As former President Donald Trump prepares for a potential comeback bid in 2024, his allies are flocking to election jobs all the way down to the local level in key battleground states, raising new concerns that the election officials who blocked Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election won’t be there the next time around.
Trump himself has endorsed candidates for secretary of state and attorney general – statewide races that play a crucial role in administering elections – who have spread his lies about 2020. But in addition to statewide roles, Trump’s acolytes are pursuing local election posts, even trickling down to the precinct level, and seeking to gain more prominent roles in state GOP parties and state legislatures ahead of the 2024 presidential campaign.
In Michigan, for instance, several new Republican appointees to county canvassing boards who have said they wouldn’t have certified the 2020 election are replacing the GOP members who did certify the election result. One appointee in Macomb County urged Trump after the election to invoke the Insurrection Act and suspend the Electoral College meeting to set up military tribunals to investigate claims of election fraud.
Michigan is a microcosm of a broader, nationwide strategy being carried out by Trump allies like Steve Bannon, who has advocated for Trump’s backers to infiltrate local Republican Party positions as well as election posts.
“We’re taking over the Republican Party through the precinct committee strategy. We’re taking over all the elections,” Bannon said on an episode of his “War Room” podcast last month.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of three November and we’re going to decertify the electors,” he continued. “And you’re going to have a constitutional crisis. But you know what? We’re a big and tough country, and we can handle that, we’ll be able to handle that. We’ll get through that.”
Bannon told CNN he considers his podcast an instrument for self-organizing for the Trump faithful. He often features guests who are spearheading local efforts encouraging Trump supporters to get involved in election-related positions, run for roles of influence within their local parties or to run for higher office.
“It’s about winning elections with the right people – MAGA people,” Bannon said. “We will have our people in at every level.”
Bannon played a key role in Trump’s efforts to pressure Congress to object to certifying the election in the days leading up to January 6, including huddling with Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani and speaking with Trump by phone on January 5. Bannon was indicted by the Justice Department last month and charged with contempt of Congress after he refused to cooperate with the House select committee investigating January 6.
Bannon said he sees his efforts as akin to Democrats building out their ground game.
“Every time Democrats win it’s for the same reason: They organize,” Bannon said.
Bannon insisted this was not effort to ensure Trump can flip the next election, instead parroting an often-repeated line among Republicans these days: They want to ensure every “legal” vote is counted in 2022 and 2024 – even though there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Democracy advocates have raised alarm at the effort from Trump, Bannon and their allies to help their supporters obtain positions running elections when Trump could again be on the ballot in 2024. The fear is that Trump will have allies at all levels of state government – from state officials who administer elections to election judges who handle precinct disputes to state legislators who could intervene to select presidential electors – who could aid the former President in undermining an election result that went against him.
In Michigan, Trump has backed Kristina Karamo, a poll challenger running for secretary of state who falsely claimed Trump won the state in 2020, and Matthew DePerno, who filed a dubious lawsuit challenging Michigan’s 2020 election results and is now running for attorney general. And in Georgia, where Trump’s lobbying of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for him to win is now the subject of a Fulton County investigation, Trump has endorsed GOP Rep. Jody Hice in the primary to defeat Raffensperger. Hice voted against certifying the 2020 election in Congress and has backed Trump’s baseless claims of fraud.
The fear, Trump’s critics say, is that the former President’s allies who embrace his lies about election fraud could undermine future presidential elections, whether by refusing to certify the result, urging state legislatures to intervene or eroding public confidence in the outcome.
Pennsylvania’s judicial election campaigns
But the gains Trump’s allies have made at the local level are just as concerning to advocates, who say those officials in charge of polling places and county election certifications can also have an outsize impact.
“Good, nonpartisan elections officials are being replaced with conspiracy theorists, and the goal is to make it easier to undermine the will of the voters if the preferred candidates of the partisan election hijackers do not win,” said Norm Eisen, a CNN legal analyst and co-chair of the States United Democracy Center.
States United has focused research efforts in Pennsylvania, a state that Joe Biden flipped to win the White House in 2020 and that Trump has falsely claimed he won. Pennsylvania’s election system has a unique quirk: Its election judges and inspectors are elected, not appointed.
The positions are at the precinct level and involve running individual election precincts on Election Day and handling disputes at the polls. These races are won with just a couple hundred votes – if any candidate even ran. In many of the races that just occurred during Pennsylvania’s 2021 municipal elections, there was no candidate on the ballot, meaning a write-in campaign with just a handful of votes was enough for some people to get elected.
States United examined the candidates in two Pennsylvania Counties, York and Lancaster, finding many of the candidates had expressed sympathy with Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims on social media, if they didn’t outright endorse them. Most won in a race without opposition.
In one election judge race in a Lancaster County township, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to run a write-in candidate against a Republican candidate who attended Trump’s January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally.
Michigan’s canvassing boards get new GOP members
Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000 votes, but Trump made personal calls to GOP county canvassing board members before they certified the 2020 election result. In the state’s largest county, Wayne County, the two Republican commissioners initially refused to certify the election, before backing down amid an outcry.
Monica Palmer, one of two Republican board members whose term expired this year, wanted to be renominated, but the party did not do so, according to the Detroit News, which first reported on the changes to the canvassing boards and found Republicans had made changes to the canvassing boards in eight of the state’s 11 biggest counties.
Palmer was replaced by Robert Boyd, who told the Detroit Free Press he would not have certified the 2020 election.
“I believe they were inaccurate,” he told the paper, though there’s been no evidence of widespread fraud. Asked to explain the basis for the claim, Boyd responded: “I don’t know, I wasn’t there, you know? It’s hard to second guess that kind of stuff until you’re there, that’s one reason I wanted to be on the committee.”
Boyd did not respond to CNN requests for comment.
In Macomb County, Nancy Tiseo was recently appointed to the Board of Canvassers.
“Fair elections, correct elections, that’s all important to me,” she told the Macomb Board of Commissioners as it considered her appointment.
Tiseo has a history of spreading misinformation about the 2020 election. In a November 2020 tweet, she called on Trump to use the Insurrection Act and delay the Electoral College “so military tribunals can 1st be set up to properly investigate” fraud claims. She later urged him, via Twitter, not to concede.
CNN left messages seeking comment with phone numbers associated with Tiseo. She did not respond.
If a county board fails to certify an election result, it’s kicked up to Michigan’s state canvassing board – where the Republican who was pressured to block the 2020 election certification but did not do so was replaced earlier this year – and then could end up in the courts.
Chris Thomas, who was a longtime Michigan director of elections, said that the changes to the composition of the county canvassing boards was alarming, and that any refusal to certify elections ultimately undermines voters’ faith in elections even if the issue is ultimately resolved.
“That raises doubt, it raises questions where there are no real reasons to raise those questions or doubts,” he said. “And that’s harmful to voter confidence and to the stability of our democratic process.”
‘I’m with you all the way’
In September, Trump endorsed his preferred candidates in Michigan for secretary of state and attorney general, backing Republicans who supported his election lies. But Trump has also eyed adding influence in the state legislature. His team in 2020 had hoped the legislature would intervene to appoint an alternate slate of presidential electors.
Last month, Trump endorsed state Rep. Matt Maddock to be the next House GOP leader in Michigan. Maddock tweeted a picture of Trump signing a news story about his run, writing, “I’m with you all the way.”
In the state legislature, Trump allies like Karamo, his secretary of state pick, have criticized GOP leadership for not backing Trump’s false claims of fraud or launching an Arizona-style partisan review of the 2020 results (that review ultimately found that Biden did indeed win the Grand Canyon State). And they’ve attacked a Michigan Senate GOP report realized earlier this year that found no evidence of widespread fraud in the state.
After the election, Maddock was part of the push to try to convince then-Vice President Mike Pence not to affirm Biden’s win during congressional certification of the presidential election.
“We’ve got a handful of legislators in Michigan that are going to be sending a letter to Vice President Pence today telling him not to certify the Michigan electors,” he said at a rally in Washington on January 5.
Maddock declined CNN’s request for an interview.
Democratic Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who told CNN she is running for reelection in 2022, said she’s gearing up for a fight over possible efforts to undermine the 2024 election.
“Everything we have overcome this far was truly just the beginning,” she said. “And it’s not hyperbolic to look at 2020 as a prelude to a much bigger, much more significant challenge to our democracy that is looming ahead of us with the 2024 presidential election.”