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Trump, GOP urge early and mail voting while continuing to raise specter of voter fraud

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Detroit — Four years after Detroit's convention center was the center of conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations of voter fraud, thousands of Republicans were back in the building last weekend to prepare for November's rematch between former President Donald Trump and President Biden. So-called election integrity efforts and disproven allegations of voter fraud were repeatedly invoked, this time to convince GOP voters to turn out in force in November. 

Charlie Kirk, the influential leader of conservative grassroots organization Turning Point Action, took the stage to kick off his organization's "The People's Convention" in downtown Detroit last Friday and called the venue where he was speaking a "crime scene." He recounted debunked claims that thousands of illegal mail-in and early ballots were delivered to and tabulated in secret, resulting in a stolen victory for President Biden.

A Michigan judge ruled that allegations of mass voter fraud at what was then called the TCF Center were "incorrect and not credible."

Now, Kirk's group, Turning Point Action, alongside the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Whatley and Co-chair Lara Trump — are trying to convince GOP voters to embrace those same voting options — including in-person early voting, mail-in absentee voting and drop boxes.

Kirk's group hopes to hire an army of a thousand organizers in battleground states to "chase the vote," encouraging conservative voters to register and make plans to vote in November, but also to trust that however they cast their ballot, their vote will be counted accurately. Rebuilding that trust is easier said than done, he and Lara Trump, who is Donald Trump's daughter-in-law, both admit. 

"There's a lot of hesitancy and skepticism, but it's waning with some sort of people in the conservative movement, because they say, 'Look, mail-in balloting is not secure,' and I share some of those concerns," Kirk said of Republican skepticism. 

He pointed to Kari Lake's loss of the Arizona governor's race in 2022 as a moment where he realized that Republicans must embrace "Election Month," as he put it, not just Election Day.

"It triggered a lot of introspection on our team. And I was like, why are we not embracing, you know, this sort of methodology, we might not love it, but losing feels a lot worse," Kirk said. "I think that the movement is looking at it the same." 

"People are very smart; they have legitimate concerns," he continued. "But we're left with really a binary choice: we keep on doing what we're doing, which is to try to squeeze, you know, 70 to 80 million votes in a 12-hour period, right? Or we broaden that, especially with low-[propensity] voters, which … our side absolutely needs, and do our best in a 30- to 35-day window."

But whether that message lands with GOP voters after four years of being told that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from Republicans remains to be seen. And the party still hasn't entirely shelved its 2020 playbook. 

While Turning Point's conference was kicking off in Detroit, Whatley and Lara Trump were 45 minutes north, in Oakland County, Michigan, where they kicked off the RNC's "Protect the Vote" tour, renewing the party's emphasis on hiring poll workers, poll watchers, and election lawyers going into November in battleground states where the outcome is historically close.

As Whatley was addressing the crowd of a few hundred in the Oakland County GOP headquarters in Bloomfield Hills, one attendee spoke up and said that the 2020 election wasn't stolen. Other attendees immediately booed and shouted him down with lines like "it was totally stolen!"

"What I will say is everybody in this room, including myself and [Lara Trump] is absolutely, fully committed to making sure that the 2024 election is going to be fair, accurate, secure, and transparent," Whatley responded, as the crowd kept chiding the man. 

Lara Trump and Whatley say they plan to be patient as they try to convince GOP voters to trust the integrity of elections again.

"I think it takes time. It takes time to earn trust back and we intend to do that," Lara Trump told CBS News. Whatley is putting together a grassroots early-vote program to ensure Republicans make a plan to get their vote counted.

"Are you gonna vote on Election Day? Are you gonna vote early? Are you going to vote by mail? Make sure that you follow through and get that ballot in," he said. 

"The greatest fraud is when our people don't vote," Kirk said, in response to the same question. "So that's where I'm emphasizing. Everyone has a role to play. And the greatest fraud is when our people stay at home."

Early Saturday morning at "The People's Convention," Michigan Trump campaign and state GOP officials were pressed repeatedly by attendees on why they weren't doing more to challenge electronic voting machines, another hot-button issue for election conspiracy theorists like Mike Lindell, who also spoke at the conference and shared those same concerns. 

"We've got to get rid of the crime involved, and that involves getting rid of electronic voting machines," Lindell told CBS News. Lindell has repeatedly embraced disproven and fraudulent theories about the 2020 and 2022 elections, but he told CBS he was "glad" Trump and the RNC have been telling voters the GOP needs to win by a margin so large it is "too big to rig." It's been a common refrain from the former president in recent months.

Ronald Singer, a Macomb County, Michigan, resident who attended the Saturday session, praised Trump for urging supporters to vote early early.

"That's what he's doing is trying to convince them [to trust elections] because for many, many years, you know, a lifetime, you've been taught that there's such a thing as an Election Day, and that elections happen on Election Day." Singer said. "Some funny stuff goes on now, where it seems like it takes not hours, but days or maybe longer. But what it's going to take is some time to sort of turn people around."

At a Trump rally in May in Freeland, Michigan, the Michigan GOP taped signs around the venue — including port-a-potties — and state party members signed up attendees to be campaign volunteers as they arrived at the event.

One volunteer who was trying to recruit other "protect the vote" volunteers said she was skeptical of this renewed push. 

"I would never vote mail-in ever," Flint resident Teri Cawood said, adding that even thoughTrump and his allies are promoting early and mail-in voting, she doesn't trust it. "Maybe a little bit, if he's saying it, but I don't know," Cawood hedged.

But when Trump headlined the Turning Point rally last Saturday, his message ran counter to the Republican efforts to encourage absentee voting. He warned the thousands in the audience to "watch your vote" because "they" — Democrats — would "destroy" and "terminate" their votes in November. 

"I said to Charlie [Kirk] and I said to Michael [Whatley], I said, 'Listen, we don't need votes. We got more votes than anybody's ever had. We need to watch the vote. We need to guard the vote. We need to stop the steal,'" Trump told the crowd. "You know these mail-in ballots are treacherous, they're treacherous … These lock boxes are horrible, horrible, and we'll change it, but we have to win the election in order to change it." 

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