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Thursday, June 27, 2024

Trump allies test a new strategy for blocking election results - The Washington Post

Trump allies test a new strategy for blocking election results

"In five battleground states, county-level officials have tried to block the certification of vote tallies — which election experts worry is a test run for trying to thwart a Biden victory.

Voters at a polling place in Atlanta cast ballots in Georgia's May 21 primary election. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

When a member of Georgia’s Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections refused to join her colleagues as they certified two primaries this year, she claimed she had been denied her right to examine a long list of election records for signs of fraud or other issues.

Now the board member, Julie Adams, an avowed believer in the false theory that the 2020 election was stolen from former president Donald Trump, is suing the board, hoping a judge will affirm that right and potentially empower others in similar positions elsewhere to hold up the outcome of elections.

To voting rights activists, election law specialists and Democrats, such actions represent an ominous sign that could presage a chaotic aftermath to the 2024 election. They are particularly worried about the threat of civil unrest or violence, especially if certification proceeds amid protests or efforts to block it.

Adams wrote in her lawsuit that she “swore an oath to ‘prevent fraud, deceit, and abuse’ in Fulton County elections” — duties that she says are not possible without examining the records she has demanded. Her detractors say she is seeking the power to block a victory for President Biden. The Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic Party have asked to intervene in the suit, claiming Adams’s actions are part of a coordinated effort by Trump, his allies and the GOP to sow the same kind of doubt in this year’s presidential election that led to the violent attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn Biden’s first victory.

“They are playing poker with the cards up,” said Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “They are telling us exactly what they are going to do. We would be foolish if we sat on our hands and did nothing and watched this happen.”

Trump has stated plainly that the only way he can lose this fall is if Democrats cheat. His campaign and the Republican National Committee are spending historic sums building “election integrity” operations in key battleground states, preparing to challenge results in court, and recruiting large armies of grass-roots supporters to monitor voting locations and counting facilities and to serve as poll workers.

Certification of local results is a key target in this effort, a once-mundane administrative step that has become a flash point in the debate over election security — and a potential opportunity to subvert the will of voters. Election officials in the nation’s 3,000-plus counties must sign off on results, followed by a similar process at the state level. Typically, certification does not mean there were no errors — it simply reflects the votes tallied at that point. And it does not preclude lawsuits contesting those results; in fact, in some states lawsuits cannot be filed until after certification is complete.

Barring such challenges, certification allows the winning candidate’s electors to then gather in each state capital to cast their electoral college votes, with a joint session of Congress taking the final step of affirming that vote on Jan. 6.

Delaying certification at any step could hold up or halt the process, potentially preventing the rightful winner from taking office.

Since 2020, county-level election officials in five key battleground states — Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania — have tried to block the certification of vote tallies in both primaries and general elections. So far, none of the efforts have succeeded. In some cases, the actions came up against strict state rules limiting the role of county election boards in determining electoral outcomes, and critics say those rules will serve as essential guardrails this fall to thwart any coordinated efforts to set aside a state’s popular vote.

But the chaos and confusion that could result from such an effort are themselves a deep concern among voting rights advocates, who believe that unsubstantiated claims of fraud by Trump and his allies are sowing even deeper mistrust in the fall election results than they did four years ago, raising the potential for unrest and even violence on a greater scale too.

“An awful lot of people are looking at a potential parade of horrible scenarios,” said Ben Ginsberg, a longtime GOP election lawyer who is now an anti-Trump democracy advocate. “The number of people who doubt the reliability of elections has only increased. It hasn’t decreased. And that worries me tremendously.”

Growing Republican mistrust

That mistrust has taken hold from top to bottom within the Republican Party. After four years of listening to Trump’s regular drumbeat that he won the 2020 election, the GOP base is mobilizing at unprecedented levels to monitor the election this year out of a belief that the process is unfair and corrupt. Many of them, like Adams, are now serving as election officials. And many say their view that results can’t be trusted should be reason enough not to rubber-stamp local vote counts.

Top GOP leaders are stoking such activism. The Republican National Committee is launching a “Protect the Vote Tour” in swing states this month to recruit poll watchers, poll workers and legal experts.

“We are light-years ahead of where we were four years ago,” said Jefferson Davis, a leader of a conservative Wisconsin group focused on election issues that has spent the past few years studying the rules, holding events and recruiting volunteers.

In addition to Georgia, local officials in at least four other battleground states have made pushes to seize control of the certification process, heightening worries that pro-Trump forces will try similar moves in the fall.

In 2022, two commissioners from rural Cochise County in Arizona refused to certify midterm election results. The same year, local election boards in three Pennsylvania counties withheld thousands of votes from certified totals. Last month in Michigan’s Delta County, the Board of Canvassers voted not to certify local results. A similar attempt to not certify May election results occurred in Nevada in Washoe County, home to Reno. In all four states, officials cited mistrust in election machines or ballot errors but offered no evidence of widespread fraud. In all four, certification proceeded after state intervention.

Democrats accused these officials of overstepping their legal authority — and called the efforts a test run for trying to thwart a Biden victory this fall. They also moved quickly to make clear that such actions run contrary to state law. In Arizona, the two commissioners face criminal charges. In Michigan, the canvassers reversed themselves after state election leaders sent a stern letter signaling the criminal implications of not doing so. In Pennsylvania, the question of whether local boards must include ballots with certain errors in their certification totals remains tied up in court.

U.S. presidential elections operate on a tight schedule, with most states requiring county- and state-level certification within days of Election Day. Federal law in turn requires governors to declare which candidate’s electors will cast electoral college votes at least six days before Dec. 17, when they are scheduled to meet. If they fail to meet and cast votes that day, a state’s electoral votes probably would not be counted during the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, the final step in determining the presidential outcome.

Delaying certification could swing a close election in which a single state’s electoral votes tip the balance. It also could deprive both candidates of the 270 electoral votes required under federal law to win, an unprecedented crisis that would kick the outcome to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation would have one vote. Currently, Republicans control 28 of the 50 state delegations in the House, but that dynamic could change with the election of a new Congress this fall.

Voting rights advocates and Democrats are on high alert for actions to slow the process down in a way that could threaten the meeting of electors. In some states, election administrators have already identified voters in each county who could serve as plaintiffs in emergency lawsuits to force county boards to certify results. In others, state administrators are sending detailed instructions to county officials laying out the limits of their power to block certification.

Although it remains unknown how widespread such efforts will be, one thing is clear: Those who are seeking to intervene in elections this fall have the backing of well-funded pro-Trump groups.

Adams, the plaintiff in the Georgia lawsuit, is active with the Election Integrity Network, a loose affiliation of pro-Trump activists nationwide who have organized drives to scrutinize voter registration databases in search of ineligible voters — and to scrutinize every step of the election process for signs of irregularities. The network is the brainchild of Cleta Mitchell, who as one of Trump’s lawyers in 2020 helped him try to overturn his defeat in Georgia and elsewhere.

The Fulton County GOP is supporting the suit, and it is being funded by the America First Policy Institute — a nonprofit think tank founded in 2021 by former Trump White House officials to advance policy ideas that he could implement if he is elected to a second term. The group has also set up a robust election-monitoring operation.

“She cannot and should not certify if she’s not given the information,” said Mike Berry, executive director of the organization’s Center for Litigation, who spoke to The Washington Post after Adams declined to do so. “And if she is given the information, there must be a meaningful opportunity to review and evaluate it. And then she’ll do whatever the results require her to do.”

At the crux of Adams’s lawsuit is how much latitude canvassers have to scrutinize the results they are required to certify. Adams and other pro-Trump election deniers say it makes no sense to ask election boards to sign off on results without examining the numbers. In her suit, she asks for access to two precinct-level numbers in particular: the total number of ballots cast, and the total number of voters who checked in. Those two numbers should match, and if they don’t, state law requires the local election chief to investigate.

But state law does not say the numbers must be resolved before certification occurs. In cases of very small discrepancies — say, one or two votes — it’s often difficult or impossible to reconcile them — and typically unnecessary because such a mismatch rarely affects the electoral outcome.

Berry said Adams has no intention of withholding certification in future elections until such discrepancies are resolved. But at the state elections board meeting last month, Adams stood in support of a proposed rule change that would require exactly that. The rule has not yet been adopted.

One worry for state election officials is that, in many states, results cannot be certified until all county results are in. If a county does not certify, voters or candidates could sue to force it — but a judge would have to take up the case quickly for it to be resolved in time for electors to meet on Dec. 17.

Election specialists are less worried that pro-Trump forces will ask state legislatures to block state certification or determine which candidate’s electors get to cast electoral college votes. Congress revamped federal law governing presidential elections in 2022 and made it clearer that state election law may not be set aside in the middle of an election. All 50 states dictate that the assignment of electors hinges on the popular vote.

The Electoral Count Reform Act, which Congress passed in 2022 in the aftermath of the Capitol attack, also makes it harder for members of Congress to protest any state’s electoral college vote during the Jan. 6 joint session, requiring 20 percent of the members of the House and Senate to vote in favor of such a challenge before the entire Congress can even consider it.

Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state during the 2020 election, said she’s less concerned about these election challenges successfully altering the outcome, as long as the courts dispense with them quickly, than she is about the “human impact” of sowing doubt in the validity of the results.

“I worry a lot about the disinformation that, no matter how this plays out, is going to be rampant,” she said. “It’s so much easier to spread disinformation than it is to explain all the ways that the incorrect information is wrong. Combined with this very angry, stressed environment that we’re living in right now, it’s such a fraught time to be having a major election in.”

Trump allies test a new strategy for blocking election results - The Washington Post

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