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Efforts to Build Trust in Elections Face Thriving 2020 Election Denier Community

Can believers in Trump’s “Big Lie” be convinced by poll workers and local leaders to trust the democratic process again?

Supporters listen to former President Donald Trump speak during a rally at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds on January 29, 2022, in Conroe, Texas.

As 2022’s primaries approach, an unprecedented wave of public and private efforts are underway to foster trust in election operations and election officials in response to ongoing claims by Donald Trump and his supporters, including many officeholders and candidates, that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

Public-facing efforts include creating an election official appreciation day on April 12, a newly launched Election Official Legal Defense Network to counter new Republican-drafted laws that criminalize mistakes in administering elections, and federal lobbying to protect election officials and their families from threats. There also are behind-the-scenes efforts to educate local civic, business and faith leaders so that trusted voices can help to respond to election deniers.

The efforts come as scores of candidates for statewide and local office, including many seeking reelection, have made the unproven claim that Trump’s second term was stolen a key feature of their 2022 campaigns, and, as a supermajority of Republicans — a figure unchanged since late 2020 — still believe that Democrats and election insiders stole the presidential election.

“You can’t have 30 percent of the county not believing in elections,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a veteran Republican Party election lawyer who has spoken out against the “big lie” — Trump’s assertion of victory — and a co-chair of the Election Official Legal Defense Network.

“Where we are really lacking is how we talk to that 30 percent,” he continued, speaking on a March 28 podcast with Sarah Longwell, publisher of the Bulwark, a media outlet featuring Republicans who reject the big lie. “There is a dialog that really has to take place about the election system and how reliable it in fact is… That’s an important conversation that we’re trying to figure out how to have, but haven’t really succeeded yet.”

The comments by Ginsberg, who said he has “spent 30 years doing Election Day operations for Republican Party committees and candidates” and “never” found evidence of Democrats or an election official who rigged the results, underscore both the challenge and, so far, the limited impact of trying to convince Trump’s base that elections are trustworthy and 2020’s results were accurate.

Nonetheless, the efforts to instill confidence and build new guardrails is a departure from more traditional election protection work, where teams of lawyers help voters cast their ballots and sometimes sue to ensure their votes are counted. Those efforts, led nationally by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, usually focus on the fall’s general elections and not the earlier primaries. Yet the primaries tend to draw the most partisan candidates and voters.

2022’s primaries feature an unprecedented number of candidates who deny that Biden won and who cite an array of doubts and conspiracies to press their case.

“As of April 4, 2022, in two out of three governor and secretary of state contests, there is an Election Denier running. This is true for one out of three attorney general contests as well,” reported States United Action, a group supporting inclusive and accurate elections, in an update to a March report that detailed how the post-2020 trend of pro-Trump Republicans pushing for more restrictive voting laws has evolved into candidates who deny Biden won, spread conspiracies about the election, and attack election officials and voting systems.

“Replacing the refs — the people who administer our elections — is a key pillar of the anti-democracy playbook. Voters across the political spectrum should be paying attention to who these Election Deniers are, where they are running, and the seriousness of their false claims about the 2020 election results,” said Thania Sanchez, senior vice president of research and policy development at States United Action.

What remains to be seen is how 2022’s candidates and their base will react — in words and actions — if they lose in the primaries, as many of them will because some of them are seeking their party’s nomination for the same office. And, moreover, what would or should be done if Election Day and vote-verifying steps that follow are intentionally disrupted or contested by conspiratorial assertions that hidden hands have tampered with the results.

Election officials, some of whom were threatened by right-wingers in recent months, have been steeling themselves for 2022’s elections and preparing to respond to emotion-laden threats.

“Not only are our elections technically more complex, [but] we are expected to know a lot of things that… wouldn’t be typical of a public servant,” Natalie Adona, Nevada County, California, assistant clerk-recorder, told a national organizing call for April 12’s Thank Election Heroes day organized by Public Citizen, one of many groups supporting the effort.

“I had to learn all that I can about de-escalation — and it’s something that I would normally depend on the police to offer,” Adona said. “Our workers, who I train to serve at our vote centers, are increasingly being confronted by more and more aggressive people. I, myself, have been confronted by people who have threatened me.”

Challenges Are Clear, Answers Are Not

There have been numerous webinars and reports from organizations that work with current and former election officials seeking to counter Trump-led disinformation. These efforts, which usually feature civil service professionals who are highly regarded for their election work, reveal a deepening understanding of the election deniers in their midst. But acquiring a new understanding of their critics and adversaries is not the same thing as changing their minds.

At the National Association of State Election Directors’ semi-annual meeting in early March, one session open to the press featured Colorado’s Judd Choate, who recounted how his office had surveyed voters last summer and identified some contradictory beliefs. Many voters distrusted 2020’s national results but had confidence in local elections. Choate said his state’s response was “not so much countering misinformation but getting good information out.”

An April 6 report and briefing on neutralizing partisan impulses among election officials from the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center and Election Reformers Network differentiated between which election officials and workers were more and less likely to be partisan, which may be an index of who can best attest to the reliability and accuracy of elections.

Kevin Johnson, Election Reformers Network executive director, noted that the U.S. was unique among democracies because (as Business Insider’s Grace Panetta pointed out) about 60 percent of the approximately 8,000 state and local election administrators across the country had “pretty substantial ties to political parties.”

These officials, who run for office or are appointed, include secretaries of state, many county or municipal officials, canvass boards (which assess voter intent on ambiguously marked ballots and other documents) and partisan observers appointed by their political party. “[They] see each other as existential threats to the nation and its democracy,” Johnson said.

On the other hand, most election administrators “run their offices in a professional way and want to get the count right” despite their personal views, said Matt Weil, Bipartisan Policy Center elections project director. But Weil added that partisan local officials were more of a concern than high-profile statewide officials because they “have access to witnesses, and they have access to ballots… [And there’s] no real good way of monitoring that on any kind of comprehensive scale.”

At a late-March webinar on countering disinformation, Chris Piper, the former Virginia election commissioner, whom Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican elected last fall, recently replaced with Susan Beals, suggested that poll workers could attest to the legitimacy of elections and convince “those folks in the middle that could be swayed either way [by facts or fiction].”

“What we really focused on… was how elections are run by everyday people,” Piper said. “Not only are they run by everyday people, but there are thousands and thousands, literally hundreds of thousands of people that are required to put on a national election… It’s important for us to explain [that] these are your friends, these are your neighbors, co-workers.”

The voices of local poll workers largely have been missing from the responses to election denial. Some Republicans, such as the Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell and GOP election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, believe these and other locally respected voices might be persuasive to less ideological voters. During their March 28 podcast, they both said that little else has changed people’s minds.

“I really agree,” said Longwell, whose podcast included comments from focus groups she had convened where Trump supporters would not consider that he lost in 2020. “It has to be hyperlocal because [with] the breakdown of trust, it can’t come from national sources. It has to be from people like them in their communities that they know.”

“Going into 2022 and 2024, I would like to hear from a lot of the poll workers themselves,” she continued. “The people from the community talking about how seriously they take it; and how they stand side by side with other people who [they politically] disagree with… That, to me, is trying to inject some of that civic virtue back into it.”

“I completely agree with that. I think it’s got to be local,” said Ginsberg. “If you need an example of why the national approach doesn’t work: For the past 15 months, the mainstream media, every organization, has repeatedly talked about the big lie… And, as you know from your polls, the number of people who still don’t believe that the elections were accurate has not budged one iota in those 15 months. If anything, it’s gone up.”

“That just tells you that the national messaging from the big media outlets is not getting through, and people do not believe the national entities,” he continued. “We’ve got to start going local, and the communities where you’ve got to go first is pretty self-evident.”

Those communities are the handful of swing counties in swing states, especially jurisdictions targeted by election deniers since 2020. In Georgia, this includes metro-Atlanta counties and outlying areas where pro-Trump Republicans have ousted longtime election officials who are elected Democrats. In Michigan, they are urban counties where Republicans have replaced moderates on canvass boards with pro-Trump loyalists.

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