The subtler ways our elections could be undermined

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Since the 2020 election, most of the coverage of the GOP push for the power to question and even overturn future elections has focused on positions at the highest levels of government. And for good reason. Donald Trump has made a concerted effort to install loyalists and election deniers as secretaries of state and in other high-ranking positions with election responsibilities in key states. And the overall tenor of such GOP primaries nationwide has trended decidedly toward Trump’s baseless allegations of a “stolen election” — despite the lessons of Jan. 6, 2021. When people who say they wouldn’t have certified President Biden’s 2020 win might be in a position to stop that come 2024, that matters a lot.

But it’s worth emphasizing and reemphasizing just how much these battles could truly be forged at the lowest levels of government — involving people and positions you’ve probably never heard of. These are the positions Republicans have long proved superior at mobilizing their side to focus on. And a new Politico report reinforces how an effort to sway future elections could spring from those positions.

As Heidi Przybyla writes:

Video recordings of Republican Party operatives meeting with grass roots activists provide an inside look at a multipronged strategy to target and potentially overturn votes in Democratic precincts: Install trained recruits as regular poll workers and put them in direct contact with party attorneys.

The plan, as outlined by a Republican National Committee staffer in Michigan, includes utilizing rules designed to provide political balance among poll workers to install party-trained volunteers prepared to challenge voters at Democratic-majority polling places, developing a website to connect those workers to local lawyers and establishing a network of party-friendly district attorneys who could intervene to block vote counts at certain precincts.

“Being a poll worker, you just have so many more rights and things you can do to stop something than [as] a poll challenger,” said Matthew Seifried, the RNC’s election integrity director for Michigan, stressing the importance of obtaining official designations as poll workers in a meeting with GOP activists in Wayne County last Nov. 6. It is one of a series of recordings of GOP meetings between summer of 2021 and May of this year obtained by POLITICO.

Backing up those front-line workers, “it’s going to be an army,” Seifried promised at an Oct. 5 training sessions. “We’re going to have more lawyers than we’ve ever recruited, because let’s be honest, that’s where it’s going to be fought, right?”

Indeed, that is where it’s largely going to be fought, at least initially. And the fact that it’s being preemptively pitched as a war tells you what kind of people might be drawn into taking part, especially in a party in which a majority wrongly believe the 2020 election was illegitimate.

You need only look to 2020 for proof of the importance of these lower-profile positions, particularly in Michigan. It was the GOP canvassers in Detroit-based Wayne County who momentarily declined to certify the results there. It was poll workers and challengers whose claims and affidavits — often quickly debunked — became the basis for far-fetched legal challenges seeking to throw out votes. (One of them was Kristina Karamo, who has parlayed that she to become the GOP-backed candidate for Michigan secretary of state). It was a clerk in Antrim County and a GOP state senator who rejected claims that an easily explained error there was some kind of a canary in a voter-fraud coal mine.

Around the country, it was officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) standing in the way of these efforts — but it was also lower-profile officials like GOP supervisors in Maricopa County, Ariz., and a statewide Republican canvasser in Michigan , Aaron Van Langevelde.

Since then, there has been a concerted effort to remove them and the roadblocks they posed.

Several Michigan canvassers who certified Biden’s win — Van Langevelde and also others at the county level — are now out. The deniers are being elevated, while those who stand by the election results have repeatedly been censured.

Just as important, laws are being changed, despite no evidence calling the 2020 election results into question. As we wrote late last year, not only are secretaries of state being targeted for defeat by Trump allies, but two (Raffensperger and Katie Hobbs in Arizona) have been stripped of election-related power. Wisconsin Republicans are trying to get rid of a bipartisan election commission and put the process under more partisan control (and recently succeeded in pushing a critic of Trump’s fraud claims to resign). They’ve increased the penalties for supposedly wrongdoing by election administrators. A report last week from a watchdog showed 14 states had passed laws that would make it easier to challenge elections in various ways.

It’s possible to oversell the true danger of any of this. Some doubt, for instance, the impact that canvassers can have when it comes to not certifying a vote — given that such canvassers’ jobs are generally ministerial. Even poll workers who raise a fuss about mundane vote-counting issues could see their efforts rebuffed by the courts when push comes to shove, as they were in 2020. It’s possible the 2024 election won’t be close enough for any of this to matter , and that the fever in the GOP surrounding voter fraud could break if, for instance, Trump fades politically.

But one of the lessons of 2020 is that the few Republicans who clearly rebuked Trump’s claim were, not coincidentally, disproportionately those who were forced to actually take a position by virtue of their official duties. Such people have since been weeded out, often through targeting in GOP primaries, but also through attrition (such as election workers heading for the exits because of threats); in several cases Republicans have warmed to voter-fraud claims they never endorsed back in 2020. The pressure has been palpable, and it’s manifested itself in a number of ways that matter, irrespective of Raffensperger somehow managing to win renomination last week.

The problem with telling that story — of how democracy could be undermined at the grass roots — is that it’s very difficult to get a handle on it in any truly authoritative and quantitative way; it depends so much on the views of people whose views have never been recorded, because nobody outside of a select few even know who they are.

But there is little doubt about what kinds of people will be drawn to these lower-level positions, because we’re seeing what kinds of people are being drawn into running for similar, higher-profile roles.

And the problem could go beyond poll workers raising and legally valid complaints or canvassers of state refusing to certify results. As we saw in 2020, the simple presence of enough smoke and misinformation was enough to get state and congressional Republicans to seriously consider overriding the vote totals in certain states. The effort to get GOP-run state legislatures to send alternate slates of electors and Congress to reject the results on Jan. 6 was haphazard and didn’t pan out, but we’re in a very different environment even than we were then.

And if enough election truthers are in place to color the process from the grass-roots level up — in a way they failed to in 2020 when the groundwork wasn’t yet laid — it’s not so difficult to see Republicans justifying decisions to themselves that they didn’t in 2020. Because if there’s one thing the Trump was has reinforced, it’s that these things often flow up from the bottom.

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