The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The murky cause-and-effect of the renewed interest in fraudulent presidential electors

Jae Chin, left, and others supporting President Donald Trump gather on Dec. 14, 2020, outside the State Capitol Executive Tower in Phoenix. The demonstration occurred as Arizona’s presidential electors met to cast their ballots for president and vice president. (Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post)

As it was happening, it was not a secret.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party sent out a news release on Dec. 14, 2020, touting the casting of a “conditional vote” on Donald Trump’s behalf, by an alternate slate of presidential electors, that could be presented in case, somehow, Trump ended up being declared the winner in Pennsylvania after all. This wasn’t going to happen, for a lot of reasons, but the tactic was part of a national effort.

Trump aide Stephen Miller hyped it on “Fox & Friends” that morning. “Electors” met in Georgia, with photos quickly being published by reporters on the scene. “Electors” hoping to provide an alternate slate for Trump in Michigan tried to access the state Capitol before being turned away; instead, the impotent ballots were cast at Republican Party headquarters. Fox News covered the plan sympathetically (of course). There were in-the-moment analyses that pointed out the effort was doomed from the outset.

In March, the watchdog group American Oversight obtained copies of the “alternate slates” that had been submitted to the National Archives. Valid electoral votes include both the submitted votes and “certificates of ascertainment” signed by state executives — documents that establish submitted votes as authentic. The pro-Trump slates included votes but not matching certificates, so they were non-starters. The American Oversight release attracted only modest attention.

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For months, this sloppy effort to secure a second term for Donald Trump — an effort predicated both on the false belief that the 2020 election had been tainted by fraud and on a deep misunderstanding of how vulnerable the system was to such chicanery — was just another of the weird things that occurred from November 2020 to January 2021. Just another component of a broad, dumb attempt to steal the presidency.

Until recently. Suddenly, about a month ago, the issue started popping up again, first on MSNBC and then on CNN.

This was almost entirely because MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow had resurfaced the incidents. Maddow covered the story three times as much as the show that covered it second most: Chris Hayes’s show on the same network. And, just like that, the fake electors were back in the news.

The Democratic attorney general in Michigan, Dana Nessel, referred the incident in her state to the U.S. Justice Department for potential criminal charges. She was deferring to the feds, she explained, because, among other things, “she would rather not pursue charges against political adversaries,” according to one report. Officials in at least one other state followed suit. In an interview with CNN published Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco acknowledged that the Justice Department had received those referrals. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House committee investigating the attack at the U.S. Capitol, revealed that the committee, too, was probing the issue.

What isn’t clear is whether this new attention is an example of the media exposing a criminal violation that is belatedly being addressed by authorities — or an example of media attention spurring political posturing.

Monaco would be the figure closest to the idea of actual prosecutions. Her statement to CNN was vague, in the way you would expect of an official discussing a possible criminal probe.

“We’ve received those referrals,” she said. “Our prosecutors are looking at those and I can’t say anything more on ongoing investigations.”

Nessel has insisted publicly that criminal violations occurred but also that the federal government has broader jurisdiction to investigate what looks like a nationally organized effort coordinated in part by Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. (One possible violation: The document submitted by the fake Michigan electors claims that they cast their votes in the state Capitol, which is not true.) It’s worth noting that both she and the attorney general of New Mexico, who similarly referred the issue to the Justice Department, are up for reelection this year.

There’s a big marketplace for efforts to hold accountable those who were involved in efforts to steal the election from President Biden. The wheels of justice turn slowly, as they say, an observation that’s heightened by the constant churn of social media. It’s not clear that Trump will be held accountable in any significant way for his role in the post-election tumult, but every newly elevated scheme that approaches his inner circle becomes fodder for speculation that he or they might be. The elevation of a new argument for where such accountability could emerge quickly becomes a center of gravity that draws in a lot of energy.

What’s interesting about this example is that it benefits from having not attracted public attention at the time it occurred. Many Americans didn’t know this was going on, so the story benefits both from the interest generated in it being novel and from perceptions that perhaps this was some murky, underhanded scheme that was finally dragged into the light. Americans have been primed by movies like “All the President’s Men” to view revealed secrets as more important than overt malfeasance — a tendency that Trump himself leveraged as president. Here, the lack of attention at the time and the lull in interest served to create a sort of veil that could later be pulled away.

In other words, this issue fit three overlapping demands: fervent interest on the left in tying Trump to criminal activity, the human desire for dramatic revelations, and opportunities for elected officials to demonstrate action. What remains unclear is whether the new attention drawn to the situation will yield any prosecutions or if any are warranted.

On the day that the fake electors met in Michigan, Nessel was aware of the plan. She offered objections to what was underway — but apparently only to a Republican official’s odd suggestion that violence might unfold. Nessel does not appear to have responded to the publication of the actual documents by American Oversight.