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Deeley, the chair of Philadelphia’s three-member election commission and a Democrat, watched from home as Trump falsely claimed during the first 2020 presidential debate that poll watchers had already been turned away at early voting centers in Philadelphia.
“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump said.
Deeley’s cell phone immediately lit up with calls and text messages.
“A lot of my family, my friends, got a little chuckle out of it, but I knew it wasn’t at all something to laugh about,” she told CNN. “It was just the beginning.”
Trump’s efforts to subvert the election began well before Election Day, and have only gained momentum since, with Republicans passing laws to restrict voting or make it easier for partisans to interfere in more than a dozen states, including key battlegrounds. Most recently, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an election bill into law last week over the fierce objection of the state’s Democrats, who, in hopes of derailing similar restrictions proposed earlier this summer, had fled the state two times en masse.
The state legislative efforts are bolstered by a coordinated, behind-the-scenes push by conservative groups to raise millions to support restrictive voting laws, spread unproven claims about voter fraud and fund sham audits of election results. All of which, election experts say, will make it easier the next time to overturn close results, and puts the future of free and fair elections in jeopardy.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been at a point that’s been quite this tenuous for the democracy,” Christine Todd Whitman, a former GOP governor of New Jersey and a founder and co-chair of States United Democracy Center, told CNN. “I think it’s a huge danger because it’s the first time that I’ve seen it being undermined — our democracy being undermined from within.”
CNN spoke to about a dozen state and county officials involved in elections for this story; all of them expressed concern that the widespread and unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election could take a lasting toll on American democracy.
But while those efforts were stymied by a thin line of civil servants, a concerted push in myriad states to set the stage for a future power grab is finding more success.
“It’s all designed to make it easier to raise the doubt and uncertainty to allow a close election to be overturned,” said Ben Berwick, an attorney at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan organization that works to keep elections and election administration from being politicized. “2020 was a preview of what is likely to be darker times to come, if we continue down this path away from democracy.”
Big lie fuels threats against election workers
“What it’s going to cause — and we’ve seen this happening across the country — is local officials are going to leave,” said Matthew Masterson, a former senior cybersecurity adviser with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, primarily responsible for elections. “That opens the door to adding more political actors — less professional, more political actors — into the election space, which, again, is incredibly dangerous.”
Among them is Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee election commission. In early August — nine months after the election — she received voicemails calling for her hanging. Those and other threats followed two rightwing websites publishing an email exchange in which she responded to a joke by an election consultant on November 4 about how the votes had been submitted at 3 a.m. The sites suggested Woodall-Vogg delivered Joe Biden a questionable win in her district.
“Are we going to hold people who are publishing conspiracy theories accountable when someone does get killed?” Woodall-Vogg said in an interview with CNN.
“It got millions of views,” Deeley, an elected official, told CNN. “And awful comments about my physical shape, people called me all kinds of names, people saying I should be hung for treason, that ‘we should find out where she lives and kill her,’ ‘we should bludgeon her.’ I mean — unbelievable.”
The city was also flooded with threatening phone calls.
“People just wanted to believe,” Deeley said. “They want to believe something that is not true. And there’s not one shred of evidence to prove that it’s true, but they just want to believe it.”
It isn’t just election officials who have faced threats. In Arizona, which in last year’s presidential vote flipped from red to blue, a wave of animus came down on the majority-Republican Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which oversees elections for about 60% of the state’s voters.
“On a daily basis … we’re told that we need to go in, go to jail — either on social media, phone calls to the office, emails — and the threats do continue,” said Bill Gates, a Republican member of the board, adding that last month, “My colleagues and I all were treated to an orange jumpsuit that a gentleman sent to us and, you know, declared that we will end up in jail someday because we are traitors in the minds of these people.”
Pressure campaign results in coup attempt
“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” he told a group of supporters in Wisconsin last August.
After the election, as the days ticked by, Trump’s increasingly desperate behavior produced a steady barrage of headlines — as it always has. From his perch at the White House, a symbol of the strongest democracy in human history, he made personal phone calls to local officials, badgering them to change the results.
He paid considerable attention to Georgia, another state that flipped from red to blue in November.
In a particularly stunning exchange, Trump tried to convince Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to change the vote count — a move that became part of a criminal state investigation into attempts to “influence the election.”
During that call, Trump said he wanted to “find 11,780 votes” — the amount he needed to win Georgia by a single vote.
Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, also made the rounds. He phoned Gates, the Republican member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in Arizona.
Gates did not return the call.
“This was the first time that I was ever aware of that you had folks at the national level trying to impose their will on a county elected official,” Gates told CNN. “That was bizarre and frightening.”
Trump also convened multiple meetings with elected officials from purple states at the White House to discuss election fraud, even though his own Department of Homeland Security declared the election “the most secure in American history.”
And on January 6 in Washington — the day Vice President Mike Pence disregarded Trump’s request to challenge the results — Trump told tens of thousands of supporters who’d convened in DC that day to “fight like hell.” A deadly riot ensued shortly after at the US Capitol.
None of that worked to keep Trump in office. But the extraordinary events of the past year raise the question: Was the chaotic campaign to circumvent the will of American voters unique to Trump? Or has a new standard been set?
“Trump-ism is going to survive Donald Trump, and he has unleashed a set of forces, anti-democratic — small-D democratic — anti-democratic forces that are going to plague American democracy for years to come,” warned Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “I think we’re in grave danger.”
New laws shift election powers
Four months later, in March, Kemp signed a voting bill into law that, had it been in place for the 2020 election, would have barred even himself from receiving a ballot, said Tonnie Adams, a self-described conservative who serves as elections supervisor for Georgia’s Heard County.
“I’m not kidding,” Adams told CNN. “Gov. Kemp would not have been able to vote if this rule had been in place.”
Voter-outreach groups say the batch of new statutes represents the most serious threat to the voting power of the marginalized since Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests, which sought to curtail the Black vote and were banished by the 24th Amendment and federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Aklima Khondoker, chief legal officer of the New Georgia Project — a nonpartisan voter registration group founded by Stacey Abrams — said the surge of new laws is “shocking, but not surprising.”
“I was shocked because it is appalling to see this out-and-out lie proliferate the way that it has over our elections,” she said. “It’s not surprising, because when you look at the history of voting — not only in Georgia but across our nation — it has always been fraught. It has always come up against challenges to people of color specifically.”
Georgia’s new law, experts say, is the boldest of the bunch.
“It’s a massive power grab,” said Adams.
But Georgia’s law and others passed in 2021 are calling for a new kind of tactic that experts find alarming, in which elections are increasingly overseen by partisan officials. Hasen, the elections expert at UC Irvine, calls it “election subversion,” a phenomenon that he says is distinct from “voter suppression” and is “newly appearing on the horizon.”
“The idea here is manipulating how votes are counted or how elections are conducted, so that it’s possible that the winner who was announced is not actually the choice of the voters,” Hasen said.
In Arizona, a new law includes a remarkable end run around Democrats.
In recent months, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law GOP measures that, along with enacting voting restrictions and making it easier to purge early voting lists, stripped power from the secretary of state, Democrat Katie Hobbs. It shifts control over any election-related litigation to Arizona’s attorney general, currently Republican Mark Brnovich, but only until January 2023, when Hobbs’ term ends — in effect, ensuring that a Republican official will control any litigation over mid-term elections in that state.
“That’s pretty blatant,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program.
Hobbs told CNN it’s all part of a larger coordinated effort.
“We’re seeing a shift to highly partisan individuals wanting to put these powers in the hands of other highly partisan individuals,” she said.
“There’s a lot of seats last election cycle won by a few hundred votes,” state Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat, told CNN. “That’s the whole point. Because they know they don’t need to put something in law that says Black people can’t vote. They just need for point five percent of Black people not to be able to vote.”
All told, experts and activists say, many of the new election laws share the quality of having been put forth as the solution to a nonexistent problem — widespread voter fraud — manufactured by Trump and the GOP.
“We’d already had a couple of weeks of just total chest-thumping — we’re great, did well, yay, Florida’s not a laughingstock anymore,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which is suing the state for its new law. “So to then be quote ‘rewarded’ … with these limitations and restrictions that are likely to have a disparate impact on minorities and the youth and the disabled, is very concerning.”
After Kemp signed the new voter law in Georgia, he made a point of sounding off on his political foes, chief among them President Joe Biden, who had employed some hyperbole of his own when he called the new law “Jim Crow on steroids.”
“President Biden, the left, and the national media are determined to destroy the sanctity and security of the ballot box,” Kemp said.
‘Working off the same playbook’
Less than a week before the Georgia legislature passed its controversial election bill, a former Trump administration official named Jessica Anderson met with Kemp.
“I had one message for him: Do not wait to sign that bill,” she said she had told him. “If you wait even an hour, you will look weak.”
In the video, Anderson claimed that Heritage had recommended eight key provisions in the bill that Kemp signed, and that Heritage has done the same for other states.
“In some cases, we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe,” she said at the closed-door retreat in April.
Kemp’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Behind the scenes, the efforts to limit voting rights in statehouses around the country are being organized and encouraged by deep-pocketed conservative groups raising the specter of voting fraud.
Many of the bills passed by legislators in recent months made those same changes. “They are all working off the same playbook,” said Berwick, the attorney with Protect Democracy.
In a statement to CNN that echoed arguments made by Republican legislators around the country, Anderson said Heritage was “proud of our grassroots members’ work to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
“Members of the press using their platforms to spin up paranoia and resentment instead of covering problems with our election systems and focusing on real efforts to secure our elections are doing a disservice to their audiences,” she said.
Other conservative groups have also worked to challenge voting laws in the courts, sued states and counties to encourage more frequent purges of voter rolls, and recruited poll watchers to challenge voters’ eligibility. And many of the organizations are funded by the same big donors and deep-pocketed foundations, such as the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to groups that have advocated for more restrictive voting laws or pushed unproven claims about voting fraud, according to tax records.
In a statement to CNN, Bradley spokesperson Christine Czernejewski said the foundation “has supported efforts that encourage voter participation and give Americans the confidence that their vote matters,” adding that in light of pandemic-related changes to voting in 2020, “it is reasonable and prudent to assess last year’s elections and then determine how to improve the system.” Czernejewski did not make Mitchell available for an interview.
Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state, said it was clear that conservatives trying to restrict voting rights were working together — including in right-wing efforts to “audit” the 2020 election results.
“There’s been really what seems to be a coordinated approach on multiple scores, introducing bills to make it harder to vote, bills that change who oversees certain aspects of elections — and then continuing this fake audit that will undermine reality,” Hobbs said.
Sham audits are keeping the big lie alive
The Arizona audit began with a three-page subpoena to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors containing a typo that, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
In the subpoena, a GOP state legislator in Arizona demanded a list of items and data, including the “ballet cancel date.” The word should have been “ballot.”
Since Cyber Ninjas’ controversial examination began in April, two other Trump-backing state legislators — one in Wisconsin, one in Pennsylvania — have sent their own demands to election officials in their states. Both contained much of the same boilerplate language, right down to the ballet/ballot typo. (In all three states, the results of the November election have already been confirmed in official audits by experts.)
The Wisconsin letter also seemed to crib language from the Pennsylvania one. Like the Pennsylvania letter, the subpoena from Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen demands access to data from a specific voting machine model made by Election Systems & Software, even though that model isn’t used in Wisconsin. It also seeks training material for “Judges of Elections.” Pennsylvania has election judges; Wisconsin does not.
The copy-and-pasting gaffes are another illustration of the coordination among Trumpian Republicans nationwide in their efforts to keep the narrative of a stolen election alive.
“Attacks on voter rights are not new, but this coordination is,” said Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state.
“This process isn’t an audit or review, but instead a grift,” said Masterson, the former Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity adviser. “This is an effort and a playbook that, unfortunately, we’ll see again, because it has proven to be effective both in the messaging and in the fundraising around it.”
In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s threat to subpoena several counties for election materials unraveled last month when he announced that his plan to bring the matter to a vote on the GOP-dominated committee that he chairs had been blocked. But state Republicans launched an election review this week, an effort led by state Sen. Cris Dush, who visited Arizona’s audit this spring and said he “absolutely” wants to replicate the process there.
Taken together, the pseudo audits, the widespread claims of a stolen election despite a lack of credible evidence, the hounding of election officials by the White House, Trump’s attempts to turn the Department of Justice into a weapon against a fair outcome, the threats of bodily harm to people in charge of counting the votes, the wave of new laws that restrict voting in response to false claims of election fraud and could put more partisans in charge of elections — and all of it increasingly underwritten by the full force of a mighty political machine — add up to a warning: Americans on the losing end of elections may become less and less willing to accept the results.
In short, as the nation’s culture and demographics shift, one of the two major political parties in the world’s beacon of democracy has a huge faction that favors contracting the vote over expanding the party tent.
“It used to be unthinkable to contemplate election subversion in the United States,” Hasen said. “It’s now not only become thinkable, but become something that we need to spend the next few years guarding against. It is the greatest danger facing American democracy today.”
CNN’s Drew Griffin, Curt Devine, Scott Bronstein, Yahya Abou-Ghazala and Audrey Ash contributed to this story.