Republicans in several states are advancing partisan reviews of the 2020 election results, underscoring how deeply the GOP has embraced the myth of a stolen election since 2020.
The investigations in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Texas are advancing even after an extensive similar effort in Arizona, championed by Donald Trump and allies, failed to produce evidence of fraud. All three inquiries come as Trump has called out top Republicans in each state and pressured them to review the 2020 race. He is also backing several candidates who have embraced the myth in their races for statewide offices in which they would oversee elections.
Republicans leading the efforts in all three states have said little about the scope and details of their unusual post-election investigations. But experts worry they signal a dangerous new normal in American politics in which the losers of elections refuse to accept the outcome and continue to undermine the results of electoral contests months after they have been decided.
“They have slight differences tactically, but they all share the same strategic goals, which are primarily to continue to sow doubt about the integrity of American elections overall,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, and an election administration expert who has denounced the reviews. “I don’t know that there’s a word to describe how concerning it is.”
In Wisconsin, a state where Joe Biden narrowly defeated Trump by 20,000 votes, there are three different efforts to review the election results. In February, Republicans in the state legislature authorized the non-partisan legislative audit bureau to review the election. Representative Janel Brandtjen, a Republican who chairs the elections committee in the state assembly and travelled to Phoenix to observe the Arizona investigation, unsuccessfully sought to subpoena voting equipment and ballots earlier this summer.
Wisconsin Republicans also hired Michael Gabelman, a retired state supreme court justice to serve as a special counsel to investigate the election, which will be funded by $680,000 in taxpayer money. Gabelman took his most significant step on October 1 when he issued subpoenas to at least five cities in the state and the administrator of the statewide body that oversees elections. The subpoenas request a large range of documents related to the 2020 election. Gabelman requested that the election officials appear at a 15 October hearing that will focus in part on “potential irregularities and/or illegalities related to the Election.” according a subpoena.
There is no evidence of fraud or any other kind of wrongdoing in Wisconsin. Even though Trump’s campaign had an opportunity to request a recount of the entire state, it did so only in Milwaukee and Dane counties last year, two of the state’s most populous and liberal counties. Both recounts affirmed Biden’s win.
Gabelman has said little publicly about the details of his effort, but released a video last month pledging it would be fair and that it was not designed to overturn the 2020 vote. “This is not an election contest. We are not challenging the results of the 2020 election; rather we are holding government officials accountable to the public for their actions surrounding the elections,” he said in the video.
But Gabelman has already expressed support for the idea that the election was stolen, telling a pro-Trump crowd last November: “Our elected leaders – your elected leaders – have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote.” Gabelman has since defended those comments, saying in a July interview: “I didn’t say it was a stolen election. I cannot – and I defy you to – think of anything more unjust than a corrupt or unlawful election in a democracy. Whether that occurred here is very much a question to be examined.”
On October 5, Gabelman said he was not an expert in elections. “Most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In August, he traveled to a forum on election irregularities hosted by Mike Lindell, a Trump ally and MyPillow CEO, who has voiced some of the most baseless conspiracy theories about the election. Gabelman also reportedly consulted with Shiva Ayyadurai, a failed US Senate candidate who has spread false information about the 2020 election and the Covid-19 vaccine, including a wildly misleading and inaccurate report about ballots in Maricopa county.
Gabelman’s effort has already been hobbled by a series of errors. One subpoena on October 1 was sent to the city clerk in Milwaukee, who does not oversee elections, according to the Washington Post. A cover letter for a subpoena sent to Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee election commission, requested documents about Green Bay. Gabelman’s review also sent out an email to local election officials from a Gmail account under the name “John Delta.” The message landed in the spam folders of several county clerks. And it included a document asking the local clerks to preserve records related to the 2020 election that was written by Andrew Kloster, a former Trump administration official. Kloster published a blogpost in April that said “the 2020 presidential election was stolen, fair and square,” according to the Associated Press.
Kathy Bernier, a Republican who chairs the elections committee in the Wisconsin state senate, has resisted efforts to spread election misinformation, even holding a training last month to educate lawmakers on how elections work. But in an interview, she said she was supportive of the review in her state, and said the idea it would undermine confidence in the election was “pish-posh.”
She said Democrats were to blame for uncertainty around the election because some refused to accept Trump’s electoral victory in 2016, claiming Russian interference. Trump was seated in 2016 without serious objections in Congress, and there were no similar partisan post-election reviews.
“If there are things called into question, and there is not full confidence in the electoral process, providing audits and research and evidence that in fact these processes and procedures and the election results you can have confidence in, only supports that position where you can have confidence and here is why,” she said.
Bernier added that she was concerned that undermining elections could hurt Republicans in the future.
“At some point we have to accept the election results and move on,” she said. “If the middle thinks the left is bonkers and the right is bonkers, they will stay home. I’m concerned about the middle.”
The details of the review in Pennsylvania, where Biden defeated Trump by more than 80,000 votes, are still murky. Last month, senate Republicans voted to subpoena information on every registered voter in the state, including sensitive details such as the last four digits of their social security number.
Cris Dush, the Republican senator overseeing the effort, said last month the legislative committee overseeing the investigation said “there have been questions regarding the validity of people … who have voted, whether or not they exist,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He added the committee was seeking to determine whether the allegations were factual. Dush also traveled to Arizona to observe the Maricopa review.
Democrats in the Pennsylvania state senate as well as the attorney general, Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, are suing to block the subpoenas. Senate Democrats argue the request amounts to an effort to contest the election and Shapiro has said it would violate voters’ rights.
Perhaps the most perplexing post-election review is happening in Texas. Hours after Trump requested an audit of the 2020 election results, state officials announced they had already begun one in Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin counties, respectively the two largest Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning counties.
When the secretary of state’s office released details of the review days after the announcement, its first phase included several measures counties were already required to perform after the election, the Texas Tribune reported. The second phase of the review, set for spring 2022, includes an examination of several election records, including voter registration lists, chain of custody logs and rejected provisional ballots.
Texas Republicans are also advancing a separate piece of legislation that would allow partisan county officials to request an audit of the 2020 election in their county as well as of future election results.
Becker, the elections administration expert, said those who backed the audit were making an “outrageous insinuation” that elections do not matter.
“It is delegitimizing democracy as a form of government,” he said. “The election was not close by any historical measure. And these grifters are continuing to sell the story to Trump supporters that you cannot trust elections, that you cannot trust democracy.”