Editor’s Note: This story contains disturbing language.
When the election office led by Lisa Deeley first came under attack from then-President Donald Trump last year, it was more than a month before Election Day.
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.
For weeks after the election, Trump tried to sabotage the will of American voters in his relentless attempts to overturn the results. He and his allies browbeat local officials in multiple states and tried in vain to coerce the Department of Justice to open a bogus investigation. They dispatched attorneys to file nearly 60 lawsuits across the country; all but one minor case were dropped or dismissed – some by Trump-appointed judges.
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
Polls show most Republican voters continue to believe Trump’s lie that he won the election. In July, a poll from The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that two-thirds of Republicans still believe Biden was not legitimately elected.
That big lie, coupled with punishing new laws and threats against poll workers, has prompted fatigue in the field and a potential exodus of knowledgeable people to run smooth elections in the future, experts and poll workers say.
“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.”
Nearly 1 in 3 election officials say they feel unsafe because of their jobs, and about 1 in 5 listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern, according to a spring survey commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s Law School.
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.
In Philadelphia, Deeley was confronted outside the convention center a few days after the election by a man taking a cellphone video of her walking down the street. It was James Fitzpatrick, Trump’s Pennsylvania director of Election Day operations, who lobbed allegations of corruption at her as she covered her face.
“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
Just as he did in 2016, when he claimed the upcoming election was “rigged” against him, Trump started calling the integrity of the 2020 election into question long before any vote was cast.
“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.
But it wasn’t until this summer, when a series of revelations surfaced about how Trump had sought to use his Department of Justice as a cudgel to turn a loss into a win, that it became clear what the totality of his actions amounted to: an attempted coup.
In late July, the Department of Justice released documents showing that Trump in December had threatened to replace his acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, with a midlevel attorney in the Justice Department named Jeffrey Clark, who’d been meeting with Trump and promoted wild conspiracy theories about election fraud – such as that a Dominion voting machine had “accessed the Internet through a smart thermostat with a net connection trail leading back to China.” Clark also urged his superiors – Rosen and his deputy, Richard Donoghue – to sign a letter to Georgia’s governor falsely claiming the Department of Justice had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.”
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
Five days before the November election, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced that he and his wife were in quarantine after having been in contact with someone who’d tested positive for Covid-19. That day, Kemp requested an absentee ballot, which arrived a day before the election.
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.”
Under Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021, voters are not permitted to apply for an absentee ballot within 11 days before the election – which would have invalidated Kemp. In addition to making absentee voting – or “mail-in voting” – harder in this and other ways, the new law reduces drop boxes, essentially bans mobile voting centers, makes it illegal for election officials to mail out unsolicited absentee-ballot applications to all voters, and also makes it illegal for people to offer food or water to voters in line within a certain radius of the voting precinct.
Georgia’s law is just one of a slew to be proposed or enacted in the noisy aftermath of the election, all hurriedly conceived at a time of rampant amplification of Trump’s lie. The Justice Department is suing the state over its new voting restrictions.
In more than a dozen states – including toss-ups like Georgia, Arizona and Florida – Republican-led legislatures are enacting laws that could make it more difficult to vote. The restrictions are expected to disproportionately impact a rapidly growing demographic – non-White voters – to the benefit of a shrinking Republican base.
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.
To be sure, there are some provisions of the 98-page Georgia law that actually expand voting access, such as weekend hours during the early voting period.
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.
Georgia’s law takes what had been the secretary of state’s seat on the state elections board and hands it to a legislative appointee, granting the GOP-controlled legislature more power over the board. It then allows that board to suspend county election officials and replace them with an individual of its choosing. The law effectively empowers partisan state lawmakers to intervene in how counties administer and count the vote – a process that has already begun in Fulton County, the state’s most populous, predominantly blue county that’s faced complaints over its election operations for years.
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.
Most recently, in Texas, a months-long drama over a voting bill came to a head last week when Gov. Abbott signed a measure that will tighten restrictions on mail-in voting, reduce hours for drive-thru voting, criminalize the act of sending mail-in voting applications to people who haven’t requested them, and grant more powers to partisan poll watchers. Democratic state lawmakers went to extremes to block passage, saying the effort is aimed at curtailing the minority vote in urban centers. In May, more than 50 of them decamped from the state Capitol, derailing a similar bill. They repeated the move in July, prompting the state House speaker to sign warrants for their civil arrest.
“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.
For instance, in Florida, even Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis boasted in November about how smoothly the 2020 election went in the Sunshine State, which Trump won. And yet, in May, DeSantis signed into law a bill that restricts voting, saying it would “increase transparency and strengthen the security of our elections.”
“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.
After the election, three separate audits were conducted in Georgia; none found evidence of widespread fraud.
‘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.
In a leaked video published by the watchdog group Documented and Mother Jones magazine, Anderson – now the executive director of Heritage Action for America, an affiliate of the enormously influential conservative Heritage Foundation – told the audience of donors what she told 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.
The Heritage Foundation published a list of “best practices” for voting laws earlier this year that includes limiting absentee voting, banning same-day and automatic voter registration, and making it easier for state legislatures to sue other state officials over election rules.
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.
Back in April, in addition to taking credit for much of Georgia’s bill, Anderson of Heritage Action told the donors her group had also helped push similar bills in Arizona and Iowa. (Iowa lawmakers have denied working with the group on their voting legislation, and a state ethics investigation found no evidence that Heritage lobbied state officials and lawmakers.)
And Heritage lobbyists and activists also worked with GOP legislators in Florida to shape their new restrictive voting law.
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.
The efforts by Trump to overturn the election result and conservatives to rewrite voting rules are deeply linked. The Bradley Foundation’s board includes Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer who joined Trump on his call to Georgia election officials in which the president asked them to “find” thousands of votes for him. Documents from the group posted by hackers in 2016 (and later obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) show that the foundation shifted over the last decade from a focus on Wisconsin issues to funding national conservative groups and think tanks, a change encouraged by Mitchell.
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.
A company running a particularly controversial right-wing ballot inspection in Arizona has received millions of dollars from groups led by Trump allies, including Sidney Powell, one of the lawyers who filed Trump’s cases to overturn the election results, and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
“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.”
The election materials seized from the subpoena were handed over to Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity company whose CEO, Doug Logan, has declared his support for Trump and repeatedly spread misinformation on social media insinuating that Biden stole the election. (Some of the misinformation shared by Logan has come in the form of retweeted false claims of fraud by Powell, Flynn and Ron Watkins, a heavy promoter of QAnon conspiracy theories. Logan has since deleted his Twitter account.)
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.
The Arizona review’s stack of well-documented problems is tall: a contractor inexperienced in election audits; millions in partisan funding from “Stop the Steal” advocates; procedures made public only after court battles; counting and review processes that changed midstream; internal fights that led the auditors to lock out the state Senate’s own liaison for a time.
“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 Wisconsin, Brandtjen’s subpoenas don’t appear to carry any legal weight. A recent memo from Wisconsin’s Legislative Council noted that, under state law, legislative subpoenas must be signed by the assembly’s speaker and chief clerk, which Brandtjen’s subpoenas are not. A separate review, ordered by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, is being led by a former state supreme court justice who last year told a pro-Trump rally that a stolen election would be “systematically unjust.”
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.