Welcome to Colorado State University’s new podcast, The Audit, featuring conversations with CSU faculty on everything from research to current events. Just as auditing a class provides a fun way to explore a new subject or field, The Audit allows listeners to explore the latest works from the experts at CSU.
The film “Democracy Vs. The Big Lie: The Truth Behind Mail-in Voting” looks
at the controversy over mail-in voting during the 2020 U.S. election, including the Jan. 6 insurrection when more than 2000 rioters breached the nation’s capital after months of false accusations — including from then-President Donald Trump — that the election had been stolen.
The film — co-written, directed and produced by Colorado State University Journalism and Media Communication Instructors Steve Weiss and Jesse Grace, and narrated by actor Alec Baldwin — features interviews with election officials and politicians from both sides of the aisle, along with the CSU researchers Mike Humphrey and David Wolfgang.
Focusing on the key states of Texas, Colorado and Arizona, the documentary looks at each one’s election process, taking a behind-the-scenes look at how mail-in ballots are processed and what systems each state has in place.
Since its release, the film has been making the rounds in the festival circuit, including a recent screening at the Awareness Film Festival, and received awards for best feature film at both the Political Film Festival and the Political Feedback Film Festival. Next up, CSU’s own Straayer Center for Public Service Leadership is hosting a special screening, along with a panel discussion with the filmmakers on Nov. 3.
Audit host Stacy Nick recently spoke with Weiss and Grace about the project to find out more about the process behind making the film and what it was like to find themselves with a story ending that no one could have seen coming.
This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about how this project got started.
Steve Weiss: The story behind the story is that it wasn’t an intention to directly take this on at the level that ended up being. This really was something that we were approached by the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media, also known as the Colorado Film Commission. And it was the second project we worked on with them. We had just finished a project during COVID on how music was coming back after COVID, and it was nominated for an Emmy. They were happy with the project. We were happy with the project. And we really thought this was going to be a COVID-related project to follow it up. And we were working with the National Vote at Home Institute, who had come to the Film Commission to talk about some of the issues associated with mail-in voting. And at that point, when they contacted us, we really did see it more as a here’s how mail-in voting is going to assist the election this year, this is what we’re expecting to see. And they were in the middle of making a national appeal to try to get mail-in voting all across the country, they were going to launch that a few months later. So that was our intention, to really do a mail-in voting during COVID times, how that was changing the way we were going to vote. And then President Trump entered the picture and said, mail-in voting is corrupt and that it’s not a way we should go. So that turned it for us, and our first version stayed pretty close to our original intention. But the further we got into it, the more we talked with people who said this is becoming a bigger and bigger controversy by day.
Did you have any inclination that that was happening? What was that like to watch this story shift so dramatically?
Weiss: We watched it on a daily basis. There were a lot of times that I would wake up and there would be an email from Jesse saying, “Did you see last night’s news?” Or sending me a link to a clip from Trump that he had made a comment on his way to the helicopter because he really went after this, May is really when it started taking place. And so, we saw it shift in front of us and we shifted with it. I mean, we both are journalists by trade before we taught here at CSU, so we were used to following a story and we were used to accepting the fact that there is a bigger story than the one we were looking at. So, we embraced it, honestly, and realized we had to expand what we were going to do.
What is the ultimate goal of this project?
Jesse Grace: The main thing is just to raise awareness. We didn’t come and approach this film with partisan objectives or trying to persuade people into thinking a certain way by any means. It’s just to raise awareness and build discussion around this topic. We want people to do their own research. We want people to see the film and look into it more. Don’t just take our word for it. Go past the headlines that you’re reading on the news and actually do your own research and figure out what’s best for you. There’s a lot of distrust in the system, which is very unfortunate. And not just distrusting it because you read a sketchy headline but distrust it if you found genuine evidence that people are conspiring against the system or trying to commit voter fraud. We just wanted to raise awareness and get people out to vote.
Since the film’s debut this summer, what kind of reaction are you seeing from audiences?
Grace: I think one of our most exciting ones is, you know, a former colleague of ours watched the film and he signed up to be an election judge afterwards. He’s like, “Wow, this really moved me. I want to get involved with this.” And I wouldn’t say, knock on wood, we’ve seen much negative feedback. There’s definitely been a few Facebook comments that haven’t seen the film and made comments like, “Oh, how can you do a film on this lie?” But as far as people actually seeing it, they were just surprised, like, “Oh, wow, I forgot about all this controversy that happened. I remember the most recent stuff in the most chaotic parts.” But while we forgot about all this evidence and all these news stories that led up to it and things that everybody said.
One of the things that I kept coming back to when I was watching the film was just how long we’ve been using mail-in ballots to vote, even as far back as during the Civil War. How is something we’d taken for granted as just a way of making voting more accessible turned into such a political lightning rod?
Weiss: I think it really has to do with the fact that even though it’s been going on for so long, and even though it’s been going on very well in a number of states — it still has been in a limited number of states or basically six states that have been doing it very successfully without controversy — I think it was when COVID forced this into an acceptance literally across the country, or at least an option across the country, that it started making people nervous. And one of the biggest objections we heard from as we interviewed Republicans who were objecting to it is that not that they totally distrusted it, but they just didn’t understand it or weren’t familiar enough with it, and they just didn’t like the idea that it wasn’t going to be looked at carefully. Now, skeptics on the Democratic side were saying, well, those Republicans are more worried about people voting and how it affects the vote because it is proven to be so effective. But I think it was just the fact that a lot of the country and the president made it a lightning rod without a doubt. I mean, he’s the one that elevated it way beyond what anybody would have in a normal election. The fact that he took it on and made it part of one of his pillars about what was going to happen to the election. And then he started saying things like, well, I’m not sure whether I’ll accept the results. And he really made an effort to discredit it all the way through. (Former Attorney General) Bill Barr jumped in on that. I mean, he had support. He had Republican support. So that elevated it, and elevated it in people’s minds who were looking at it as, is it really a good option?
In the film, the statistics that you share are pretty clear that voter fraud is just not a real thing. The number that sticks out to me most of all was from the conservative Heritage Foundation, finding that in the past 20 years, cases of mail-in ballot fraud was, I think it was .00006% of all votes cast. So, how do we have so many folks still to this day touting voter fraud as a rampant problem?
Grace: I think that (Elections & Voting Information Center Founder and Director) Paul Gronke in our film had probably the most insightful point about this topic, and specifically not necessarily the stats from the Heritage Foundation, which is actually a Republican organization. But he really said Trump was looking for something to latch on to based on the elections and something to blame if things didn’t go his way. And again, these are not my words, these are things that we’ve heard from people who researched this every day and are looking into the commentary online and what was said. And he was looking for something to grab onto, and it happened to be mail-in voting. And when things weren’t going well, this narrative was really deployed and really the foundation of a lot of his campaigning and his voters latched on to it. And with mail-in voting, the votes come in later. So, when the elections happened, then Trump was winning and then the mail-in votes, which he’d told his base not to do, the mail-in votes came later. So, then all the Democratic votes came in later. So, then he latched on to that and told his voters that this is fixed, this is fraud. And if you look at it from a logic standpoint, yeah, of course, the Democratic votes came in later because you told your base not to vote by mail and those are counted later. So, it just is latching on to that narrative. And, you know, people don’t like to lose, essentially, and this gave people who really supported him something to latch on to. And he continues to sow this narrative and deny facts.
As we head into the midterm elections, what impact do you think this controversy will have today? Will it continue to have an impact? Has it irreparably impacted how we see mail-in voting?
Weiss: We addressed that in the film and we’re hearing words from people who are researchers, including some of our own CSU researchers from our department who talk about it. And I think there has been severe damage. Can it be fixed? I think it’s going to take a lot of time. Will that affect this next election? Absolutely. And the reason we know that is the way that so many state legislatures and governors from some of the Republican stronghold states, immediately started changing what was allowed for mail-in voting, tightening up the windows that it was going to be available, challenging how it was going to work. And they used that almost to leapfrog into other areas, not just mail-in voting, but voting access in general. And so, it has to have an effect in the midterm election. How much remains to be seen. And there will be a lot of researchers out there who are looking specifically at that. How did this change? But the seeds have already been set and are growing, and I can’t see how it won’t just because things have changed across the country in many areas in terms of how we’re able to vote as citizens and in many cases it’s more restrictive than it was. While a lot of people, including the people that National Vote at Home Institute who seeded this project and really wanted to have it assist the growth of mail-in voting that’s been thwarted, that has been turned aside. Will it be forever? Remains to be seen.
Again, despite the long history of secure mail–in voting and the numerous safety measures that are in place including — I think some of the things that were mentioned in the film are 24 hour surveillance of drop boxes and ballot judges being trained by FBI handwriting experts, which was surprising to me — there are still people out there who, no matter what, are going to believe that the system is rigged and they’re not going to trust mail-in voting. Can anything be done to make them feel more secure?
Grace: I can think of three things, honestly. The first is, do your own research. Don’t take our word for it. Don’t take any random reporter or researchers’ word for it. Look into the information yourself. Read the research, read the stats. Where did that information come from? Don’t just read the number. Think okay, where’s the source of this information? And do your own homework as much as you possibly can. A second thing would be is, you know, you’re able to, especially here in Colorado, you’re able to track your ballots. So, vote early would be one thing if you have some concerns with trusting the system. If you vote early, you can then track your ballot. If something happens and they lose it or whatever, they’re probably going to, you know, call you if there’s an issue with your signature or something. But then you can go vote in person and they have systems in place to prevent your vote from being counted twice. So, if your ballot gets lost along the way, which is extremely unlikely, you can see that and go do something about it. And I think the third would be to, you know, become an election judge. You can contact your local county clerk’s office and get involved in the process. Whether you, Republican or Democrat, you’re probably going to be paired with somebody of the opposite party to help look at these ballots and see what people intended to vote for. And you can really see a behind-the-scenes look at the process. And I think you’re helping democracy first-hand by being an election judge. You are participating and doing your part to help, and you’ll get to see a behind-the-scenes look, which is not a big secret of what’s going on there.
When you mentioned the election judges, again, one of things that I was thinking about was those moments in the film where some of the election judges were talking about the impact that this has had on them personally and reading some of the threats that they and their families have received. Do you think that’s going to impact how many election judges we have?
Weiss: Yeah, Stacy, it already has. I mean, we’re hearing that from some of the election judges that we came into contact with through this part of this. And the Jefferson County clerk there has said he’s already losing people. And so, it remains to be seen if they’ll all come back. There’s still time for some of them to come back or be replaced by people that Jesse’s suggesting want to be involved in the process. I think it’s one of the things that surprised Jesse and I the most as we followed this. And you know, from your experience as a reporter, you really get to see behind the scenes. So, we saw how the process worked in several different locations and honestly, it made me feel better about what’s going on with mail-in voting. I didn’t know that much about it, but when I sat there and watched it for three days unfold in Prescott, Arizona, and that’s a strong Republican area that has had mail-in voting for a long time. And I had great faith in the system. The thing that also impressed us is that we met so many people along the line, both parties represented, who were so committed to this job of mail-in voting or voting in general. And they do put their politics aside. I mean, it was heartwarming to see that I suppose we’re all in competitive times skeptical about, can you do something without a partisan bent to it. You can when it comes to voting. And these people were dedicated. We didn’t meet anybody who I thought later would take advantage of this situation. They’re completely committed. They’re under pressure. They’re being assaulted in some ways verbally, and that’s, again, detailed in the documentary. It’s a sad thing, but many of them are standing firm and hopefully again, because the whole intent of this film is to try to get a discussion going, people want to understand that if that’s what’s taking place, maybe we’ll find a way to alleviate some of that.
Grace: And again, I think the point of this is, we’re not trying to push our beliefs or our thoughts — we really came at it from a neutral standpoint — onto anybody. We just want to stimulate more conversation. So, we’re excited to get it out there so that more people can talk about it and look into it for themselves.
About The Audit
Recorded at the KCSU studio, Colorado State University’s new podcast, The Audit, features conversations with CSU faculty on everything from research to current events. Just as auditing a class provides a fun way to explore a new subject or field, The Audit allows listeners to explore the latest works from the experts at CSU.