SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. — The Cowboy Church in Skagit County celebrates its rural roots, gathering every Sunday in a horse arena on the family farm of Pastor Roy Swihart.
Last year, 500 people filed into the Cowboy Church for a service of a different kind.
They listened for hours as presenters offered their evidence that national elections – even those in Skagit County – are corrupted by incompetence and cheating. The keynote speaker, a former college professor from Cincinnati, presented his widely debunked theory that democrats are pumping “phantom” votes into voting machines.
“I was a little bit concerned," Pastor Swihart said about bringing partisan politics into the church.
"Because I’ve got friends on both sides,” Swihart said. “That’s the difference between a politician and a preacher. Politicians have to worry about what other people think. I don’t.”
Since the presentation at Swihart’s church in Bow in September of last year, the KING 5 Investigators have tracked similar “election integrity” events at churches in Sedro Wooley, Marysville, Snohomish, Federal Way, Puyallup, and Lacey. The events typically include local presenters and politicians who claim to have evidence of voter registration irregularities or outright fraud.
Stanford University Department of Political Science Professor Justin Grimmer calls the religious connection to the election fraud claims “concerning.”
“When this sort of conspiracy theorizing comes from the pulpit, it is sort of endowed with a level of validity that perhaps it wouldn’t otherwise have,” Grimmer said.
“There’s a lot of questions. 'What is true? Did something really happen?',” Swihart said.
He said many people in his community had those questions about the 2020 election, and that’s why he agreed to host the Skagit County Election Integrity Public Hearing.
“What I care about is the Skagit Valley. My heart is for the people in this valley,” Swihart said.
Swihart’s personal story reflects that. In addition to founding his church, he is a military veteran and he and his wife adopted and raised three children along with their biological children.
The presentation at Cowboy Church was notable for its "star power," at least in the minds of those who believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump.
“He won, and we all know it,” Douglas Frank said to the cheering church audience as Trump’s photo flashed on a screen.
Frank, a former mathematics professor at the University of Cincinnati, has traveled the country claiming that he is discovered a secret algorithm that proves that Democrats are stealing elections.
Frank told the church crowd that his calculations showed Washington state and even Skagit County’s voter registration rolls were rigged by “phantom voters.”
“Your registration databases are where you’re getting hacked. That’s where you’re losing elections. (Washington state is) filling your registration with phantom voters,” Frank said from the stage.
Professor Grimmer published his second research report revealing fatal flaws in Frank’s supposed science.
The 57-page report that Professor Grimmer, Michael C. Herron and Matthew Tyler produced includes a deep dive into the “junk science” behind Frank’s calculations and concludes they are “worthless” and “wrong.”
But Grimmer said the average person would not know that, listening to Frank’s polished presentation.
“It’s impossible for folks who are just going about their daily lives, to know what this guy who is up there, who is an incredibly well-spoken speaker, is telling them something that is junk. It’s not true at all,” Grimmer said.
Frank responded to Grimmer saying “…he’s a dim bulb” and said Grimmer misunderstood his calculations and focused only on a small part of Frank’s evidence.
“There’s a lot of information that is just way past my IQ,” Swihart answered when asked if he understood the rationale behind Frank’s presentation. “That’s way above my pay grade."
The presentation at Swihart’s church spurred some people in attendance to action.
“I had to wonder what I can do as a citizen on the ground,” said Boeing retiree Dave Griffin.
Griffin came home from the Cowboy Church event last year and got busy organizing a volunteer effort to “clean up” voter registration rolls in King County.
He coordinated with analysts who reviewed King County voter registration records and flagged voters who might be improperly registered. Then, he and about 50 volunteers took to the streets and knocked on doors asking questions.
The result was a report to King County Elections that claimed the group had uncovered 444 voter registration “anomalies” that could possibly be evidence of fraud.
However, the KING 5 Investigators fact-checked some of the group’s claims and found inaccuracies in their claims.
KING 5 Investigations into similar reports in Mason and Skagit counties also turned up numerous errors.
Pastor Swihart believes many churches are discussing vote fraud but are keeping a low profile.
“I think they are privately. Yes sir,” Swihart said.
Experts say that is evidence that the election fraud myth is penetrating deeper into our society.
“You’d hope for leaders to do a bit better but they’re subject to the same pressures that lots of people face when they want to tell their audience things that the audience wants to hear,” Grimmer said.