The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inspired by Arizona recount, Trump loyalists push to revisit election results in communities around the country

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

At a public meeting last week in Cheboygan County, Mich., a lawyer from Detroit told county commissioners that the voting machines they used in 2020 could “flip” votes and throw an election. She offered to send in a “forensic team,” at no charge to the county, to inspect ballots and scanners.

In Windham, N.H., supporters of former president Donald Trump showed up to a town meeting this month chanting “Stop the Steal!” and demanding that officials choose their preferred auditor to scrutinize a 400-vote discrepancy in a state representative race.

And at a board of supervisors meeting May 4 in San Luis Obispo County, on California’s Central Coast, scores of residents questioned whether election machines had properly counted their votes, with many demanding a “forensic audit.”

The ramifications of Trump’s ceaseless attacks on the 2020 election are increasingly visible throughout the country: In emails, phone calls and public meetings, his supporters are questioning how their elections are administered and pressing public officials to revisit the vote count — wrongly insisting that Trump won the presidential race.

The most prominent example is playing out in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Republican state lawmakers have forced a widely pilloried audit of the 2020 vote. That recount is being touted as an inspiration by small but vocal cohorts of angry residents in communities in multiple states.

San Luis Obispo County, Calif. and Antrim County, Mich. citizens this month quizzed county officials about baseless theories that the 2020 vote was not secure. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Nick Hagen/The Washington Post)

“I think there is clearly a justification to do that type of audit that they’re doing in Maricopa County. That’s what I wanted to see done here,” said Ken Eyring, a local activist in Windham who recently appeared at a rally with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Eyring said his only goal is to make sure Windham’s machines are accurate.

Behind the scenes, a loose network of lawyers, self-styled election experts and political groups is bolstering community efforts by demanding audits, filing lawsuits and pushing unsubstantiated claims that residents are echoing in public meetings. Much of it is playing out in largely Republican communities, where Trump supporters hope to find officials willing to support their inquiries.

The increasingly vocal protests seven months after Trump lost the White House show how deeply the former president has undermined confidence in the nation’s elections, an attack he began early in the 2020 campaign as state and local officials expanded mail voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Even as national Republican leaders say they want to move on from the last election — a rationale they used to expel Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a Trump critic, from her leadership post last week — the widespread echoes of Trump’s lie that the election was stolen show how his supporters are keeping that narrative alive.

How an obscure Texas security company helped convince Americans the 2020 election was stolen from Trump

Cheering them on is Trump himself, who has been issuing near-daily statements from his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, claiming that a cascade of findings that the election was rigged will appear any day.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they found thousands and thousands and thousands of votes,” Trump recently told a crowd attending a party at Mar-a-Lago, according to a video posted online by an attendee. “So we’re going to watch that very closely. And after that, you’ll watch Pennsylvania and you’ll watch Georgia and you’re going to watch Michigan and Wisconsin. You’re watching New Hampshire. Because this was a rigged election. Everybody knows it.”

So far, other than in Maricopa County, no major post-election audits are underway. But the clamor for them by Trump supporters has renewed pressure on beleaguered local officials — and led many to fear these fights will be a permanent feature of future elections.

“This will continue on for years,” said Gerrid Uzarski, the elections director in Kent County, Mich., whose office has been inundated with angry phone calls from residents accusing his office of allowing fraud to taint the 2020 results. “I’ve left my office in fear a little bit, had to look around and make sure no one was near me, because of the nature of the phone calls. They are so angry, they just come at you, very hateful, not looking for answers but hating you, like you are the problem.”

A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Calls for audits spread

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said in an interview Wednesday that the push for audits in her state and across the country is nothing short of an assault on democracy.

“It’s a continuation of the same forces that sought to overturn the 2020 election, undermine the counting process and interfere on Jan. 6 with the electoral college certification,” she said. “These forces have now turned to local outreach. And because there has not yet been any real accountability for these bad actors trying to undermine our democracy, we are going to continue to see this activity, particularly in swing states, through 2024.”

Election officials said the possibility of more audits also raises concerns about the security of their equipment in future elections if they are turned over to private companies without federal accreditation, as has happened in Arizona.

This week, officials in Maricopa County had had enough: In a public meeting and follow-up letter, the Republican-majority board of supervisors decried the ongoing audit as a “sham” and a “spectacle that is harming all of us.” At the meeting, the board chairman, Republican Jack Sellers, called the recount — for which Trump supporters are raising money — a “grift disguised as an audit.”

Election observers have sharply criticized Cyber Ninjas, the private company hired by the GOP-led state Senate, saying that its methods are haphazard and that it has failed to take basic security steps. The company’s chief executive has echoed baseless claims that fraud tainted the 2020 vote, and he has ties to Trump-allied lawyers who filed suits challenging the election results last year.

“The result is that the Arizona Senate is held up to ridicule in every corner of the globe and our democracy is imperiled,” county officials wrote.

Undaunted, state Senate President Karen Fann (R) said Tuesday that the audit would move forward.

‘Our democracy is imperiled’: Maricopa County officials decry 2020 recount as a sham and call on Arizona Republicans to end the process

Now, similar endeavors are emerging in other communities.

Most take aim at equipment sold or serviced by Dominion Voting Systems, a Denver-based company that has been the subject of some of Trump’s wildest accusations, including the baseless theories that the company is connected to Hugo Chávez, the late socialist leader of Venezuela. Dominion has so far filed four lawsuits related to the accusations, including one against Fox News.

While the company’s machines were used in six states where Trump sought to contest the results, key cities that helped Biden secure his win — such as Philadelphia and Tucson — used different voting equipment.

In San Luis Obispo County, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than 100 local residents lodged concerns about the county’s Dominion machines at the May 4 meeting.

Many used similar language. “I do not believe my vote was counted,” said one. “These machines can be used to alter the outcome of elections,” said another.

One woman prompted an outcry when she suggested that the county’s top election official, Tommy Gong, was a member of the Communist Party of China. Gong is a third-generation American citizen who has worked for the county clerk’s office for 15 years.

“Is Tommy Gong in any way in relationship to the Chinese Communist Party?” the woman asked in a message left on a public comment line and played aloud at the meeting.

“We were all a little shocked to hear it,” Gong said.

He added that he was bewildered by the sudden skepticism of the election in San Luis Obispo, which Biden won with 55 percent of the vote. Gong said it was not until this year that he ever heard the term “forensic audit,” including when dozens of residents repeated it in public comments to the county board. The term appears in a lawsuit filed against California state officials by a group called Election Integrity Project California, alleging without evidence that Dominion’s machines produce inaccurate tallies. The group’s website’s top feature is a fundraising pitch to “Join Us Today In Our Fight for Fair, Transparent and Honest Elections.”

A lawyer for the group did not respond to a request for comment.

Republican officials in Maricopa County, Ariz. said May 17 an audit commissioned by the GOP-led state Senate promoted falsehoods about the election. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Caitlin O’Hara/The Washington Post)

In fact, a sample recount conducted last fall, required after every election under California law, yielded only a two-vote difference from the machine tally — a typical outcome, Gong said. He noted that no one raised questions about the vote in his county during the canvassing period immediately after the election, the only time that he has the authority under California statute to conduct a review or recount.

The county’s GOP chairman, Randall Jordan, told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday that he is working with Election Integrity Project California to press for an audit of the 2020 results. He said he does not believe the 2020 vote was rigged but thinks it is essential to restore faith among those who believe voting is a “waste of their time” because of reports of fraud.

“The public has the right to ask for fair and honest elections and not take the word of our officials who have lied to us in the past,” he said.

A long battle in Michigan

Dominion also has been at the center of a long-running fight in Antrim County, Mich., which Trump won with 61 percent of the vote, where a local resident filed suit last year claiming that the election was marred by “material fraud or error.”

The accusations began when the county initially reported on election night that Biden held an unlikely 3,000-vote lead in the conservative jurisdiction; local election officials attributed that figure to human error. The error was quickly corrected, and a hand recount of ballots in December confirmed the corrected outcome — and proved that the scanners had accurately tallied the paper ballots.

Michigan judge dismisses lawsuit seeking new audit of Antrim County vote, one of the last remaining 2020 legal challenges

But the case caught the attention of Trump, who said in a statement last week: “The number of votes is MASSIVE and determinative. This will prove true in numerous other States.”

On Tuesday, a state judge dismissed the lawsuit seeking a new audit of the vote. But like dozens of legal losses for Trump allies before it, the dismissal is unlikely to tamp down fervor in Antrim, where more than a hundred Trump supporters held a rally earlier in the week that included a float festooned with the words “TRUMP UNITY.”

Discussion of the November election dominated the last meeting of the county’s local board of commissioners, on May 6, including when one commissioner made a new proposal that the board seek a “third-party complete forensic audit” of the voter registration rolls of towns within the county, to hunt for possible instances in which people voted twice.

“If you’re listening to these people, you’ll never learn the truth,” said Sheryl Guy, the Republican county clerk in Antrim, who has said since November that the Antrim error did not result from fraud. “It’s very frustrating and exhausting, and there have been moments of being fearful.”

Meanwhile, Trump allies have been pushing similar claims in other Michigan counties.

Stefanie Lambert, a lawyer who represented plaintiffs last fall seeking to overturn the Michigan election results, told a panel of Cheboygan County commissioners on May 13 that her “expert reports” proving vote manipulation in Antrim provide a mandate for an audit in Cheboygan — and that her team would pay for it.

Trump won Cheboygan, a tiny northern county of about 25,000 that straddles Lakes Michigan and Huron, with 64 percent of the vote.

“Votes can be flipped, which is very concerning, with the Michigan election equipment,” Lambert told the commissioners. “Four votes can go in for one party and be flipped to another.”

She added: “If you don’t have a right to vote and have your vote counted as it’s intended to count, then we don’t have a free country.”

Lambert did not respond to a request for comment.

Even after the dismissal of the Antrim County case, one of the Cheboygan commissioners, Republican Steve Warfield, said he found Lambert’s presentation credible and was contemplating voting for the outside audit.

“We’re in the process of learning new things every day,” Warfield said in an interview. “There certainly are questions around the election.”

But Cheboygan County election chief Karen Brewster said no irregularities were reported during or immediately after the November election.

“My canvass board certified my November election,” she said. “There weren’t any problems at all. I think it just had to do with the allegations from Antrim County. That’s what sparked this.”

Meanwhile, in Houghton County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, commissioners decided this month to refer similar accusations of vote-switching by machines to their local state senator, Ed McBroom, who leads the Senate Oversight Committee. One commissioner cited a documentary produced by Trump ally and My Pillow chief executive Mike Lindell called “Absolute Proof,” which lays out the false allegations.

McBroom, a Republican, has said publicly he does not believe Dominion machines flipped votes in Michigan. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

'In an uproar'

Allegations that there were problems with the election also have fueled heated debates in heavily Republican Windham, N.H., a town of about 14,000 that lies less than an hour north of Boston, where officials are contending with a vote-count discrepancy in a contest for state representative.

But Ross McLeod, the chairman of the local board of selectmen, said it appears some activists are more interested in discrediting the machines than in getting to the bottom of the counting irregularity.

Their goal, he said he realized: “If there’s an error found in the machines, you could extrapolate that to all the machines in New Hampshire. Then, it could go nationwide.”

The technology in the town’s voting machines dates to the 1980s, and the intellectual property rights are now held jointly by Dominion and another company, Election Systems & Software.

McLeod said that at least initially, there was broad agreement that some kind of audit of the race was necessary. After a Democrat who came in fifth in a race to seat four members of the state legislature lost narrowly and requested a hand recount in November, the margin of her loss grew substantially — from 24 votes to more than 400. Four Republicans who defeated her picked up 300 votes.

McLeod said the town reviewed presentations from various possible auditors — including Cyber Ninjas, which is heading the process in Maricopa County — and planned to choose Mark Lindeman, the co-director of Verified Voting, a company with experience auditing elections.

Activists questioning the election quickly found that Lindeman had signed a letter with other election experts questioning the need for the audit in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Spurred by reports by pro-Trump news organizations including the Gateway Pundit, they began flooding town email inboxes, urging officials to select a different auditor: J. Hutton Pulitzer, who has served as a consultant in Maricopa.

Pulitzer, who has said he has developed a technique to spot fake ballots by examining the paper on which they are printed, testified at a meeting for Georgia state legislators in December that was organized by Trump supporters and designed to showcase claims the election was stolen.

On May 3, nearly 500 people packed a meeting of the town selectmen to finalize the auditor selection, some holding signs backing Pulitzer’s selection. At times, the crowd tried to shout down the selectmen and broke out in chants of “Stop the Steal” and “Do the Right Thing.” McLeod said that when the town officials reconfirmed their selection of Lindeman, many in the audience stood and turned their backs.

“It wasn’t something I was expecting,” he said. “We’re a small town. Usually, we’re talking about what hours we have the transfer station open — that’s the dump. Or do you have to pick up your dog’s poop at Griffin Park.”

The town’s audit and recount has been underway since May 11. Unlike in Maricopa, live-stream cameras offer a view of each ballot as it is counted, as well as audio so discussion of the process can be monitored online. Lists of the names of volunteers working the audit are posted on the Internet daily.

But Eyring, the local activist who had pushed for Pulitzer’s selection, said that the ballot images are not clear and that he believed there were not enough cameras to view every piece of the process. Unlike in Maricopa, he said, the live streams have not always been turned on and visible 24 hours a day. He said he also did not believe Windham’s auditors have the technical expertise of those in Maricopa. “This audit is turning into a sham,” he said.

Eyring insisted that his goal is not to assist Trump.

“I want to know if our machines work properly or not. That’s it. That’s my whole drive with this whole thing,” he said.

Eyring added that he has heard from people across the state — where there were no troubled state representative races — that they want audits in their towns, too.

“You’ve got people in other towns and cities who are in an uproar. They’re clamoring to have their elections audited,” he said.

Others supporting the effort have more openly said the goal is to help Trump. At a rally in Windham last week, Lewandowski — a town resident — told activists that he had discussed the town’s audit with Trump recently in Florida.

Trump supporters interrupted a Windham, N.H. Board of Selectmen meeting on an audit of a local 2020 election. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Elizabeth Frantz/The Washington Post)

Days later, he noted, Trump issued a statement about the Windham effort offering congratulations to “the great Patriots of Windham” who Trump said are working to find “the truth on the massive Election Fraud which took place in New Hampshire and the 2020 Presidential Election.”

“This isn’t just about the town of Windham,” Lewandowski said at the rally, according to a video of the event posted on social media.” We’re seeing things take place across this entire country.”

Peter Stevenson contributed to this report.