and paper ballots; post-election audits; cybersecurity training for state and local election officials; and physical security.

Merchant started working as Clerk and Recorder earlier this year after beating out 16-year incumbent Rina Moore in November by less than 40 votes. Merchant had a court-appointed election monitor overseeing a library mill levy election earlier this year after mishaps during the school board election, including voters receiving multiple ballots. There’s still an open lawsuit against her and the county alleging the mishandling of flood and irrigation district elections in May.

Part of Frank’s theory is claiming that voter rolls are controlled by the state and argues they should be controlled locally.

“You need to control your own rolls, get the state out,” he said.

He said this was part of his discussion with Merchant earlier that day.

Merchant said following the event she would look into what other counties are doing but that “local is always better.”

Merchant said what she thought people needed to know from her conversation with Frank and his presentation is that they should “be aware.”

“Like he said, ‘Wake up.’ Look into things and investigate it for yourself and see what you find.”

Frank had his phone seized by the FBI last year alongside frequent collaborator MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell as part of an investigation into Colorado Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, whom Frank referred to during the presentation as “the first clerk I ever red pilled.” Peters was later indicted on federal charges for tampering with election equipment, and sentenced in a separate obstruction charge.

In a phone interview, Associate Professor of Political Science at Carroll College Jeremy Johnson said Frank has been peddling conspiracies about elections and voting machines around the country, stoking anger and mistrust in institutions, and that he’s seen no evidence any of Frank’s claims are accurate. He said fraud is rare in Montana and when people are caught, they suffer severe consequences.

He said it’s not shocking Frank came to Montana, as he tends to go anywhere he can get a soapbox, but maybe thought because of the demographic makeup of the state, people may be more receptive. (Frank also said his father lives in Montana.)

As far as what it could mean for Frank holding court with Merchant, Johnson said election officials have to follow the law.

“​​All of them have to follow the law, and that’s what they need to do,” Johnson said.

Frank said the reason he went to Great Falls was because people at an event in Gallatin County asked him to come up to Cascade County.

Frank previously met with Attorney General Austin Knudsen in a meeting arranged by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, whom Frank described as his “favorite legislator.”

“We hacked into all Montana elections, right in front of his face,” Frank said of his meeting with Knudsen. But nothing came of the meeting, something Frank said was due to pressure from Republican party leadership or “establishment Republicans.”

Knudsen’s office did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

On Tuesday, Frank wore his signature American flag bowtie, shaking nearly every attendees’ hand prior to the presentation, and was fresh off a fishing trip with his father, who lives in Hamilton. He shared pictures of the two of them smiling in front of the ranch where the TV series “Yellowstone” is filmed, saying his father knows the owner of the property.

An election fraud summit was held in Hamilton earlier this summer that featured a speaker who said his data was based on Frank’s method.

Like at the Hamilton event, a handful of dissenters showed up at the event in Great Falls.

Frank told the crowd they needed to grab their rifles and “meet Antifa in the street,” to which one attendee asked, “Why are you preaching anger?”

Another attendee responded: “He’s preaching the truth!”

The same man then said there’s no fraud in elections, receiving boos from the crowd.

Later, another attendee said that the county is responsible for making sure the signatures on the ballots match their records, and asked Merchant if she missed ballots if so many are allegedly fraudulent. Another woman responded that she sent in a ballot with a wrong signature “just to see if it would go through.”

“But that doesn’t add an extra ballot,” the first woman said.

Another woman, Nancy Donovan, said she felt it was easiest and safest to walk in and vote– an applause line.

“I wouldn’t even mind testing it against the machines, like run the machine count, run a hand count. I’d love to see that,” Donovan told the Daily Montanan after the event. “I think that would make everybody feel a lot better about our elections locally.”

Frank later said it was rare for him to see dissent in the crowd, but that he welcomed opposition. He said Donovan and the woman who argued saw eye-to-eye after agreeing a hand count alongside a machine count would be acceptable. That solution doesn’t jive for Frank, as his theory claims there are fake ballots, and counting them twice wouldn’t solve the problem in his eyes.

When asked about the accuracy of hand counts – how human error causes the process to take longer and has been noted by officials in Cascade County and beyond to be less accurate – he claimed to have seen machines make mistakes as well.

As a nearly full moon rose over the parking lot of the Montana State University offshoot campus in Great Falls, Frank stayed after to talk with folks after the event got cut short due to a venue time-limit after speaking for more than two hours.

He made his way back to his rental car, pocketing about $320 in cash donations that he said were going towards the car and his hotel room.

“I don’t do this for the money,” he said.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.