The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP push to revisit 2020 has worrisome implications for future elections

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)

Donald Trump’s “big lie” has spawned a movement that under the guise of assuring election integrity threatens to do the opposite, potentially affecting the election process with questionable challenges that could block or delay the certification of results and undermine an essential pillar of democratic governance.

Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 results has kept alive the fiction that the election was stolen or the process was deeply corrupted. That fiction — fueled by conspiracy theories — has encouraged members of his party, elected officials and ordinary citizens, to take steps to address this; these actions could lead to worse outcomes in the future.

For some Americans, the 2020 election isn’t over, as unsubstantiated claims of fraud or widespread irregularities prompt continuing efforts to reexamine ballots and voting machines.

Most noted has been the audit in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which has become a template for people who have bought into the former president’s false claims.

The recount, ordered by the Republican-controlled state Senate and conducted by an outside company, resumed last week amid acrimony over how it is being carried out. It has been condemned in the strongest possible terms by, among others, the Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which urged that it be shut down.

But similar recounts have been requested or initiated across the country:

● Last week, a judge in Georgia ordered Fulton County, one of the biggest Democratic strongholds in the state, to allow a group of citizens to examine copies of absentee ballots. This order came despite the fact that the county undertook multiple recounts — including one by hand — last fall that verified the accuracy of the count. Attorneys for Fulton County have asked that the order be dismissed and the audit is on hold until the judge rules.

● In Michigan, county commissioners in Cheboygan County, which Trump won by nearly 2 to 1 over President Biden, heard from citizens pro and con last week as they considered whether to authorize an audit of their Dominion voting machines, based on claims that the equipment might have shifted votes. Calls for the audit in Cheboygan County followed a similar but unsuccessful effort to force an audit in Antrim County. Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state and a Democrat, warned county officials that such audits are not legal and that they should not turn over voting machines to unaccredited groups demanding audits.

●In Wisconsin, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said last week that he plans to hire retired police officers to work with a legislative committee to examine citizen complaints about the 2020 election. The examination was ordered months ago, and Vos said recently the investigation could continue until autumn. The police officers may be able to seek subpoenas for witnesses, with the approval of the legislature.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Vos said the investigation is necessary to show the public “that, number one, we continue to take these irregularities seriously, and that at the end of the day, the [new] laws that we proposed are based on facts in addition to anecdotes.”

As Vos’s comments make clear, what’s taking place now provides the pretext for changes in voting laws that are making their way through Republican-controlled legislatures. Because Trump’s lies have taken root with so many Republicans, GOP politicians not only feel pressure to respond but also justified in doing so.

Not every change in election laws in GOP-sponsored bills is onerous, and some red states have more expansive laws for early or absentee voting than some blue states. But the motivation behind the push for new laws is clear: The measures are designed to restrict voting access and roll back new procedures that were implemented in 2020, often due to fears about the coronavirus, and which Republicans see as inspired to boost Democratic turnout at the expense of Republicans.

Provisions in some laws would augment the power of legislatures at the expense of local election boards, many of which are composed of both Democrats and Republicans. These changes especially have raised fears about injecting partisan politics into what is supposed to be the nonpartisan system of conducting elections and counting votes.

The new Georgia law gives the State Election Board the power to intervene in counties where it deems local officials have mismanaged elections. The new law also removed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger from the board.

Raffensperger, a Republican, vigorously defended the count in his state and resisted a direct appeal from Trump to look for enough votes to swing the election to him. Under the new law, the Republican-controlled legislature would have the power to appoint the chair, giving legislators the authority to appoint a majority of the board.

In Arizona, legislative committees voted last week to deny Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state, the power to defend the state against election lawsuits, shifting that power, temporarily at least, to the state attorney general. Hobbs, a Democrat, has strongly defended the validity of the 2020 election results and has challenged the Maricopa audit. It’s not clear whether the proposed change will become law, but it is indicative of the broader push by Republicans.

Local election officials have also become targets. Earlier this spring, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed legislation that, among other things, would subject county election officials to criminal prosecution for not following the law or the guidance from the secretary of state, as well as financial penalties for technical infractions.

This targeting has not just come through official channels.

A mayoral runoff election in Anchorage this month was marred by what election officials described as “unprecedented harassment of election officials.” A report from the municipal clerk cited examples of “disinformation to sow distrust,” and also cases of threatening messages, including one that said, “There are a lot of eyes on you individually. There are a lot of eyes on you as a group.”

Despite the efforts at intimidation, the clerk reported that the vote-at-home, vote-by-mail system “displayed flexibility, consistency, and accuracy, and thrived with record turnout and participation by voters.”

Nate Persily, an elections expert and professor at Stanford University, said that legislators seeking to give themselves greater power to question, challenge and intervene in elections are justifying their actions under the Constitution, which gives state legislatures — not the states — the power to regulate federal elections.

“The issue comes up every cycle but was in full bloom this time because of the allegation that state courts, local officials and secretaries of state were making up rules (usually to deal with covid) in contravention of state legislation (enacted by the legislature),” he wrote in an email exchange.

Persily said it is “far from clear” whether a legislature can overturn an election but added that “one could easily envision” cases in which legislatures say the winner of an election is in dispute or that there are questions about election integrity and therefore that they need to intervene.

“If this practice becomes routine or institutionalized, then it converts elections into advisory exercises that legislatures can take or leave as they choose,” he said. “It undermines the central function of elections as the critical stage when consent of the governed is expressed. We do not know what impact these laws will have. In fact, we will only know once it is too late.”