'Election denier playbook': Trump supporters seeking state office raise fears of 2nd insurrection

·Reporter
·8 min read

Supporters of former President Donald Trump seeking to control elections across the country have raised the specter of a second insurrection, akin to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and fears that they will help try to rig the election results for Trump if he seeks the presidency again.

But experts tracking an array of races for positions with control over elections — from governor to county election clerk — say it’s unclear what form a second insurrection could take.

The threat is clouded in part by uncertainty over how much lawmakers will clarify about the previously obscure Electoral Count Act (ECA) and what the Supreme Court will do regarding the “independent legislature” theory, which could block courts from intervening in how elections are run.

A rally attendee holds a banner reading: Trump Won, Save America.
An attendee at a rally with former President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 3. (Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Changes to the ECA being debated in the Senate and House would clarify that a vice president cannot replace authentic electors with fake ones; would set a quicker timeline for judicial review of election challenges and a higher bar for objections from Congress; and would establish the governor of each state as the lone person who can submit certified electors to Congress.

But bipartisan groups tracking the threat of another insurrection have consistently warned that Trump supporters running to control state elections — from Arizona secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem to Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano — could take the reins and attempt to certify whatever results they want.

“The problem is, the coup did not actually end on Jan. 6. It simply went into a brief hibernation and almost immediately began gathering energy to succeed next time,” said Norm Eisen, founder of the bipartisan group States United Democracy Center and a former top official in the Obama administration.

“They saw that the election refs applied the existing rules to produce the right result,” Eisen said of the 2020 election. “So now they’re going to replace the refs, and they're going to replace the rules so they can change the results. It’s the election denier playbook, and you see this in state after state.”

Attorney Norm Eisen.
Attorney Norm Eisen speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The man at the center of the continued threat, Trump, has said repeatedly that he plans to run for president a third time. He has also taken a darker turn in his campaign rallies recently, eschewing the scripted approach of his return to Washington two months ago for wild conspiracy theories, some of which helped fuel his supporters to attack the Capitol. He has also been hinting at more violence from his supporters if he’s indicted for taking highly sensitive classified intelligence from the White House after his term.

Election director races used to be staid affairs, the rare white noise behind the unchecked turmoil of campaign politics. But like so many other things in politics, that flipped on its head after Trump descended the golden-colored escalator in Trump Tower seven years ago. The 2020 election and Trump’s subsequent efforts to deny his loss elevated these races to top-tier battles for the control of elections themselves.

Terrified election workers testified before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack about the rampant death threats they received after being targeted by Trump. And many local election workers have resigned or refused to run again in the face of ongoing threats from Trump supporters.

In Arizona and Pennsylvania, two epicenters of efforts by Trump-backed candidates to wrest control of the election process, Republican nominees have proposed a mix of power grabs and more standard conservative election proposals.

Mark Finchem, Republican nominee for Arizona secretary of state.
Mark Finchem, Republican nominee for Arizona secretary of state, at a conference on Sept. 10 promoting conspiracy theories about voting machines and discredited claims about the 2020 election. (Jim Rassol/AP Photo)

Finchem, the Arizona secretary of state nominee — who recently had a performer sing the QAnon theme song at one of his fundraisers — has proposed ending electronic vote counting and mandating paper ballots (a proposal that Democrats pushed almost two decades ago). But Finchem has also proposed giving the Republican-controlled Arizona state Legislature the power to overturn election results.

Asked by Time magazine if he would certify a hypothetical Biden win, he said he would if the law is followed, but then implied he would never certify a Biden win in 2024 because such a thing would be a “fantasy.”

Across the country, Mastriano, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, has pushed for voter ID requirements and purging voter rolls, both long-standing Republican election policies.

But Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator who marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has also said he would have his handpicked secretary of state invalidate all Pennsylvania voters and force them to re-register. Mastriano submitted a measure that would expand the number of partisans who can challenge votes and vote counting potentially intimidating poll workers further.

Finchem and Mastriano, like dozens of other Trump supporters looking to take control of their states' elections, have repeated the baseless claim that voter fraud was rampant through the 2020 election and that Trump never lost. But the stances of Trump-backed Republicans vary widely.

Couy Griffin speaks to reporters as he arrives at federal court in Washington.
Otero County, N.M., Commissioner Couy Griffin arrives at federal court in Washington on June 17. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo)

At one extreme sit Trump supporters like Couy Griffin, the New Mexico local official who invalidated an election result he didn’t like and later was removed from office for participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection. At the other end are those like New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc, who campaigned in the primary repeating Trump’s election lie but promptly disavowed that lie after winning the Republican nomination last week.

In between are a slew of Trump supporters who have dressed up long-standing conservative election priorities, like requiring identification to vote, in Trumpian rhetoric, but have not repeated some of the wackier claims of voter fraud that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection, like allegations of Italian satellites or Chinese thermostats.

Still, it’s not clear exactly what Trump supporters in election offices could do to rig an election for the former president. The Electoral Count Act fix being debated in the Senate would close most of the loopholes that Trump and his allies, led by Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, tried to exploit in their fake elector scheme.

“The worrisome thing about these election deniers is that they would have, in those positions of power, they would have some real power. Maybe not to singlehandedly overturn the results, but they could try, and it could create a real chaos crisis and undermine confidence in our election systems and possibly lead to more violence like the Jan. 6 attack,” said Ben Berwick, general counsel for Protect Democracy, a group staffed with top former Democratic officials that tracks election director races across the country.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Trump’s former White House aides at the America First Policy Institute, dubbed the “White House in waiting” for the large number of former Cabinet secretaries and top advisers who took refuge there after Jan. 6, are calling for strict limits on who can vote and how, but are stopping well short of Trump’s most ardent loyalists who are pushing to flat-out change election results they don’t like, according to a report from the group published in August.

Former Trump White House aides Stephen Miller and Hogan Gidley speak to each other with smiles on their faces.
Former Trump White House aides Stephen Miller and Hogan Gidley at an America First Policy Institute summit in July. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The co-chairs of AFPI’s election integrity center, former Trump White House spokesman Hogan Gidley and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, cast their proposals in terms of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, saying that accurate voting data is needed to instill faith in election results.

The group hinted at the election lies that led to Jan. 6, writing, “After the last presidential election, there were concerns that ballots may have been counted multiple times (so that there could be more ballots cast than voters who voted) or that ballots were destroyed (so that there could be more voters who voted than ballots cast).”

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Republican candidates are either saying they do not accept their own primary losses or refusing to say whether they’ll acknowledge reality if they lose in November.

“We’re in a situation where one of the two major parties in this country has been captured in whole or in part by antidemocratic forces, and that’s a real challenge in a system where the whole thing is built on the idea that the losers of an election, while they may not like it, they respect the outcome,” Berwick said. “If we lose that, then we’re headed down a path we can’t come back from.”

Yahoo News Chief National Correspondent Jon Ward contributed to this report.