On Saturday, a rally by supporters of former President Donald Trump came and went peacefully, with a heavy police and media presence and only a handful of arrests. Before the event, officials in DC were focused on preventing a repeat of January 6 — but more than eight months after the insurrection, far-right groups have shifted their focus to more local causes that could nonetheless have a major impact on national politics.
According to Jared Holt, who researches domestic extremism for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, right-wing extremists like those who stormed the Capitol building were “scared shitless” of creating another event like January 6 on Saturday — to the point that several conservative leaders, including Trump, warned their followers to stay away from the rally, claiming it was a trap.
Ultimately, only about 100 people showed up, according to an estimate by the Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon — far fewer than some pre-rally predictions — and the protesters were at times outnumbered by members of the media.
Good morning from *that* rally at the Capitol everyone’s been talking about. We’re about an hour away from official start time, and unsurprisingly we’re working with a ratio of approx 10 media per attendee. A classic rock mash-up is playing over the sound system @VICENews pic.twitter.com/EywP6XidJe— Tess Owen (@misstessowen) September 18, 2021
But anemic participation at Saturday’s event doesn’t reflect fading right-wing enthusiasm for Trump’s election lies — his supporters are just changing tactics, pushing to elect like-minded politicians and change state legislation to fit a false narrative of election fraud.
“Many are instead ... applying that political energy into local and regional scenes,” Holt told Vox’s Aaron Rupar last week.
Specifically, that energy has manifested itself in a far-right push to intimidate current state and local election officials, many of whom played a major role in pushing back on Trump’s election fraud conspiracies in 2020, and to install a new wave of pro-Trump election officials.
It’s a tactic that could have major implications for future US elections, and one that extremism experts have been raising the alarm about.
“Going local, [far-right movement figures] suggest to each other, might also help solidify power and influence their movements gained during the Trump years,” Holt wrote in his Substack newsletter last week. “After all, few people are truly engaged in local politics. That’s a lot of influence up for grabs to a dedicated movement.”
Turning a false narrative into political power
The local impact of Trump’s election lie has been most visible in some of the battleground states that swung to President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, for example, election officials from both parties have been deluged with harassment from Trump supporters, including explicit death threats. And it’s not a small-scale problem: Reuters has identified hundreds of similar threats all across the US, though the victims have found little recourse with law enforcement.
The harassment has been so severe that about a third of all election workers now feel unsafe in their jobs, according to a poll conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group for the Brennan Center for Justice earlier this year.
And as the New York Times reported on Saturday, there’s now a legal defense committee, the Election Official Legal Defense Network, specifically to support election officials facing harassment and intimidation.
In many of the same states where officials have faced relentless harassment, far-right figures are also looking to put them out of a job. In Georgia, for example, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who repeatedly defied Trump to confirm that Biden won both Georgia’s electoral votes and the 2020 election, will face a Trump-endorsed primary challenger, Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA).
According to Politico, Hice voted against certifying the 2020 electoral college results in January, and he has continued to promote voter fraud lies since then. Just after Hice announced his bid in March, Trump issued a statement lauding Hice as “one of our most outstanding congressmen.”
“Unlike the current Georgia Secretary of State, Jody leads out front with integrity,” Trump said in the statement. “Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!”
Hice isn’t the only secretary of state candidate to have embraced Trump’s election fraud rhetoric, either. Candidates like Mark Finchem in Arizona and Kristina Karamo in Michigan, both of whom have been endorsed by Trump, could have substantial oversight of how elections in those states are run if they win office, though actual vote counting is done by counties and municipalities.
Finchem has parroted the claims of voter fraud and endorsed a spurious “audit” of the vote count in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the AP reports. Finchem, a current state representative, also admitted that he was at the Capitol on January 6, but claims to have stayed 500 yards away and that he didn’t know about the attack until later.
Like Finchem, Karamo has also endorsed false election fraud claims: According to the Detroit News, she pushed voter fraud claims during the 2020 election, telling Michigan state senators that she witnessed two cases of election workers misinterpreting ballots to the advantage of Democrats, and she appeared alongside MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell at a June rally, spreading further unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
As Politico pointed out earlier this year, the actual power of secretaries of state varies by state, and is often more “ministerial” than anything — but the danger of pro-Trump election officials having a high-profile platform to espouse election conspiracies is very real.
“There’s a symbolic risk, and then there’s ... functional risk,” former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican, told Politico in May. “Any secretary of state who is a chief elections official is going to have a megaphone and a media platform during the election. A lot of the power is the perception of power, or that megaphone.”
Democrats have a plan to push back on election subversion efforts
Candidates like Hice, Finchem, and Karamo all still have to win primaries and general elections — by no means a sure thing — if they want to become the top election officials in their states. But even without election conspiracists in secretary of states’ offices, some states, like Arizona and Pennsylvania, have already started chipping away at the framework of their states’ election laws.
On Wednesday, the GOP-held Pennsylvania legislature’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee took another step toward a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election results like the one currently ongoing in Arizona when it voted to issue a subpoena for voter information — including information that’s typically not public, like the last four digits of voters’ Social Security Numbers.
And in Arizona, where a bizarre “audit” of the 2020 election has already been shambling along for months, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has also taken steps to limit the power of the Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, Katie Hobbs. In June, Ducey signed a law stripping Hobbs of her power to defend the results of an election in court.
“This is a petty, partisan power grab that is absolutely retaliation towards my office,” Hobbs, who is running for governor, told NPR.
“It’s clear by the fact that it ends when my term ends,” she said. “It is at best legally questionable, but at worst, likely unconstitutional.”
Democrats, though, are making some attempts to push back against the right’s attempts to subvert future elections. In August, the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently introduced her own voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, which is aimed at preventing the very election subversions the Republicans are trying to enact in multiple key states.
That bill, however — like the Democrats’ previous voting rights legislation, the For the People Act — has essentially no chance of becoming law under current Senate rules, since the filibuster means it would require at least 10 Republican votes to pass.
Senate Democrats could end the filibuster, or create a carve-out for voting rights legislation, using their simple 50-vote majority, but that path also appears unlikely thanks to continued opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
And with efforts like these tied up in a deeply polarized Congress, Trump supporters peddling election fraud conspiracies can continue to make inroads in local races and legislation.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been at a point that’s been quite this tenuous for the democracy,” Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the States United Democracy Center, told CNN last week. “I think it’s a huge danger because it’s the first time that I’ve seen it being undermined — our democracy being undermined from within.”