In the weeks following the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump and his allies did not get very far in their efforts to expose widespread voter fraud. There were two reasons for this.
First, there was none, as countless investigations by journalists, expert reports and court decisions showed. But second, Republican election officials in multiple states repeatedly said their counts and recounts were accurate and that they were defending the integrity of the election. Despite all the pressure from the Trump camp, well-trained, civil-minded election workers were carrying out their duty to maintain the American voting system.
Many top Republican Party officials and lawmakers have hit back in the past two years, drawing most of the attention for their efforts to pass “voter integrity” laws that make voting more difficult under the guise of preventing fraud. From January 2021 to May this year, just under three dozen restrictive laws had been passed in nearly 20 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
These are pernicious laws and they undermine the hard-won voting rights of Americans. But just as important is the issue of who counts the votes, and who decides which votes count and which don’t.
This is where Mr Trump’s allies have concentrated much of their plans since his reelection defeat. Their mission is to take over America’s electoral infrastructure, or at least significant parts of it, from the ground up by occupying key positions of influence with Trump sympathizers. Rather than threaten election officials, they will: to be the Election Officers – the polling stations and district commissioners and secretaries of state responsible for overseeing the casting, counting and certifying of votes.
These efforts require attention and mobilization from Americans across the political spectrum. The U.S. voting system is complex and decentralized, with most state and local oversight performed by thousands of elected and appointed officials, along with pollsters. Although outdated and clunky in many places, this system has worked relatively well for about 200 years.
But Mr Trump’s attempts to undermine the election also exposed the system’s vulnerabilities, and his allies are now focused on exploiting those pressure points to bend the voting infrastructure in their favor. Their drive to take over country and state election machines reminds us that democracy is fragile. The threats are not just violent breaches like the January 6 attack on the Capitol, but also quieter attempts to corrupt it.
An important part of this strategy is to dismantle the strongholds that stopped the attack on democracy in 2020. In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger denied Mr Trump’s request to steal the election by agreeing to “find” 11,780 additional votes. In Michigan, the Board of State Canvassers confirmed Joe Biden’s victory, despite Mr Trump’s aggressive meddling. A host of other state and local officials, including many Republicans, pushed back on similar anti-democratic machinations.
Mr. Trump and his allies have begun to remove and replace these officials, through elections and appointments, with more like-minded officials. In some cases, the attempt failed. (In Georgia’s Republican primary this year, Mr. Trump backed a losing candidate in a vendetta against Mr. Raffensperger.) But in other states, Republicans have embraced election deniers as candidates, including for Secretary of State.
In Nevada, Republican Secretary of State Jim Marchant claims the 2020 presidential race was rigged and would not have certified Mr Biden’s Nevada victory. He blames vote fraud for his own failed House run that year and has said Nevada voters haven’t really elected their leaders in years because the system is so manipulated.
Mr. Marchant is part of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, whose candidates are campaigning for measures that will make it more difficult for Americans to vote, such as limiting voting to one day and aggressively purging voter lists. They have the financial backing of pro-Trump election deniers, including Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, and Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com.
Michigan Republicans’ pick Kristina Karamo is also an America First candidate. She gained political fame for her unsubstantiated claims of witnessing election fraud as a poll watcher in Detroit in 2020. She also promoted the baseless conspiracy theories that Dominion voting machines votes turned in favor of Mr. Biden and that Jan. 6 was a false flag operation carried out by “antifa posing as Trump supporters.”
Perhaps the most outrageous GOP pick is Mark Finchem of Arizona. Mr Finchem has in the past identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, and he spoke at a QAnon convention last year. He was in the Capitol on January 6, although he denies being within about 500 meters of the building. As a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, he this year introduced a resolution to decertify the 2020 elections in multiple counties, and sponsored a bill to allow the Republican-led legislature to reverse the election results. to make.
Mr Finchem wants to prohibit early voting and set limits on voting by post. In April, he filed a federal lawsuit, backed by Mr. Lindell, to block the use of electronic vote counting machines in Arizona during the midterm elections. (It was rejected.)
Installing election deniers as top election officials is only one part of this plan. Far less visible, but just as important, is the so-called district strategy, where Trump allies recruit supporters to flood the system by applying for low-ranking election positions such as pollsters. A prominent promoter of the district’s strategy was Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser. Last year, Mr. Bannon gathered listeners of his “War Room” podcast to sign up as members of the district commission. “We’re going to take this village by village… district by district,” he said proclaimed in May 2021.
The call was answered. A survey by ProPublica in the summer of 2021 found that a wave of Republicans were applying to become district officers or equivalent lowest-level officers in key counties. Of the 65 provinces contacted, 41 reported a collective increase of at least 8,500 new applications following Mr. bannon. (ProPublica found no such spike on the Democratic side.)
The district’s strategy has been endorsed by Mr. Trump — who stated it was a way to “recapture our great country from the ground up” — and adopted by sections of the Republican Party.
Mr Bannon appeals to his supporters’ sense of citizenship by asking them to be more involved in the local election process. But troubling details about what this effort entails emerged this summer after Politico obtained videos of Republican agents discussing strategy with activists.
New election recruits would attend training workshops on challenging voters at polling stations, Matthew Seifried, the election integrity director for the Republican National Committee for Michigan, explained in one of the tapes. These pollsters would have access to a hotline and website staffed by “an army” of Republican lawyers willing to help with challenges. “We’ll have more lawyers than we’ve ever hired because let’s face it, that’s where it’s going to be fought, right?” Mr Seifried said at a meeting last October.
As testimonies during the Jan. 6 commission hearings revealed, the legal challenges presented by Trump allies for the 2020 election quickly collapsed, in part because they lacked even the most basic documentation. But executed as designed, the district’s strategy means that even if there are ultimately no cases of fraud and most of the challenges facing individual voters fall apart, they can still delay the vote by causing delays and creating unnecessary friction and confusion. giving cover to a state election official or state legislator to say that an election is tainted and therefore invalid.
This is already happening in some parts of the country. This summer, an all-Republican county commission in rural New Mexico refused to certify the results of the primaries over unsubstantiated suspicions of fraud. The New Mexico Secretary of State, a Democrat, intervened and asked the state Supreme Court to order the commission to certify the results. Two commissioners relented, but the third, Couy Griffin, refused. He admitted that his suspicion of fraud was not based on any evidence: “It’s just based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.”
(Mr. Griffin, who attended the January 6 melee at the Capitol, was later not considered to hold office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which requires anyone who has sworn an oath to the Constitution and later enlists, barred from public office in revolt.)
After the Pennsylvania primary in May, three Republican-controlled counties refused to count several hundred ballots on which voters had not written a date on the envelope. The government of Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, filed suit and last month a judge ruled that the ballots should be included in the results, ultimately paving the way for the certification of the primaries. (Government officials heard of a fourth province that had done something similar.)
Litigation is an important tool to counter this threat. But it won’t save the day. The problem is too big, says Marc Elias, a Democratic voting rights lawyer. “For every place you try to solve this in court, there are five additional places where it happens,” he said.
The real threat to the US electoral system is not posed by voters who are ineligible to vote. It comes from within the system.
Everyone who values democracy has a role to play in strengthening and supporting the electoral system that drives them, regardless of their party. This means first of all that we take the threat of election deniers seriously and talk about it with friends and neighbors. It means paying attention to local elections – not just national ones – and supporting candidates who reject conspiracy theories and baseless claims of fraud. It means getting involved in elections as detectives, pollsters or community police officers. (Mr. Bannon has the right idea about citizen participation; he only uses toxic lies as motivation.)
And it means voting, in every race on the ballot and in every election. To this end, employers also have a role to play, by allowing employees to vote and encouraging them to do so.
The task of protecting democracy does not end with one election. Mr Trump and others seeking to twist the electoral process are intense and playing a long game. Only an equally strong and committed counter-force can meet that challenge.
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