- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Former President Donald Trump won Mesa County, Colorado, by 28 points in last fall's election.
Yet in each county, Republican officials have sought to further investigate those results and, in some cases, suggested they may not be accurate. That's despite no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election there or elsewhere.
With denial of President Joe Biden's victory at the core of the pro-Trump movement, demands for partisan election investigations styled after the one authorized by Republicans in Arizona — focused in a county Biden won — have proliferated. Now, a push to revisit November's results is underway or being called for in at least nine counties Trump won by more than 24 points.
The trend is symptomatic of the increasingly entrenched idea among the Trump base that elections are rigged and not to be trusted — a lie Trump continues to vigorously promote and which has become a litmus test for GOP officials at all levels of government. A recent CNN poll found that nearly 6-in-10 Republicans say believing this false claim is important to their partisan identity.
Some county officials have taken increasingly irregular steps to probe the prior election while others face pressure at rowdy local government meetings from groups demanding such investigations. Experts say this is another flashing red light for the state of U.S. elections.
The growing trend of unorthodox election reviews "demonstrates that the Big Lie is getting bigger," Jena Griswold, a Democrat who serves as Colorado's secretary of state, told NBC News, referring to Trump's baseless and unceasing claims that massive fraud prevented him from winning a second term. "The threat to democracy is increasing."
The county efforts are happening on a parallel track to partisan reviews launched by or in conjunction with state legislatures in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, reviews that largely stray from typical vote-auditing procedure and have sometimes involved private firms with little relevant experience or expertise. Partially for those reasons, these reviews in solidly red counties have not been immune to skepticism from fellow local GOP officials — including those who run elections.
Ballots from the presidential election, which took place more than 10 months ago, have been counted, certified accurate, and, in many cases, recounted more than once with the same outcome affirmed. Officials in both parties acknowledged the validity of the results, while former Trump administration officials have said that the election was secure and that they could not find evidence of widespread fraud. Trump's lawyers were unable to produce evidence to prove their claims in court.
Still, in Michigan’s Barry County, Sheriff Dar Leaf hired a private investigator he said came recommended by a lawyer on pro-Trump attorney Sidney Powell's “Kraken” lawsuit team to help conduct an unusual probe he launched in July. (Powell and other lawyers would later be sanctioned for what a federal judge called a “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.”)
Leaf, who last year sought to enlist other Michigan sheriffs to seize the Dominion voting machines at the heart of the election conspiracy concocted on the far right, had his office and a private investigator, Michael Lynch, interview a series of township clerks. The Barry County GOP clerk criticized the effort and told the news organization Bridge Michigan that Leaf's team sought to "surprise" the officials.
Leaf, who did not respond to requests for comment, told county commissioners last month he could not provide them with an update on his investigation but said "for the most part" the election was secure.
Ben Geiger, the Republican who chairs the Barry County Board of Commissioners, told NBC News that local officials "are kind of antsy to see" Leaf's probe "wrap up."
"I haven't seen anything to cause me to be concerned about Barry County's election results," Geiger said.
Julie Nakfoor Pratt, a Republican who is the county's prosecuting attorney, said she walked away from a meeting with Leaf and Lynch “thinking, ‘What in the world?’”
“To this day, I haven't received anything more. And I haven't received a charging request. I haven't received requests for anything,” she added.
Asked if she has seen any evidence that would make her question the results of last fall's vote locally, she responded, "Nope."
These reviews can feed into similar efforts at the state level, something elections experts said they found particularly alarming.
Officials in tiny Fulton County, Pennsylvania, which Trump won by nearly 72 points last fall, chose a private IT company, Wake TSI, to conduct reviews of its election beginning late last year. Wake TSI, which typically worked in the health care sector, came recommended by state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a close Trump ally who has boosted fraud claims. That company would later be briefly involved with the Arizona ballot review, while the chair of Fulton County's election board was the first witness to testify last Thursday before a new Republican-led Pennsylvania state Senate investigation of last fall's vote.
That official, Stuart Ulsh, testified that the Wake TSI review found nothing wrong with how the 2020 election was conducted in his county. Pressed on who paid the private firm for its work, Ulsh repeatedly insisted he never asked and did not know. A document obtained by NBC News showed it was hired by Defending the Republic, a group run by Powell.
“You can see that Fulton County was almost a pilot or a test run of the effort in Pennsylvania,” Vic Bassetti, senior adviser at States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan elections advocacy group, told NBC News, “and then the county commissioner from Fulton shows up in Harrisburg, and says to everyone ‘Well, as I did in my county. Why can't you?’”
Some of these localized efforts have caught the attention of federal authorities and state election officials. This summer, Michigan election officials warned local leaders in Antrim and Cheboygan counties that they lack the authority to conduct or supervise post-election reviews. In late August, the Justice Department and Nevada election officials intervened to stop a machine-auditing effort by Lander County commissioners. In his first White House bid, Trump carried Lander County by 59 points. In November, his margin of victory grew to 61 points.
"This has not been about who won or who lost," Lander County Manager Bert Ramos said in an email. "It has been about making 100 percent certain that what is certified is correct, transparent, and fair. Nothing more, nothing less."
One top elections official in Mesa County, Colorado, which Trump carried by 28 points last fall, is under state and federal investigation after a data breach led to the leak of passwords for the county's Dominion election machines. The county had to order new voting machines, and that official, clerk and recorder Tina Peters, has been replaced as elections head at least temporarily as litigation she faces is pending.
Peters, who did not respond to emailed questions from NBC News, spoke last month at the South Dakota election symposium organized by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the biggest peddlers of false fraud claims.
There's no evidence of wrongdoing in Colorado's election, which has been audited by the state and certified.
In Butler County, Pennsylvania, where Trump won by 32 points in 2020, two county commissioner meetings since mid-August have featured pro-Trump conservatives demanding officials launch an Arizona-style ballot review.
Leslie Osche, GOP chair of Butler County commissioners, told NBC News she understands concerns about the election process. Earlier this year, the commissioners empaneled a group to review how November’s election was conducted. The group's report described some policies and procedures guiding the election as "problematic" but said elections officials "responded in the best way possible given the circumstances."
As such, Osche said she "generally" has no reason to think the Butler County vote does not reflect local voters' will. While Trump's margin of victory dropped from 38 points in 2016 to 32 points last fall, Osche said there are simpler explanations for why that happened, such as voters’ decreased appetite for third-party candidates in 2020.
Osche added that since 2000, it has seemed to her that elections and how they are conducted have become more contentious with each passing cycle.
"It just keeps getting more intense as we go to the point of being a little frightening."