How a Tiny Elections Company Became a Conspiracy Theory Target

At an invitation-only conference in August at a secret location southeast of Phoenix, a group of election deniers unspooled a new conspiracy theory about the 2020 presidential outcome.

Using threadbare evidence, or none at all, the group suggested that a small American election software company, Konnech, had secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party and had given the Chinese government backdoor access to personal data about two million poll workers in the United States, according to online accounts from several people at the conference.

In the ensuing weeks, the conspiracy theory grew as it shot around the internet. To believers, the claims showed how China had gained near complete control of America’s elections. Some shared LinkedIn pages for Konnech employees who have Chinese backgrounds and sent threatening emails to the company and its chief executive, who was born in China.

“Might want to book flights back to Wuhan before we hang you until dead!” one person wrote in an email to the company.

In the two years since former President Donald J. Trump lost his re-election bid, conspiracy theorists have subjected election officials and private companies that play a major role in elections to a barrage of outlandish voter fraud claims.

But the attacks on Konnech demonstrate how far-right election deniers are also giving more attention to new and more secondary companies and groups. Their claims often find a receptive online audience, which then uses the assertions to raise doubts about the integrity of American elections.

Unlike other election technology companies targeted by election deniers, Konnech, a company based in Michigan with 21 employees in the United States and six in Australia, has nothing to do with collecting, counting or reporting ballots in American elections. Instead, it helps clients like Los Angeles County and Allen County, Ind., with basic election logistics, such as scheduling poll workers.

Konnech said none of the accusations were true. It said that all the data for its American customers were stored on servers in the United States and that it had no ties to the Chinese government.

But the claims have had consequences for the firm. Konnech’s founder and chief executive, Eugene Yu, an American citizen who immigrated from China in 1986, went into hiding with his family after receiving threatening messages. Other employees also feared for their safety and started working remotely, after users posted details about Konnech’s headquarters, including the number of cars in the company’s parking lot.

“I’ve cried,” Mr. Yu wrote in an email. “Other than the birth of my daughter, I hadn’t cried since kindergarten.”

The company said the ordeal had forced it to conduct costly audits and could threaten future deals. It hired Reputation Architects, a public relations and crisis management company, to help navigate the situation.

After the conspiracy theorists discovered that DeKalb County in Georgia was close to signing a contract with Konnech, officials there received emails and comments about the company, claiming it had “foreign ties.” The county Republican Party chairwoman, Marci McCarthy, heard from so many members about Konnech that she echoed parts of the conspiracy theory at a public comment period during the county’s elections board meeting.

“We have a lot of questions about this vendor,” Ms. McCarthy said.

The county signed the contract soon after the meeting.

“It’s a completely fabricated issue,” Dele Lowman Smith, the elections board chair, said in an interview. “It’s absolutely bizarre, but it’s part of the tone and tenor of what we’re having to deal with leading up to the elections.”

Although Konnech is a new target, the people raising questions about the company include some names notorious for spreading election falsehoods.

The recent conference outside Phoenix was organized by True the Vote, a nonprofit founded by the prominent election denier Catherine Engelbrecht. She was joined onstage by Gregg Phillips, an election fraud conspiracy theorist who often works with the group. The pair achieved notoriety this year after being featured in “2000 Mules,” a widely debunked documentary claiming that a mysterious army of operatives influenced the 2020 presidential election.

Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips claimed at the conference and in livestreams that they investigated Konnech in early 2021. Eventually, they said, the group’s team gained access to Konnech’s database by guessing the password, which was “password,” according to the online accounts from people who attended the conference. Once inside, they told attendees, the team downloaded personal information on about 1.8 million poll workers.

The pair said they had notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation of their findings. According to their story, the agents briefly investigated their claim before turning on the group and questioning whether it had hacked the data.

The F.B.I.’s press office said the agency “does not comment on complaints or tips we may or may not receive from the public.”

Konnech said in a statement that True the Vote’s claim it had access to a database of 1.8 million poll workers was impossible because, among other reasons, the company had records on fewer than 240,000 poll workers at the time. And the records on those workers are not kept on a single database.

The company said it had not detected any data breach, but declined to provide details about its technology, citing security concerns.

Konnech once owned Jinhua Yulian Network Technology, a subsidiary out of China, where programmers developed and tested software. But the company said its employees there had always used “generic ‘dummy’ data created specifically for testing purposes.” Konnech closed the subsidiary in 2021 and no longer has employees in China.

Konnech sued True the Vote last month, accusing it of defamation, violation of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, theft and other charges.

The judge in the case granted Konnech’s request for an emergency temporary restraining order against the group, writing that Konnech faced “irreparable harm” and that there was a risk that True the Vote would destroy evidence. The order also required True the Vote to explain how it had supposedly gained access to Konnech’s data.

True the Vote, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips said they could not comment because of a restraining order issued against them.

But in a livestream on social media, Ms. Engelbrecht said the allegations by Konnech were meritless. “True the Vote looks forward to a public conversation about Konnech’s attempts to silence examination of its activities through litigation,” she said.

Since the restraining order, True the Vote, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips have told Konnech a new version of their story, changing several important details.

Mr. Phillips had explained in a podcast on Aug. 22 that “my analysts” had gained access to the data. But in a letter shared with Konnech’s lawyers, the group claimed that a third party who “was not contracted to us or paid by us” had approached them, claiming it had Konnech’s data. That person, who was unnamed except in a sealed court filing, presented only a “screen share” of “certain elements” of the data. They added that while the group had been provided with a hard drive containing the data, they “did not view the contents,” instead sharing it with the F.B.I.

“True the Vote has never obtained or held any data as described in your petition,” they wrote. “This is just one of many inaccuracies contained therein.”

The lawsuit did little to slow believers, who continued attacking Konnech. Some employees left the company, citing stress from the crisis, Mr. Yu said. The departures added to the workload among remaining staff just a few weeks before the midterm election.

As True the Vote blanketed Konnech’s customers with information requests last year, Mr. Yu sent an email to Ms. Engelbrecht offering his help. True the Vote released that email exchange, including his unredacted email address and phone number, and a trove of other documents related to the company. That gave conspiracy theorists an easy way to target Mr. Yu with threatening messages. He now calls the email he sent naïve.

“As we did more research into who they were, it became more and more clear that they had no interest in the truth,” he said. “For them, the truth is inconvenient.”

Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting.


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