Trump Supporters’ Election Delegitimization Cycle Is Playing Out In Real Time  

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In the aftermath of 2020, election departments across the country experienced a massive wave of resignations from workers who had experienced threats and violence stirred up by baseless conspiracy theories.

These election lies were primarily rooted in normal, explainable, election errors that were then weaponized by election deniers, looking for anything to justify Donald Trump’s claims of a rigged election, as a way to cast doubt on the entire election system.

The concern now, going into November, is not only another uptick in threats against election workers, but the continuation of a larger delegitimization cycle that originated in 2020: a greater number of clerical election errors due to new and inexperienced election staff, leading to more election conspiracy theory fodder, and ultimately culminating in more violence and another wave of resignations, where the vicious cycle begins again. 

Some of the most viral 2020 election conspiracy theories originated from simple human error – a normal occurrence in any election that is in no way indicative of voter fraud. 

In Antrim County, Michigan, for example, Trump and his allies spread baseless voter fraud claims after the county inadvertently misreported a number of unofficial votes in 2020. The mistake, which Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson quickly confirmed was not nefarious, but rather a “human error,” was then used by the MAGA world to cast doubt on electronic voting systems and election officials.

And, similarly, in Maricopa County, Arizona, printer issues stirred up a wave of conspiracy theories, leading to failed gubernatorial candidate and election denier Kari Lake filing a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court asking the state to overturn the results of the election. Even though election officials explained that the printer issues did not prevent voters from voting, bogus claims that the printing issues were intentional and depressed voter turnout continued to circulate. 

It’s mistakes like the ones in Antrim County and Maricopa County, which bad actors seized upon to inflict harm and violence on election workers, that experts worry will only increase ahead of the 2024 election. This is especially true because, according to a survey from the Brennan Center, one in five election officials are likely to resign ahead of November. And, per reporting from the nonprofit Issue One, over 160 chief election officials have left their positions in 11 states since the 2020 election. 

“The concern is when you have experienced people leave particularly close to an election and you aren’t able to bring on an experienced person to help steer the ship,” David Levine, senior elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told TPM in an interview. 

And we’ve already begun to see this cycle play out. 

A Spotlight PA and Vote Beat analysis found that 12 Pennsylvania counties reported 16 errors on or before Election Day during their November municipal election — more than twice the amount of errors reported since 2019. The report found that the mistakes were linked to an increase in election official turnover. This past November, in Northampton County, for example, a programming mistake caused votes for two county judges to be flipped on a ballot question. And although the error did not cause any changes in the official election results, rumors about voter fraud continued to circulate. 

“There’s always this possibility that whenever you have new folks step to the fore where they don’t have a lot of experience, and this thing could present itself,” Levine added.

But just because there might be an increase in normal clerical errors, it doesn’t mean voters should assume that officials will make mistakes that won’t be caught. Election procedures are sound, emphasized Justin Levitt, a professor of law at Loyola Law School. And while there is certainly benefit to having an experienced official on the job, a lack of experience doesn’t mean there will be errors that will impact the results of the election. 

“In the wake of 2020, there’s been so many more challenges related to physical security, the threats, the harassment, the making sure that conspiracy theorists aren’t blowing innocuous things out of proportion,” Michael Beckel, research director for the nonpartisan organization Issue One, told TPM.

But Trump isn’t waiting around for clerical election errors to occur in order to spread bogus claims about a fraudulent election. On Tuesday, Trump resurrected his  “Stop the Steal” mantra from 2020 in a Truth Social post arguing that the people prosecuting him are involved in their own form of “election interference.”

It’s not surprising. The delegitimization of our elections, according to Levitt, has been incredibly lucrative for those who have perpetuated baseless claims. 

“The grievance machine is exceedingly lucrative,” said Levitt. Trump himself raised about $30 million for his Save America PAC solely off of frivolous election fraud lawsuits, Levitt noted. 

“There’s unfortunately big business in claiming problems, and I expect there to be additional unsound, frivolous litigation,” Levitt said, emphasizing that election mistakes that impact the results of the election are exceedingly rare. 

“We rarely see an election result in the US that gets overturned, or even a new election that gets called based on either large scale mistakes or nefarious behavior,” he said. 

This article has been updated to reflect that some election officials left their positions due to term limits or not getting reelected.

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Notable Replies

  1. It’s fair to say that the average Republican these days views empirical reality as a conspiracy against him.

  2. It won’t matter if Democrats win big, or by just a little bit. Either occurrence will be deemed voter fraud by Republicans. Just keep heads down, plow ahead, and have the receipts.

  3. The old GOP of my 40s-50s youth is every bit the author of this anti-democratic lie. These hypocrites were screaming about stolen elections in the 1890s.

  4. Avatar for tsp tsp says:

    Well said!

  5. My view is a little different; it’s more like the average Republican has perfected the art of compartmentalizing to avoid cognitive dissonance.

    Something like 40% of R’s in recent polls say they don’t believe that the 2020 election was stolen, but most of this group will vote for Trump anyway, because they don’t want another four years of Biden as President.

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