The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Conspiracy Theorists Are Central to the New Voter Suppression. I Got to Know One of Them Too Well.

By Greg Casar, May 21, 2021, Columns

I have personal experience with conspiracy theorists whose lies and misrepresentations are being used to push voter suppression laws in Texas and across the country. Many of those conspiracy theorists are homegrown right here in Austin. One of them sued me personally for many years, claiming that I was illegally elected to the Austin City Council in 2014.

The lies they told about my Austin election later morphed into distortions about elections in Dallas. These same conspiracy theorists then handed the same sort of pseudoscience to people like Trump's attorney Sidney Powell and Rep. Louie Gohmert. They provided these little lies to Donald Trump as he promoted his Big Lie about a stolen presidential election. Now, across the country, right-wing extremists are using these lies as cover to pass voter-suppression laws.

After winning my first election 65% to 35% against Austin resident Laura Pressley, she sued me. She spent thousands of dollars to force a manual recount of ballots. In the recount, not a single vote changed. Pressley then spent tens of thousands of dollars dragging me and my attorneys to court, claiming that government officials had engaged in illegal election practices. She filed thousands of pages of court pleadings riddled with those nonsense conspiracies.

Even as the years of frivolous court actions continued, I won reelection in 2016. But Pressley continued her lawsuit. Her relentless pursuit of anything-but-the-truth became the butt of jokes in local politics. The Austin Chronicle even gave the spectacle a "Best of Austin" award for "Best Political Sideshow." But just as with Alex Jones and InfoWars, in this era of mass disinformation, the ludicrous absurdities can become dangerously weaponized.

Pressley toured across Texas, telling audiences that "illegal voters and non-citizens" were voting and that elections were fraudulent. She gave dozens and dozens of speeches across the state, spreading her lies. Race was a consistent subtext. My face would appear in presentations, along with bogus math about rigged results.

She spread that Little Lie time and time again. Others like her spread similar election lies and raised money to keep spreading them. They worked doggedly to undermine the faith of Texans in our democracy. By spreading those lies within dozens of right wing groups, the conspiracy theorists laid the groundwork for a raft of voter suppression restrictions currently proposed in House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7.

According to the Washington Post, which covered the story last week, Pressley and her associates gave the so-called data to Republican Party leaders. Some of those leaders were clear-headed enough to reject the conspiracies. But others did not. The misinformation and the outright falsehoods were used to give Trump and his supporters "something to hold on to" in claiming that his election was stolen.

It is hard to believe that lies from a fringe candidate in Austin would end up in the president's Twitter account. I sometimes wonder whether any of the original conspiracy theorists still believe their own lies. What I do know is that people in power are hiding behind those conspiracy theorists to damage democracy by reducing polling locations and voting hours and drop boxes and absentee balloting, and many other voter options.

Jim Crow 2.0 voting restrictions target working-class people and voters of color. The restrictions are cynical, racist, and fundamentally anti-democratic. We are stronger than the ludicrous conspiracy theories that they're pushing to undermine voting rights.

They have organized across the state for years to spread these lies, and it's up to us to counter-organize for the sake of truth and democracy.

A native Texan, son of Mexican immigrants, and community organizer, Gregorio “Greg” Casar serves on the Austin City Council representing District 4. He is also a national board co-chair of Local Progress, a movement of local elected officials advancing racial and economic justice.

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