With the United States entering the final stretch of a tumultuous midterm election campaign, experts are warning that delays in the vote count in closely contested races could provide an opening for weaponized conspiracy theories that undermine confidence in the results and stoke political violence.
This election is in many ways tracing a familiar path from two years ago, when Donald Trump preemptively signaled he would refuse to accept any result other than victory, and encouraged weeks of unrest leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. Again, the focus centers on a handful of key battleground states, like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, where candidates who embrace Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen and candidates hand-picked by the former president are on the ballot for top races, including governor, US Senate and secretary of state.
Paul Gronke, a political science professor who directs the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, said he is particularly concerned about Pennsylvania, where the two candidates for US Senate — Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman — are in a dead heat, and state law prohibits election officials from pre-processing mail ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
“And I worry that people will be declaring victory on election night when not enough ballots have been counted, and that will begin this rhetorical move again where we have election officials become the focus, [where people are saying], ‘Well, there must be some kind of malfeasance because we haven’t reported all the returns yet,’” Gronke said.
Georgia, another state that featured in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, is also poised to reenter the spotlight, with Herschel Walker, Trump’s handpicked Republican challenger, in a statistical dead heat with Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock in the US Senate race.
Georgia, unlike Pennsylvania, allows pre-processing of mail ballots, but in 2020 the results were not called until two weeks after Election Day. Gronke said the delay occurred because of mail ballots that came in on the last day that needed to be counted after Election Day.
Also, in a repeat of 2020, high-profile Trump allies are pumping out messaging to the MAGA base that falsely claims a wave of Republican victories is inevitable, setting them up to question the results if they do not. In some cases, as with Trump in 2020, they are going even further by already falsely claiming that the only way Democratic candidates can win is if they cheat.
“The Red Wave is coming,” retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, wrote on Telegram last week. “Don’t pay any attention to the mainstream media. Their bias is killing their ratings on a daily basis.”
Terry Schilling, whose organization American Principles Project is committed to undermining transgender rights, proclaimed to former White House strategist Steve Bannon last week that Tuesday will be “judgment day” and “Democrats are about to be condemned in a way they’ve never experienced before.
“This is gonna make the Tea Party look like a tea party, literally,” Schilling said on the Nov. 4 segment of Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, which has served as a clearinghouse in recent weeks for election conspiracy theories, pitches by pro-Trump candidates, and recruiting observers. “It’s gonna be a landslide massacre against the Democrats who’ve been killing our kids.”
Bannon himself has pushed the message, telling listeners on the Oct. 10 episode of his podcast: “If they can’t cheat, they can’t win.”
The strategy that Trump allies are deploying closely tracks with their ploy to create mayhem after the 2020 election.
Three days before the 2020 election, Bannon told associates, according to a recording leaked to Mother Jones: “What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner…. As it sits here tonight, at 10 or 11 o’clock, Trump’s gonna walk in the Oval, tweet out, ‘I’m the winner. Game over. Suck on that.’”
Gronke said that due to Democratic voters disproportionately favoring mail voting while Republican voters typically prefer to cast their ballots on Election Day, early returns are likely to create artificial leads by Republican candidates that won’t be sustained as late-returning Democratic votes come in. The phenomenon has been called the “red mirage” or “blue shift.”
“Early returns that come in on Election Day look more Republican than Democrat because they haven’t gotten the vote-by-mail batches,” Gronke told Raw Story. “When the first returns come through, they’re reporting the first ballots that are processed. Those are the memory sticks from the voting machines. The absentee mail ballots have to be run through scanners. The scanners may jam. It takes time.”
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan all prohibit election officials from processing mail ballots until Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In contrast, other states — including Arizona, Georgia and Nevada — allow election officials to open absentee ballots, flatten them and stack them, and in some cases run them through a scanner so that they’re ready to tally on Election Day.
Two marquee races in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin remain extraordinarily tight.
In the race for US Senate in Pennsylvania, which could determine which party controls the Senate, Republican Mehmet Oz has been steadily closing the gap with Democrat John Fetterman since early October, with Fetterman now leading in the polls by less than one point. And while the polling shows Democrat Josh Shapiro holding a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania’s governor’s race, his Republican opponent Doug Mastriano has become a galvanizing force within the MAGA movement, having led the effort to overturn Biden’s electoral votes in the state, showing up at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and aligning with Christian dominionists.
In Wisconsin, the two major party candidates for governor — Democratic incumbent Tony Evers and Republican Tim Michels have been polling within one point of one another since late September. In the US Senate race, polls give Republican incumbent Ron Johnson a more sizable lead of about 4 points since late October, Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes has begun to close the gap in recent days.
In Michigan, another state that figured into Trump’s scheme to overturn the 2020 election, the top race is less close. There, Democratic incumbent Gretchen Whitmer leads Trump-backed Republican challenger Tudor Dixon by 4.8 points in the governor’s race. Michigan’s election is also polarized by having election deniers on the ballot for attorney general and secretary of state. Matthew DePerno, the Republican candidate for attorney general, is reportedly under a state investigation over an alleged conspiracy to access voting machines during the 2020 election. Kristina Karamo, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, came to prominence when she claimed to witness fraud in the 2020 election.
Other battleground states also feature closely contested marquee races that could provide openings for conspiracy theorists to lodge false claims of election fraud if the results aren’t known by election night.
In Georgia, recent polling shows Trump-backed Republican Herschel Walker holding a razor-thin 0.1-point lead over Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock in the US Senate race.
In Arizona, Republican challenger Blake Masters has been gradually gaining on Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, who is currently polling about 2 points ahead in the US Senate race. In that state’s governor’s race, former TV journalist Kari Lake, who has refused to commit to conceding if she loses the election and drew laughs for a quip about the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, is leading Democratic opponent Katie Hobbs by about 2.5 points in the polls. Arizona voters will also choose between Republican Mark Finchem, a staunch election denier, and Democrat Adrian Fontes for secretary of state, an office responsible for overseeing elections.
Wins by Lake and Finchem could potentially ensure that Arizona’s electoral votes are delivered to Donald Trump in 2024, regardless of who carries the popular vote in the state.
“If you have both the secretary of state and a governor or attorney general that believes that a small cohort of individuals should be able to overturn the election results by the population, then we are really in some deep trouble,” said Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the elections program at Democracy Fund, during a press call last week.
The US Senate race in Nevada is even tighter than in Arizona, with Republican challenger Adam Laxalt leading Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto by about 1.2 points, according to recent polling. The race for governor in Nevada is similarly tight, with recent polling showing Republican challenger Joe Lombardo with a slight lead, although Democratic incumbent Steve Sisolak has closed the gap to about 1.4 points in recent days.
President Biden urged Americans to exercise patience in the event that it takes election officials additional time to count the vote during a speech last week at Union Station in Washington. DC.
“We know that more and more ballots are cast in early voting or by mail in America,” Biden said. “We know that many states don’t start counting those ballots till after the polls closed on November 8th. That means that in some cases we won’t know the winner of the election for a few days — until a few days after the election. It takes time to count all legitimates in a legal and orderly manner. It’s always been important for citizens in democracy to be informed and engaged. Now, it’s important for a citizen to be patient as well.”
Right-wing influencers have predictably seized on Biden’s comments to falsely claim that his words are evidence that Democrats are preparing to cheat.
“They need time to bring in all those extra, you know, dead people and folks that are living out of state that they’ve got, because they have to see by what margin Republicans win in key areas to then be able to use little rat-holed piles of fake ballots they’ve got,” Alex Jones claimed without evidence on “War Room with Steve Bannon” the following day.
Jones read from a quote of Biden’s speech that misleadingly omitted key portions of his statement.
“And here’s Biden saying, ‘You know that more and more ballots are being cast by early voting or by mail in America. […] That means in some cases we don’t know the winner of the election for a few days. […] That’s how it’s supposed to work,’” Jones said. “That’s huge. They’re planning to steal an election.”
The selective quote Jones was reading came from a tweet put out by the conservative news website Townhall.com, which generated hundreds of retweets and comments, almost all of them mirroring Jones’ claim that Biden’s words are evidence of a plan by Democrats to steal the election.
That narrative has already been locked in place for at least two weeks now in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman issued a news release on Oct. 11 warning that millions of absentee ballots will be piling up at local election offices that by law cannot be counted until 7 a.m. on Tuesday, and unofficial results may not be available for a couple days. Again, on Oct. 25, Chapman held a press conference explaining, as Pittsburgh NPR affiliate 90.5 FM reported, that “there will possibly be a delay in reporting election results given that Pennsylvania does not allow pre-canvassing of mail-in ballots.”
“It’s really important for us to get accurate information about the election process in Pennsylvania,” Chapman said. “So voters and the public know that when there are delays in counting, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything nefarious happening. It’s just what the law in Pennsylvania is.”
In response to news coverage about Chapman’s warning, the Audit the Vote PA Telegram channel erupted with accusations that Democrats are planning to cheat, in comments reviewed by Raw Story.
Two users called for Chapman to be arrested and charged with treason, while another warned that it was “only a matter of time” before “concentration camps and mass murder” take place, reasoning that stolen elections are a harbinger of “a communist takeover.”
One Telegram user warned, “If this election is stolen, there will be hell to pay.” Another suggested, “Why don’t we all go in and help them count.”
“Time to take action!” another member wrote. “This is a blatant statement made right in front of our eyes that they are going to steal 2022.”
Toni Shuppe, the CEO of Audit the Vote PA, has herself urged voters to cast their ballots as late as possible on Election Day, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, so that they can deliberately “overwhelm the system.” The newspaper reported that Shuppe falsely claimed in a Substack article that what she calls “cheat machines” are connected to the internet and manipulated by a hacker.
“Make him think he’s got the cheat in the bag and nobody will notice,” Shuppe wrote, according to the Inquirer. “Then overwhelm him during the last hour with a turnout he can’t keep up with.”
Trump and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has poured millions of dollars into election denial efforts, have also pushed the scheme, according to the Associated Press. The news service also reported that a group called Voters Organized for Trusted Elections Results in Georgia, or VoterGA, “told its members to ‘protect’ their votes by applying for an absentee ballot early and waiting to deliver it until Election Day.”
Cleta Mitchell of the Election Integrity Network told Bannon during an appearance on “War Room” last month that her group is prepared to deploy about 20,000 conservative volunteers to observe the election process in counties across the country.
“And so, we have people trained in the law, so that they can then observe and document, and then report when things are not being conducted according to the law, when the election is violating the law,” Mitchell told Bannon. “We have people looking at the process by which the absentee ballots are being verified, the identity of the voters.”
Not surprisingly, Mitchell’s group is targeting counties with large Democratic voting populations in critical battleground states, including Maricopa, which covers Phoenix, and DeKalb, which covers the eastern portion of Atlanta.
“We have to have people in Maricopa County,” Mitchell told Bannon. “DeKalb County, Georgia. You can be anywhere in the state of Arizona or anywhere in the state in Georgia, and you can go to DeKalb County or you can go to Maricopa County. You don’t have to be from that county.
“Detroit, we have people covering the central counting area, signed up, we have that covered,” she continued. “What we don’t have is all of the precincts and polling places in Detroit. Look, these are not great places to be, but we need to be there.”
Mitchell also issued a call to Bannon’s audience for volunteers to go to Washoe County, which covers Reno, Nev., adding that they already had Las Vegas, in Clark County, covered.
The only significant battleground state that Mitchell didn’t mention was Pennsylvania. But Shuppe, the CEO of Audit the Vote PA, said in a video update last week that her group has 7,000 poll watchers ready to go on Election Day. Shuppe said she is directing poll observers to file reports with a website set up by the Republican Party. But as an alternative, due to “distrust in the party,” Shuppe said her group will also funnel reports from volunteers to an online clearinghouse set up by The America Project, a nonprofit associated with Michael Flynn. Audit the Vote PA’s officials will have “back-end access” to the reports, Shuppe said.
Attorney John Eastman, the architect of the plan to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence into setting aside electoral votes from battleground states narrowly won by Biden in 2020, explained how the reports are likely to be used as the basis of legal challenges in remarks at an Oct. 19 “summit” held by the Election Integrity Network in Albuquerque, NM according to audio obtained by Politico.
“Document what you’ve seen, raise the challenge,” Eastman reportedly said. “And [note] which of the judges on that election board decline to accept your challenge. Get it all written down. That becomes the basis for an affidavit in a court challenge after the fact.”
Tammy Patrick with Democracy Fund said in a press call last week that she worries that the increased pressure on local election officials will lead to unintentional errors that are cited as supposed evidence that the election is being rigged. As an example of errors that can occur, Patrick said sometimes ballots leave out candidates on voters’ ballots after they’ve been moved from one district to another during redistricting.
“These are the types of errors that, quite frankly, happen in every election,” Patrick said. “It’s just that they are happening a little more frequently, and when they do happen, it’s going to be leveraged and weaponized in a way as though it’s somehow an indicator that our elections are not strong, or that our elections are rigged or that there was malfeasance and criminal activity. When, in reality, it’s people conducting elections for people, and people can make mistakes. That’s not to say it’s not a problem or it’s not an issue; it also is not what many people are going to try and make out of it.”
Close races and delays in vote counting in an atmosphere already crackling with misinformation and conspiracy theories creates conditions that are ripe for potential unrest, said Paul Gronke, director of the Elections & Voting Information Center. Gronke has served as an international observer in elections in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Albania. On one assignment, he recalled that a rally started outside a vote-counting center, “and they brought in security forces, and they locked everything down” — a scene reminiscent of what happened at the elections center in Phoenix following the 2020 election.
“That’s what I worry about is you get these demonstrations outside of election offices,” Gronke said. “That would be really bad. These folks are trying to work very hard. The last thing they need is a bunch of folks being fired up by Mike Lindell and false claims.”
Gronke said he’s less worried about voter suppression on Election Day, and more concerned about misinformation proliferating and driving unrest as election officials are working to conduct an accurate count after Tuesday.
Toni Shuppe and other election deniers have indicated that they are likewise focused on the days after the polls close on Tuesday.
“We’re preparing for the week after election,” Shuppe said during her video update last week. “Not really sure what to expect. Nothing has really been fixed. All of the same vulnerabilities are in place from 2020. So, are we gonna be scrambling trying to figure out what the heck they did to steal another one? I don’t know but we’re preparing for it.”
And Bannon emphasized in his interview with Mitchell last month that he also views the counting process, not the vote itself, as the crucial juncture for determining whether elections are won or lost.
“We closed in ’16, but we didn’t close in ’20,” he said. “We’re closing in 2022. We’re closing the deal. We know the math is with us. We know the intensity is with us. We know the topics, the subjects, the issues are with us. They’re depressed, they’re gonna get more depressed and turn on each other. But it’s inside the counting rooms where we gotta close.”