By David A. Fahrenthold, Beth Reinhard, Elise Viebeck and Emma Brown,
Sarah Silbiger For The Washington Post
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The chaotic effort to upend the U.S. presidential election has moved from the courtroom to a series of traditionally mundane events in county seats and state capitals, deliberations now under enormous pressure as President Trump and his allies seek to block formal recognition of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in key battleground states.
In the immediate term, the focus is on the four-member Michigan state canvassing board, which is scheduled to meet Monday on whether to certify Biden’s large win in that state.
On Thursday, one of the two Republicans on the board said that although he expected Biden to win the election, he may suggest a delay to allow for an audit of the state’s ballots amid unfounded allegations by the president’s legal team of widespread fraud. Biden is now leading in Michigan by roughly 150,000 votes.
“I do think with all of the potential problems, if any of them are true, an audit is appropriate,” board member Norman Shinkle said in an interview.
“Right now the idea to check into some of these accusations seem to make sense to me,” he added. “We have to have people trust our system going forward.”
A partisan deadlock on the board could set off a series of explosive political fights in the state between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP lawmakers aligned with Trump.
This week, the president personally intervened in Michigan, first calling a GOP member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, who subsequently sought to withdraw her vote to certify the result there, and then inviting the two top Republican lawmakers to the White House on Friday.
Beyond Michigan, the president and his allies also have escalated their efforts to derail the vote certification process in the other key states that delivered Biden his victory: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, which are all set to finalize their vote tallies in the coming weeks.
The looming deadlines: Dec. 8, the warning bell when states are supposed to have resolved disputes over who won, and Dec. 14, when electors officially cast votes.
On Thursday, legal experts said Trump’s pressure campaign was unlikely to actually change the electoral college’s vote. But, they said, the fact that Trump was trying it posed a historic level of danger for American democracy — by raising the prospect that a presidential election could be stolen from the inside.
“We have never had anything comparable in the history of the country to the level of interference with democracy that the Trump people are asking these legislatures to do,” said Paul M. Smith, vice president for litigation and strategy with the Campaign Legal Center. “With the political pressure on the legislatures, that really is a scary thing.”
Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich), who represents a district outside of Detroit, said that although Trump’s threats may not have legal standing, they should be taken seriously.
“My personal view of this is, yes, it’s pathetic, yes it’s ridiculous,” Levin said. “However if you look at history, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are born often when there’s some exit ramp out of democracy. And I’m sure a lot of the people involved at those times said, ‘Oh whatever, obviously they’re so completely breaking the rules that they’ll be stopped.’ But they aren’t.”
He said that a range of Michigan’s top elected officials have been meeting constantly to talk about the issue.
“We are not going to let Donald Trump hijack Michigan’s democratic structures,” he said.
Trump’s effort to pressure GOP officials amounts to a kind of Plan C for his reelection effort. After losing at the ballot box, Trump and his allies sought to overturn the election results in court — but lost, repeatedly, because they could not supply proof for their allegations of widespread voter fraud.
The current plan is even more difficult, since it involves persuading GOP officials to discard legal votes cast by their own constituents. Biden won the electoral college with 306 votes — 36 more than the 270 required for victory. So Trump would have to persuade Republicans in at least three out of the six key states to throw out their results.
Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said Thursday that the tactic would fail, calling it “a completely losing hand.”
The strategy is being spearheaded by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who, at an incendiary news conference in Washington on Thursday, made baseless claims that Biden had orchestrated a national conspiracy to rig the vote.
Behind the scenes, Republicans familiar with the plan said that even Giuliani believes the legal path is arduous — but thinks he can delay the results enough to cast doubt on Biden’s win.
In a new legal filing Thursday in federal court in Pennsylvania, Trump’s lawyers argued that the judge might have the power to decertify electors as late as Dec. 14, the date the electoral college formally votes — an indication of the campaign’s intent to keep up the fight to overturn Biden’s victory.
Trump’s plan appears to be to stir up enough allegations of election fraud that — even if they are baseless — could give Republicans a reason to act. In Michigan on Thursday, there were signs that GOP officials were not dismissing Trump out of hand.
In explaining why he was leaning toward a delay in certifying the vote, Shinkle cited a debunked conspiracy theory aired by Trump and one of his lawyers, Sidney Powell, that Dominion Voting Systems, the Colorado-based manufacturer of voting machines, deleted thousands of Trump votes. That theory has been rejected by election experts, including Trump’s own chief of election security — whom the president fired this week.
“If Dominion was fudging votes, that’s a serious problem,” Shinkle said. “If it’s true. I don’t know. I have to be convinced of it. That’s why the audit makes sense.”
Earlier this month, Shinkle’s wife filed an affidavit in a lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign alleging widespread irregularities in Detroit’s ballot-counting operation. He said Thursday that he had not read it.
Asked whether Biden was indeed the president-elect, Shinkle said “the odds are probably that he will become president. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in Pennsylvania or Nevada. My job is to try to do the right thing for the vote in Michigan.”
Shinkle said that Trump and his allies had not contacted him, but if they did, “I would say hi. They have a position to advocate.”
The board’s other Republican member, Aaron Van Langevelde, could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
Chris Thomas, an adviser to the Detroit city clerk who served as Michigan’s elections director from 1981 to 2017, said he could not recall a single instance of the canvassing board requesting an audit before certifying an election.
“It’s not something that has happened,” he said. “They have duties — they don’t have a lot of discretion. The statute tells them what they should do. They certify elections based on certified results that come from the counties.”
If the Board of Canvassers deadlocks on the decision to certify Michigan’s results Monday, Whitmer could seek to replace its members on the spot, or seek a court order requiring the board to certify. Whitmer’s office has not said whether it intends to use those options.
At a news conference Thursday, Whitmer said she was confident Michigan’s 16 electoral votes would be awarded to Biden with no disruptions. She noted that Biden had won Michigan by a margin 14 times larger than Trump won it by in 2016.
“We will be sending a slate of electors that reflects the will of the people of Michigan at the end of this process,” the governor said. ‘I can’t tell you all the different actions they are contemplating, but I implore people to put country over party and do the will of the people — respect the law, and see through that the will of the people is reflected in our electors and not play games with this fundamental part of our democracy.”
Trump allies have called for the Republican-controlled legislature to try to appoint their own electors. Experts have called such a move legally dubious, and earlier this week, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) dismissed the prospect of a legislative intervention in the race — calling Biden the president-elect and said that a Republican effort to overturn Michigan’s election results was “not going to happen.”
But, on Thursday, Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R) accepted Trump’s invitation to visit the White House on Friday. Shirkey and Chatfield both declined to comment Thursday.
Elsewhere, a senior member of Michigan’s congressional delegation, Rep. Fred Upton (R), said that it was time for Trump to give up these efforts and concede: “No one has seen any real identification of any real fraud,” he told CNN.
Several states appeared to be marching toward certification in the coming days. In Georgia, for example, officials on Thursday finalized the results of a hand count of all 5 million ballots. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has defended the election as fair and secure, was expected to certify Biden as the winner Friday.
But Trump and his allies were still making last-ditch efforts on several fronts.
In Wisconsin, a recount requested by the Trump campaign of ballots in the state’s two most heavily Democratic counties — Dane, home of Madison, and Milwaukee — will begin Friday.
Biden leads Trump by about 20,600 votes in Wisconsin, a margin experts have said is unlikely to be overturned during a recount. Wisconsin’s state legislature is controlled by Republicans, but state law gives them no role in certifying election results or choosing electors.
Instead, the head of the state’s Elections Commission — a Democrat — makes the final decision on certifying the state’s results. She must make that decision by Dec. 1.
In Nevada, where Biden is winning by more than 33,000 votes, the Nevada Supreme Court will meet Nov. 24 to certify statewide results, after which Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, will publicly proclaim the winner.
But the following day, a Carson City judge is scheduled to hear Republicans’ formal election contest in which they argue that Biden’s victory should be overturned or annulled because of widespread fraud in the state.
In Arizona, counties must certify their results by Nov. 23. But in the GOP stronghold of Mohave County, supervisors put off their scheduled vote this week, seeking to show solidarity with Trump. One supervisor, Ron Gould, said in an interview that he thought it was possible that his colleagues would not certify the vote by next week’s deadline.
At a public meeting Monday, Mohave County supervisors said they thought there was no problem with their election results. But they wanted to wait, to give the state GOP more leverage to challenge the statewide results.
“It has nothing to do with our results,” Supervisor Hildy Angius said in explaining her vote. “It’s more of a big-picture sort of thing.”
“To not canvass our vote makes no sense unless you’re saying we’re trying to make a statement to support the state party,” said Chairwoman Jean Bishop. ‘Which makes it sort of political — but I guess it is political.”
Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, said that counties’ duty to certify the results on time is non-discretionary. “The Secretary of State’s Office is confident that we will certify results by Nov. 30 as planned,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, where Trump is losing by 82,000 votes, all counties are required to submit their official results to the state by Monday. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar is then required to certify the results, with no time frame set by law. Gov. Tom Wolf then appoints the state’s presidential electors to the winner of the popular vote.
The leaders of the Republican-controlled state legislature have said they will respect that process, but they have come under mounting pressure from some Trump supporters to try to sabotage it.
In an interview published Thursday, state Senate leader Jake Corman (R) reiterated that the authority to certify the results and appoint electors lay with Boockvar and Wolf, both Democrats. “That’s the law. And we will follow the law,” Corman told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But Corman did not completely rule out the possibility that the Republican-controlled legislature could eventually intervene.
“If we were at the time when the electoral college is going to meet and Pennsylvania’s results haven’t been certified and it’s still challenged in court, and there’s no end to that, then possibly the legislature would have a role there,” Corman said.
Tom Hamburger and Kayla Ruble in Detroit, Jon Swaine in New York, and Amy Gardner, Josh Dawsey, Matt Viser, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Rosalind S. Helderman and Aaron Schaffer in Washington contributed to this report.