It took a few days for people who have spent the past two years questioning the integrity of elections to find their voice.
Mark Finchem, the Republican candidate for an Arizona secretary of state, who has promoted conspiracy theories about 2020 election results, first sounded an optimism note about this year’s vote count on Wednesday, telling supporters: “We will win when it’s all counted up.”
But by Saturday, after his Democratic rival had built a lead of more than 100,000 votes, Mr. Finchem took a different position. “They are screwing with the election counts,” he wrote on Twitter.
Claims of election fraud have not been as prominent after this election as they were in 2020. But as chances dimmed for some Republican candidates in tight races, many false and misleading narratives started to gain steam, pushed by Republican candidates like Mr. Finchem and Kari Lake, who ran for governor in Arizona, and far-right influencers. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Thursday that if the Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada lost his race — the eventual outcome — then “it’s a lie.”
The conversation resurrected conspiracy theories popularized but never proved over the past two years, focusing on dubious claims that Democrats injected fake ballots into the system or that minor voting malfunctions on Election Day amounted to widespread fraud. The ideas circulated widely on far-right social media and in videos hosted by prominent election deniers including Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and ally of former President Donald J. Trump. On Friday, Mr. Lindell posted that fluctuating vote counts in the Senate race in Georgia indicated that “the steal is on.”
There were nearly 600,000 mentions of election fraud and similar ideas across social media, online news sites and other sources in the week after the election, according to Zignal Labs, a company that monitors online activity.
The claims appeared unlikely to reach the fevered pitch of 2020, when many Americans engaged with conspiracy theories pushed by Mr. Trump and a constellation of his supporters. There were about 75,000 more posts about election fraud in the weeklong period after the 2018 midterm elections than there were this year, according to data from Zignal.
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Yet the swell of election fraud narratives — in a year when Republicans gained seats in the House and defeated many prominent Democrats — demonstrate the idea’s resilience among Mr. Trump’s most fervent supporters.
“The base is really engaged by election fraud claims — that hasn’t gone away,” said Michael Caulfield, a research scientist at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington. “They’re still out there, they’re still churning out claim after claim, but they’re having some difficulty getting that to the real opinion leaders.”
Mainstream conservative news organizations like Fox News have not embraced the latest conspiracy theories. Yet some Republicans have nevertheless used them to argue for unraveling more permissive voting laws, like early voting and voting, that give many Americans easier access to the polls.
“Election Day.” Not Election Week,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio tweeted on Monday, echoing a conspiracy theory that a longer voting period gives more opportunity for cheating.
Mr. Trump used his feed on Truth Social, the right-wing social network, to drum up support for the false narratives, posting dozens of times that the election was compromised, offering no evidence and suggesting that Arizona’s election should be rerun because of fraud. His positions grew more critical as the Republicans he had endorsed in tightly contested races appeared poised to lose.
“Just another Giant Election Scam,” he wrote on Monday. “Wake up America!!!”
Arizona has remained a hotbed of election misinformation and voter fraud claims ever since Republicans claimed President Biden’s surprise victory there in 2020 was due to fraud.
Mr. Finchem, a state lawmaker who attended Mr. Trump’s rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and suggested that some votes should be discarded if they came from counties that were “irredeemably compromised,” shifted his tone last week from optimism to conspiratorial in lock step with his election fortunes.
On Wednesday, he told supporters that “we are closing fast” and tweeted the hashtag “#NowWeWait.” But after he was projected to lose, he wrote that “we need a BIG investigation and I want to see arrests and seizure of assets!”
Attention has narrowed in Arizona to a series of technical glitches that disrupted ballot-counting on Election Day for about one in four voting centers in Maricopa County, the most populous in the state. The people at those locations could still vote by having their ballot read later.
Ms. Lake, the candidate for governor, said she had opted to vote in a liberal part of Maricopa and claimed, without evidence, that liberal regions had experienced no glitches. But she appeared to give the Election Day problems the benefit of the doubt, attributing them to “maladministration” and saying, “I hope it wasn’t malice.”
“When you’re possibly the winner, you don’t want to create a lot of confusion about the election,” Mr. Caulfield said. “Because you may, within a few days, be the winner.”
Ms. Lake’s claims simmered online until Mr. Trump picked them up, falsely writing on Truth Social that malfunctions happened “only in Republican districts” and that Ms. Lake had to be “taken to a Liberal Democrat district” to vote.
“This is a scam and voter fraud, no different than stuffing the ballot boxes,” he wrote on Friday.
Mr. Trump had also tried to ignite his supporters as he did in 2020, writing that people should “Protest, Protest, Protest!”
Few appeared to show up that night. But by Saturday, calls for protests grew louder, and a small crowd of Republicans gathered outside a ballot-counting site in Maricopa County brandishing signs reading, “Lake won” and “Arrest the traitors.”
“A NEW ELECTION MUST BE CALLED FOR IMMEDIATELY!” Mr. Trump wrote on Saturday.
Some conspiracy theorists believe a surge in vote totals for a candidate is a sign that fraudulent votes were somehow injected into the system. Instead, vote surges happen because ballots are reported in batches, some of which can disproportionately come from heavily partisan regions. Ms. Lake had her own vote surge of about 200,000 votes, drastically narrowing the gap between her and Katie Hobbs, her Democratic rival.
Some candidates also delayed conceding their races. They were cheered on by online conspiracy theorists and far-right influencers who demanded that Republicans avoid conceding until supposed election fraud was uncovered.
Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, who once hosted a state hearing into election fraud, conceded the race three days after he was projected to lose to Josh Shapiro, his Democratic opponent.
“We can and must do better to make our elections more transparent, secure and more quickly decided,” he wrote in a concession statement. “Pennsylvanians deserve to have faith in our elections.”