They were part of an effort across battleground states to upend the 2020 presidential election results, signing documents asserting they were their states’ rightful electors and Donald Trump — not Joe Biden — was the victor.
Today, the U.S. Justice Department is circling these “fake electors.” The FBI has visited many of their homes delivering grand jury subpoenas and, in at least one case, seizing a cellphone, a source familiar with the investigation confirmed to NBC News. And the Jan. 6 Select Committee has compelled many of them to testify, arguing they were an integral part of a broader scheme cooked up by some of Trump’s closest confidants to overturn the election.
Law enforcement activity has not pushed these false electors from their political perches.
Instead, with just two months until the midterms, more than two dozen of the individuals who served as phony electors still hold some of the highest-ranking political posts in their state parties. They’re also interwoven into the GOP infrastructure across seven battleground states that will determine the balance of Congress in November and the next presidential race two years later, according to a review by NBC News.
At issue is the attempt by Republicans in seven battleground states that Biden won in 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — to offer phony slates of 84 Republicans most of whom signed certificates declaring themselves the “duly elected electors” from their states. The problem: There were official, state-certified electors for Biden whose votes were sent to Congress to be counted as part of the verification of presidential election results.
The Trump effort, which even his own White House counsel said was not “legally sound,” according to Jan. 6 committee testimony, was ultimately unsuccessful. But the committee has presented testimony that members of Trump’s team plotted the scenario in advance of what ultimately led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. A Trump spokesman declined to comment.
Now, at least four false electors are running for public office and have already won their Republican primaries this year, including for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Two others are serving as paid campaign staffers for major Republicans like Arizona U.S. Senate nominee Blake Masters and Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. In Nevada, one fake elector is the chief election official of his county, while another in Wisconsin, Bob Spindell, serves on the state’s elections commission, a panel that makes critical decisions around election fraud. After the elector scheme came into fuller view last year, the Wisconsin state senate’s majority leader reappointed Spindell to a five-year term, calling him a “fighter” when “election integrity is on the line.”
Three of those who submitted their names on a slate of false electors are the chairs of their respective state Republican parties. Michael McDonald, Nevada’s GOP chair and a staunch Trump supporter, had his cellphone seized by the FBI in June, a source familiar with the investigation confirmed to NBC News. Arizona’s Republican chair, Kelli Ward, and her husband have been served with grand jury subpoenas and are fighting the panel’s request for her phone records. And Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer was subpoenaed by the Department of Justice.
False electors remain in influential posts and retain their political bully pulpits, which could be used to continue perpetuating theories of false election results and encouraging attempts to upend the next round of elections, said Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican and executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, a group that opposes Trump.
Longwell argued the false electors are an extension of what’s become a litmus test in the Republican Party: election denialism.
“When it’s tolerated by the entire party, and in fact, the vast majority of the party is pushing the same lie, it creates an environment in which accountability is very difficult,” Longwell said. “The only way for anybody to end the collective illusion is for Republicans to say, ‘This is nonsense.’ We basically need 20 other Liz Cheneys in the Republican Party.”
But the party is framing the federal probe as a politically fueled overreach by a Democratic-led administration that’s out to stifle the GOP just before a critical midterm. Various state parties and Republican officials have dismissed investigations — including in Georgia and the Michigan attorney general’s referral to federal prosecutors — as politically motivated.
All told, 23 of those false electors hold positions of power within their Republican parties. Beyond that, at least two fake electors hold leadership posts in their state legislatures and three are currently running for state legislative seats. Then there are additional actors that didn’t serve in the slate of false electors themselves but were instrumental in the scheme. In the case of 2020 election denier Doug Mastriano, he is now the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania. Mastriano was reportedly Trump’s point person on the fake elector scheme in Pennsylvania and was also outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s really distressing that many of them are still heavily involved,” said Jeff Mandell, who is the lead attorney in a Wisconsin civil case challenging the actions of electors, in what he called the first lawsuit of its kind. “These people violated the most fundamental idea of how our democracy works, and there shouldn’t be a place for them at this point in our political life and the public square.”
That lawsuit targets Wisconsin’s 10 false electors, saying they signed false documents asserting they were the duly elected electors in their state even though legal remedies to overturning the state’s election outcome had been exhausted. The lawsuit describes the electors as the necessary agents in a scheme to steal the 2020 election, culminating with a violent mob storming the Capitol.
“Once these fraudulent votes were cast, Trump and his allies would pressure Pence to count them on January 6, 2021, and to reject the votes of the duly elected presidential electors from each State,” the lawsuit contends. “The schemers believed that, if Pence were to count the fraudulent electoral votes from each swing state rather than the votes duly cast by the elected presidential electors, Trump would win the Electoral College and be inaugurated.”
The electors in Wisconsin and elsewhere, however, have said they believed they were to be used as a contingency plan in case a court found in Trump’s favor.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ office has empaneled a special grand jury to conduct its own investigation into the electors scheme and election interference in 2020. In July, attorneys for 11 of Georgia’s 16 false presidential electors attempted to quash subpoenas from that grand jury, calling them “unreasonable and oppressive.”
Perhaps the most notable fake elector in Georgia is Gov. Brian Kemp’s running mate — state Sen. Burt Jones, who is the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Others hold positions of power within the state GOP, including Shafer, who is chair; Joseph Brannan, state GOP treasurer; Vikki Consiglio, the state party’s assistant treasurer; and Ken Carroll, the assistant secretary.
Nine of the fake electors in Michigan currently work for the state Republican Party. One of those electors, Michele Lundgren, told the Detroit Free Press in June that she had been subpoenaed and met with members of the FBI and the Justice Department.
The electors push back
In some cases, the electors have said, either through testimony or attorney statements, that they thought the scheme was perfectly legal because the documents they signed would come into play only if the Trump campaign found some legal basis.
“I was told that these would only count if a court ruled in our favor,” Andrew Hitt, one of the fake electors from Wisconsin who also served as the state’s GOP party chair in the 2020 election, testified before the Select Committee. “That would have been using our electors in ways we weren’t told about.”
Alexander Kolodin, an attorney for Kelli Ward, the Arizona GOP chair, and her husband, Michael, who was also on the state’s slate of false electors, cast the DOJ investigation as part of a political witch hunt by the White House.
“That’s obviously why the Biden administration is doing this. They want to scare their political opponents,” Kolodin said. Kolodin is battling the Select Committee’s attempts to obtain phone records from Ward, something he argues would have a chilling effect on Republicans who want to communicate with the party leader in their state.
Kolodin has put forth a First Amendment argument both in court and in public statements, saying that the Trump electors did nothing wrong by trying to offer up an alternate slate of electors.
“It doesn’t matter if you want to tell Congress to do something that courts might find to be unlawful later on, or that’s bad policy,” Kolodin said in an interview. “I can tell Congress to do whatever I want to do. I’m a citizen. That’s what the First Amendment is.”
According to Jan. 6 testimony from aides to former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump engaged in a pressure campaign urging Pence to select the alternate electors instead of those elected by voters in their states.
“Assuming that allegation is true, so what? People lobby their elected representatives to do all sorts of things,” Kolodin said. “If Mike Pence does something he’s not allowed to do, that’s why we have a court system.”
In addition to Ward, Arizona state Rep. Jake Hoffman also signed documents claiming Trump won the 2020 election. He just won a Republican primary to run for a seat in the state Senate, as did Anthony Kern, a fellow fake elector who was present outside the Capitol on Jan. 6.
And Masters, the state’s GOP nominee for Senate, has employed another fake elector, Gregory Safsten, who has received a salary from the Masters campaign since March 14, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The Masters campaign did not respond to a request for comment on hiring Safsten.
The Johnson campaign in Wisconsin batted away the significance of having a fake elector — Pam Travis, who is also an active member of the state Republican Party — on staff, telling NBC News this month: “She is a grassroots staffer answering phones. This is being blown way out of proportion.”
Still, as the midterms draw closer, the DOJ investigation has shown signs of intensifying.
On June 21, federal agents scattered across key states to deliver subpoenas to those who acted as Trump electors. One of the people who reviewed a subpoena and spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation confirmed that federal authorities sought emails and any communication between electors and a dozen people around Trump. Those named in that subpoena include the attorneys Boris Epshteyn, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman and Kenneth Chesebro, the person said. The FBI seized the phones of some of those individuals, including Epshteyn and Eastman, in recent months.
According to The New York Times, which cited “people familiar with the investigation,” authorities also seized the cellphone of Mike Roman, who directed Election Day operations for the Trump campaign.
“It’s dangerous and scary,” Mandell, the Wisconsin attorney, said. “We’re closing on it being two full years since this has happened, and there’s only small and sporadic efforts toward accountability.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com