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Michigan charges participants in fake elector plot
04:19 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Joanna Lydgate is the former chief deputy attorney general of Massachusetts. Christine Todd Whitman is a former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under former President George W. Bush. Lydgate and Todd Whitman are co-founders of the States United Democracy Center (@StatesUnited), a nonpartisan group focused on protecting US elections, which filed bar complaints against John Eastman, a former Trump lawyer, ahead of his disciplinary trial in California. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

More than 1,000 people have been arrested for their participation in the violent riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. But so far, almost no one has faced real consequences for the conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, which began well before the attack on the Capitol.

Joanna Lydgate

That is, until now.

Christine Todd Whitman

In Michigan, the state’s Attorney General Dana Nessel and her team of prosecutors unveiled criminal charges on Tuesday against 16 people who signed and formally submitted certificates to the National Archives and the US Senate claiming they were valid presidential electors for Donald Trump, even though Joe Biden had won the state by more than 150,000 votes. The documents falsely declared the signers the “duly elected and qualified” electors from Michigan. The idea was to get then-Vice President Mike Pence to illegally refuse to certify Biden’s win.

Just hours before the Michigan news, Trump said in a social media post that he is a target of the criminal investigation led by special counsel Jack Smith into the efforts to overturn the 2020 election, a sign he may soon be charged. And the Georgia Supreme Court swatted away an attempt by the former president to derail an investigation there over his role in election interference. There are reports that state prosecutors elsewhere are also looking at these issues. Trump denies all wrongdoing.

Welcome to the summer of accountability.

This is a critical moment. What happened between Election Day 2020 and January 6 was a conspiracy to overturn a free and fair election and keep Trump in power. It was carefully planned, then carried out, step by step, in multiple states.

And we can’t let it happen again. The way to make sure it doesn’t is to push for concrete consequences for everyone who was involved. Zero tolerance for anyone who tried to undermine our elections and the will of the people.

Because our elections are run by the states, and because the plot was carried out in the states, state officials have a pivotal role to play. It’s their job to defend the voters’ right to choose for themselves, and the state laws that ensure elections remain free, fair and secure.

The facts of the Michigan case are easy to understand. On December 14, 2020, Biden’s margin over Trump in the state was about 154,000 votes, beyond any hope of reversal. State officials had certified the results. There was no pending recount. All litigation seeking to reverse the outcome had been rejected by the courts.

None of this would have been news to the fake electors. They were engaged party activists, who had access to all the latest facts and information. And yet they chose to proceed. They worked in the shadows, reportedly meeting in the basement of GOP headquarters in Lansing and leaving their phones outside the room. Two of the original fake electors who were slated to participate backed out before the certificates were signed, according to MLive.

Nessel announced charges against all 16, including conspiracy and forgery. This is entirely appropriate: Any of us would be charged under the same principle if we forged a check and tried to cash it at the bank.

More to the point, this was an alleged crime against the people of Michigan. It was an attempt to rob them of their right to decide the election for themselves. It’s Nessel’s job to defend the people in court – and to prosecute election-related crimes. And she has, regardless of party affiliation. Politics has nothing to do with it.

Soon, attention will turn to Georgia. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to announce in August whether she will bring criminal charges there. Georgia had its own slate of fake electors, and public reporting suggests it’s one element of Willis’s inquiry, as eight fake electors from the state have accepted immunity deals as part of the investigation.

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And in Washington, DC, Smith is overseeing a sweeping probe into the 2020 plot, including the elector scheme. Dozens of witnesses have already testified or been subpoenaed, including Pence and many state officials — and the grand jury appears to be nearing completion of its work.

Just as important is a push for accountability outside the criminal justice system. John Eastman, the Trump lawyer who helped draw up the plan to get Pence to throw out valid electoral votescould be disbarred in California. (Eastman’s lawyer this week denied wrongdoing, saying that he was simply “raising concerns about illegality in the conduct of an election.”) Trump ally Rudy Giuliani may face the same fate in Washington, DC, although he has indicated he will appeal the DC bar’s recommendation.

Hundreds of January 6 insurrectionists have been sentenced to prison, rightly. But let’s remember that the attack wasn’t spontaneous. The people who smashed windows and overpowered police officers that day had been fed lies about the 2020 election. The violence was the result of a conspiracy hatched weeks earlier to overturn the results, state by state.

There must be consequences for that, too. And in this summer of accountability, there’s every reason to believe there will be.