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Election deniers in Georgia are calling for voting machines to be scrapped

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With just 20 days until voting ends in this year's midterm elections, Georgia is one of many states with high-profile races. And an insidious false narrative has taken hold there among far-right voters. As NPR's Lisa Hagen reports from the Atlanta suburbs, it involves QR codes - you know, those square barcodes that your phone can scan.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: In the last year, election officials around Georgia have gotten an earful about what some say is at the center of an outrageous criminal plot. Here's a sampling from recent public meetings in Forsyth County outside Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: QR code.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: QR codes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: QR code.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Just heard about QR code.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I look at a QR code. I tell you what - I'm not a computer. I can't read one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And I can't read the QR code.

HAGEN: When Georgians vote, they get a printout that lists the candidates they chose, plus a QR code printed onto the page so a machine can scan and count ballots faster. But citizen activists like Gary Johns (ph) insist they've seen proof that Georgians' votes are being systematically flipped by the state's voting machines.

GARY JOHNS: We're being asked to vote on an illegal procedure on machines that have been compromised.

HAGEN: There's no evidence compromised machines altered election results. But when Georgia's voters narrowly backed President Joe Biden in 2020, the state became a hotbed for election conspiracy theories, amplified by Trump loyalists. Since then, many election deniers here have shifted focus to the future. Their demands vary, but one constant is that they want to ditch voting machines for hand-counted paper ballots. But that's a process experts warn would come with more human error and delays, delays that in 2020 were a major complaint of people like Dylan Stephenson (ph), a Forsyth County resident who voiced his suspicions of QR codes at his local election board meeting.

DYLAN STEPHENSON: And just oh, my God, I just saw what I saw. You know, that night, I stayed up all night and saw all of that happening behind the - at 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning.

HAGEN: Georgia lawmakers and election experts have tried to answer questions about the state's voting process. But the audience they're trying to reach has been taught to believe all those experts are either liars or fools. Many of the Georgia activists have taken in hours of instruction from a variety of election-denying speakers who crisscross the country. Among them is former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack.

RICHARD MACK: Of all the conspiracy theories, take all of them put together, times it by 10 and that's how bad everything is.

HAGEN: Mack wants like-minded sheriffs to confiscate ballots after the upcoming election as evidence of this supposed plot. Other speakers encouraged tailgate parties to monitor ballot drop boxes. The idea that election denial is a belief needs an update, says New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She says it's evolved into a set of actions.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Ultimately, the goal of those who are denying elections is to de-legitimize elections in the absolute.

HAGEN: She's an expert on Italian history and sees troubling parallels from the past, specifically with the rise of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s.

BEN-GHIAT: He tried to make elections associated in the public mind with corruption and also threat.

HAGEN: There is little chance these activists will force Georgia to abruptly shift to paper ballots. But for this November, they've come up with a way to avoid the QR codes they so mistrust. Their advice - don't vote early. Don't vote in person on Election Day. Don't mail in an absentee ballot. Instead, plan to apply for absentee ballots and hand-deliver them the evening of Election Day. And if all that should fail to produce a Republican victory, all the more confirmation American elections are rigged. Lisa Hagen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lisa Hagen