Two years after Donald Trump tried to overturn a presidential election, Tuesday’s midterms will test American democracy once more, with voters uncertain whether they can believe in the process, Republican election deniers poised to take positions of power and the mechanics of voting itself under intense scrutiny.
A majority of Trump supporters still believe his unproven claims of a rigged election. They have demanded error-prone hand counts to bypass machines they mistrust, signed up by the thousands to scrutinize balloting and even staked out drop boxes, firearms in hand, on the false belief that they were filled with fraudulent votes in 2020.
But even as signs of stress emerge, the system has been buttressed by those, including some prominent Republicans, who believe the 2020 election was legitimate and are determined to counteract Trump. Voters have cast early ballots in vast numbers and largely without trouble. Hundreds of election administrators have brought new transparency to their jobs to try to persuade critics that they can trust the result.
“Our entire universe has changed,” said Stephen Richer, the Republican recorder of Maricopa County, Ariz., the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the country, which saw an extended effort by Trump allies to overturn the vote.
The county has installed cameras to monitor every phase of the tabulation process, Richer said. More bipartisan observers are participating in the process, even during sleepy overnight shifts, and new fencing now encircles the building.
Elsewhere in the nation, some clerks have installed plexiglass panels and panic buttons in election offices out of fear that a flood of threats could turn into actual violence.
Also looming over Tuesday is the next election, in 2024, when Americans will again choose a president — and when, depending on this year’s results, many more people willing to try to overturn a popular result could hold positions with the power to do so.
The country heads into the Tuesday vote with a majority believing that the electoral system can fulfill its most fundamental mission. Two-thirds of Americans in a Washington Post-ABC poll released Sunday said they have confidence that votes will be counted accurately. But about a third do not.
Carol Ruelas, a Democrat from a western suburb of Phoenix, is among those whose faith has been frayed.
“I always thought that my vote does count,” Ruelas said after walking into the county recorder’s office and doing what she said she still considers her civic duty: depositing her ballot in a blue plastic box.
Her views about the integrity of the process changed, she said, after Trump’s false claims about 2020 began to take hold. “Now that they brought that stuff up, I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know?’” she said. “Is something going to happen where it doesn’t actually get counted?”
Those who adhere to Trump’s false claims have similar fears, and thousands of them have joined efforts organized by conservative groups to monitor polling locations and counting operations across the nation. While scrutiny is part of the process, officials fear that overzealous volunteers could bring with them undue suspicion and raise unfounded doubt.
Glen Schulz, 69, a retired body-shop manager who voted early in Katy, Tex., outside Houston, said he believes Trump won in 2020 and is glad more observers will be on hand this year.
“The more, the better,” he said. “It’s definitely going to help. Is it going to make it fail-safe? No. We don’t trust mail-in ballots.”
Trump allies peddling unsubstantiated claims that electronic voting machines rigged President Biden’s victory have also persuaded scattered communities around the country to conduct hand counts this year. Experts say the process can delay the results and is prone to human error, both of which could deepen suspicions.
Trump has urged his followers to vote only on Election Day, spurning early, in-person balloting and mail voting despite the lack of evidence that either invites widespread fraud. Critics have accused the former president of trying to create more chaos by taxing the capacity of polling places on Election Day.
The strategy could also amplify the “red mirage” that occurred in some states in 2020, where Republican-heavy Election Day returns posted first, only to be followed by a slow trickle of Democrat-heavy returns from absentee voting. Trump has repeatedly claimed falsely that Democratic votes were “found” in those states to wrest away his lead.
“It’s harder to cheat when you do it that way,” Trump said at a rally in Robson, Tex., in late October, exhorting the crowd not to vote by mail. “And they cheat like dogs.”
More than 39 million Americans had cast ballots early in person or by mail as of Saturday evening, according to the United States Elections Project — well below the pandemic election of 2020 but surpassing the last midterm cycle in 2018, with votes still arriving.
Two years of unrelenting attacks
The two years since the last federal elections have seen unrelenting attacks on the public’s faith in the integrity and security of election administration.
It began with Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 vote, as his allies spent the weeks after the election filing dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the results, planning to seize voter machines to substantiate wild hacking theories and concocting baseless claims of mass fraud.
The attacks on the system did not cease even after Trump’s rejection of the certified results culminated in the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Republicans in Arizona launched a six-month, nearly $6 million effort to recount the 2020 vote in Maricopa County, only to find that Biden had indeed won in the swing state. Other attempts to uncover evidence of fraud in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and beyond went nowhere.
A roadshow of elected officials, self-proclaimed experts and citizen activists has traveled the country holding town halls — often for a fee — in communities large and small to explain various unsubstantiated theories for how the election was stolen. Multiple documentaries have been screened by far-right media outlets alleging that election results can be manipulated.
And behind it all is Trump himself, who in the past two years has issued scores of statements questioning the reliability of American elections, and who has made denying the results of the 2020 vote a key criteria for his endorsement.
A majority of the Republican candidates for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 291 in all — followed Trump’s lead and denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 election, a Washington Post analysis found. A dozen Republican candidates in competitive races for governor and Senate declined in a Washington Post survey in September to commit to accepting the results of their own contests.
Among the 2020 election deniers are four candidates in hotly contested races for secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, each of whom would serve as their state’s top election administrator if they win. Mark Finchem, the GOP nominee in Arizona, attended Trump’s Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, 2021, and marched to the Capitol with other protesters.
Some of these candidates have said they plan to “decertify” Biden’s win if they take office — a claim election law experts say is not legally permissible. They have also cast doubt on whether they would certify a Democratic victory in 2024.
Others are gearing up for legal battles in their own races, should they lose: One of Trump’s strongest boosters, Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake of Arizona, announced Monday that she was “bringing in the big guns” — former Trump lawyer and Republican National Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon — to monitor complaints of irregularities on Election Day.
In a statement, Lake said the purpose of the hire is “protecting the integrity of our election, rooting out fraud, and ensuring that every single Arizonans’ voice is fairly heard.”
Election administrators, along with voting rights groups and educational nonprofit organizations, have spent the past two years trying to tamp down the false claims. They have debuted websites, hosted seminars in battleground states and even offered detailed site tours in local election offices to explain how voting works and the safeguards in place to protect the count.
After chaotic protests surrounded the county’s tabulating facility in Maricopa in 2020, fencing now encircles the building, while still allowing an area for protests. People familiar with the plans say dozens of sheriff’s deputies will be on hand, just in case.
Richer is active on social media, frequently shooting down conspiracy theories as they emerge. When groups — some of them armed — began showing up to watch voters deposit ballots at a county drop box in hopes of spotting fraud, the county held several news conferences to denounce the practice as intimidation and note how many people were voting early without difficulty.
In Arizona’s Pinal County, a Republican bastion, officials beefed up internet capabilities for enhanced security needs and bought new hard drives to maintain surveillance video of drop boxes. Workers also trimmed trees and bushes to ensure sightlines, and some cameras were relocated. If footage is not monitored in real-time, staff is assigned to review it later, said Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer.
“These are steps that we’ve never taken before that are above and beyond anything we’ve ever thought about,” he said.
Antrim County, Mich., has been a hotbed of election denialism since Trump supporters falsely claimed that a quickly corrected clerk’s error in 2020 demonstrated voting machines had been hacked. There, clerk Sheryl Guy said the pre-election season has been relatively quiet, partly because conspiracy theories about the elections have now become part of the landscape.
Many center on voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems. One of the leading purveyors of the false Antrim narrative, Matthew DePerno, is the Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general this year.
Guy said she concluded training sessions for poll workers in September with a final question to the group: “Anyone want to talk about Dominion?” The question served as a test, Guy said, intended to spot workers who may have signed up to prove false theories about the election.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center organized bipartisan networks in four battleground states this year — Arizona, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina — to educate the public.
The nonpartisan group, founded by former president Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter to promote freedom and human rights around the globe, also asked candidates to pledge that, barring legal avenues to contest a result, they would accept the outcomes in their races. Paige Alexander, who leads the organization, said the center has circulated the pledge for many years in developing countries with fragile democracies. But now election denialism threatens U.S. democracy as well, she said.
A Pew Research Center survey last month found that fewer than half of voters who supported Republicans believed it was very important for losing candidates to accept their defeat. About 8 in 10 people who supported Democratic candidates said it was very important.
Some preparations for Tuesday’s vote have felt ominous. In Dane County, Wis., home to Madison, County Clerk Scott McDonell earlier this year added plexiglass, wall cameras and panic buttons. His office, which is located in a busy municipal complex, also conducted de-escalation and active-shooter trainings.
“Everybody comes in and out of here. There are like 10 different exits,” McDonell said. “It’s not an ideal situation.”
Still, some advocates and election administrators said there is room for optimism. Alexander said she has worked three shifts as a nonpartisan poll observer in Fulton County, Ga., this year, “and it’s like watching paint dry.”
Voters “come in, they show their ID, they get their ballot, they cast it, they print it out to check the paper before scanning it and they walk out,” she said. “To see the process at work and know this is what everyone has been talking about and it’s not terribly exciting is exactly what you want it to be.”
Patrick Gannon of the North Carolina State Board of Elections noted that he and his colleagues had “some pretty significant concerns” heading into the November 2020 elections, but everything went “as smoothly as we could have possibly imagined.” He is hoping for the same on Tuesday.
“Whatever happens,” he joked, “I just hope it’s a landslide.”
McDonell offered the same thought — a regular quip at election conferences. “That’s the clerk’s prayer,” he said. “May the best candidate win — by a lot.”
Matthew Brown in Atlanta, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston, Patrick Marley in Madison, Wis., Yvonne Wingett Sanchez in Phoenix, and Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.