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It’s primary season in regions that Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden in 2020, and his supporters want to shape the outcome with conspiracy theories, restrictive election laws and stacking local groups with their own people

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Trump supporters in Commerce, Ga., listen to the ex-president speak at a rally supporting David Perdue, a candidate for Georgia's governorship.Audra Melton/The New York Times

At an olive-oil store in an Atlanta bedroom community, David Perdue is pushing a conspiracy theory. The lean, silver-haired former U.S. senator is here to stump for votes in Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial primary. His pitch consists of attacking the incumbent, Brian Kemp, for not going along with Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss to Joe Biden.

Mr. Perdue describes mail-in ballots as “suspicious.” Thousands of people, he warns, may have voted illegally. He declares that Brad Raffensperger, the Republican official who certified Mr. Biden’s victory in the state, must resign.

Put him in charge, and he’ll ensure that his party does not lose another federal election, Mr. Perdue promises the denizens of Cartersville, gathered at this boutique shop on their red-brick main street one weekday evening.

“I want a Republican in the White House in ‘24, that’s the first objective. Second thing is, I want the Senate majority back,” he says. “The only way to win both those things is to win the governor’s race.”

Mr. Perdue’s run is part of a concerted campaign by Mr. Trump and his acolytes to put the country’s election machinery under their control ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.

The United States does not have a federal agency that manages elections, leaving it up to individual states, counties and cities to make their own rules and tally their own votes.

In elections this year, candidates backing the former president’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen are aiming to win governorships and legislative majorities in key swing states. They are passing a flurry of restrictive laws that make it harder to vote. And they are taking over local committees that run polling stations and certify election results, giving them power to set the rules for voting, kick voters off the rolls and discard ballots.

It all raises the prospect that, next time around, Mr. Trump or another losing candidate could execute the illegal seizure of power that he unsuccessfully attempted in 2020.

“If you have partisan actors who get to control the entire voting process from registration to certification,” says Helen Butler, executive director of a Georgia social-justice group, “there’s a possibility that you can have that coup.”

Mr. Perdue greets supporters at a Feb. 2 event in Covington, Ga. Campaign literature and sign-up sheets play up his connection to Donald Trump. Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

States and counties

During the weeks after his 2020 defeat, Mr. Trump and his campaign team exhorted legislators and election officials in several states to overturn the result. In one notorious phone call, he demanded Mr. Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, “find” enough votes to overcome Mr. Biden’s 11,779-ballot victory in Georgia.

All of these efforts failed, as did the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill by Mr. Trump’s supporters. Since then, the former president and his loyalists have focused their efforts on trying to change the system, or take it over.

Over the past year, 20 Republican-run states have brought in laws making it more difficult to cast a ballot.

Georgia’s version is called the Election Integrity Act, better known by its legislative name of SB 202. The law cuts back on mail-in voting, which went overwhelmingly for the Democrats in 2020, and puts limits on the number of days and hours for early voting. It also gives the state government the ability to fire elections officials and take over their powers.

In a Southern state that was an epicentre of the civil-rights movement, SB 202′s opponents see in it shades of the segregation era, when the government disenfranchised Black citizens.

“It is definitely a play to stop this rising electorate – new voters, Black voters, brown voters – from accessing the ballot,” says Aklima Khondoker, 38, the chief legal officer of the New Georgia Project, a voting-rights group. “It took 12,000 votes for Georgia to swing in a more progressive direction. They are working on getting those numbers down through various methods that add up to voter suppression and barriers to the ballot.”

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A voter picks up a sticker after casting a ballot in Athens, Ga., on Nov. 3, 2020.Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP

In places where similar laws were previously enacted, they have disproportionately kept Black, low-income and younger voters from the polls. All of these demographics lean toward the Democratic Party.

One study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for instance, found that, in the state’s two most populous counties alone, up to 23,000 people were deterred from voting in 2016 after a new law that restricted the types of identification voters could use.

Timothy Barr, a Georgia state legislator, says SB 202 is necessary to crack down on illegal voting. He’s sponsoring another bill that would go even further by completely banning ballot drop boxes. Mr. Barr, who is running for Congress this year, has the slogan “Trump Won Georgia” emblazoned on his campaign signs.

“If we lose confidence in our form of voting, I think we’ll have lost our form of government,” he says. “You know, I think it’s just ripe for fraud.”

Mr. Raffensperger’s office has repeatedly investigated and debunked allegations of election-rigging. Election officials say SB 202′s impediments to voting, on the other hand, will be real.

Pat Pullar, a member of the elections board in suburban Atlanta’s Clayton County, says the new law has left the nearly 300,000 people in her majority-Black community with just two ballot drop boxes, down from nine in the past election. This has meant pulling the boxes from traditionally low-turnout areas, making it even less likely that people there will vote.

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Trump supporters rally outside State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov. 5, 2020, as ballots are counted inside.Megan Varner/Getty Images

The power of the elections board became starkly apparent in 2020. Mr. Trump’s supporters, Ms. Pullar says, showed up at board meetings to demand officials rule that thousands of people in the county were ineligible to vote and should be stricken from the rolls. There was no evidence to back up their request, she says, and the board rejected it. A different board might have acceded.

“It disenfranchises everybody. You include in that people with disabilities, seniors, new voters,” Ms. Pullar, 70, says.

Control of these boards of elections is another front in the war over voting. There is a board in each county, and they are in charge of the basic mechanics of elections – maintaining lists of voters, setting up polling stations and counting ballots.

Over the past year, the legislature has purged several boards.

Where they were previously either non-partisan, or appointed with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, they are now chosen by Republican-run county commissions or conservative-leaning judges. It has led to Democrats getting ousted.

In Spalding County, Republicans used their newfound majority on the elections board to cancel early voting on Sundays. Sunday voting is a staple of get-out-the-vote efforts among Black communities. African-American churches organize “Souls to the Polls” events to get congregations to vote en masse after services.

Spalding’s new election board chair also promotes conspiracy theories.

Ben Johnson, whose day job is running an IT company, has tweeted about “ballot envelopes found in the dumpster,” and referenced claims that an Italian company used satellites to change 2020 vote results.

On one occasion, he posted a meme suggesting that the U.S. opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because “corrupt” members of Congress have business interests there.

Mr. Johnson has tweeted more than a dozen times about QAnon, the outlandish belief that Mr. Trump’s opponents are part of a Satanic cult. “Hate to say it but a hell of a lot of the information dropped by Q has turned out to be accurate,” he wrote during the 2020 election campaign.

Pam Peters, a newly minted member of the elections board in Floyd County, has previously made accusations of election fraud. In a November, 2020, video, she suggested that an election official in her town added votes to the tally in the presidential election after dismissing poll watchers during the counting process.

“They really didn’t want us in the tabulation room,” Ms. Peters says in the video, posted to YouTube by Tea Party Patriots, a group that helped organize protests on Jan. 6. “No one can know what that lady was putting into the laptop.”

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Lincolnton, Ga., is the seat of Lincoln County.Nicole Craine/The New York Times

In Lincoln County, the recently overhauled board moved late last year to cut the number of polling places from seven to one. A 2½-hour drive east of Atlanta, amid pine forests along the Savannah River, Lincoln is a sprawling, rural place with an aging, low-income population. Its 8,000 residents are spread out over 670 square kilometres, meaning a single polling place would force some to make a two-hour round trip to vote.

For Helen Cavitt-Bennett, 74, a Black lifelong resident, it feels like the fight for voting access has come full circle. She remembers a civil-rights march in 1965, the same year she became old enough to vote.

As protesters marched through Lincolnton, the county’s only town, a mob of white residents attacked. They beat marchers to the ground, backed pickup trucks into the protest and threatened demonstrators with guns. Others took down the names of the protesters to retaliate later. Ms. Cavitt-Bennett says she was subsequently denied service at the bank because her brothers had been in the march.

There was only a single polling station in the county back then. Ms. Cavitt-Bennett started driving neighbours to the polls on election days, a tradition she’s kept up for more than 50 years. But the waiting times, often in the blazing Georgia sun, were too much for some people.

“A lot of them would say ‘I’m not going to stand out all day just to vote,’” she recalls.

Even after segregation formally ended, its legacy remained. In the 1980s, locals here remember, one doctor in town still had a segregated waiting room for Black patients. In the 1990s, a school-bus driver made Black children sit at the back.

Still, the situation got better over time. The county ultimately opened more polling places. Ms. Cavitt-Bennett spent more than a decade on the elections board.

Now, it feels to her that things are regressing. “It’s like they’re trying to take us backwards,” she says. “So many people died for us to have the right to vote.”

Walker Norman, who is in his 30th year as chairman of Lincoln County’s commission, the local governing council, says closing polling places is not an attempt to stop anyone from voting. The plan, he maintains, is driven purely by the logistical and financial burden of running seven election locations in a county with such a small population.

“It’s a lot of work, and you don’t have but very few people vote on election day to begin with,” says Mr. Norman, 67, who is white. “It’s not a suppression of votes.”

It was Mr. Norman’s administration that asked the state to change the appointment process for Lincoln’s elections board, giving the commission the power to appoint a majority of board members. He says he did this to comply with a Georgia court decision that ruled non-governmental groups could not name people to government bodies. He read this to mean that the Democratic and Republican parties could not make the appointments, as they previously did.

Other Georgia counties do not share this reading. They still have the political parties fill board of elections seats.

Mr. Norman says he favours keeping a balance of Republican and Democratic board members. His own political history demonstrates how hard that might be in a majority-conservative county such as his: Mr. Norman was a Democrat, but switched parties two years ago because it was the only way he could continue to get elected.

“It’s either run as a Republican or get your ass whipped,” he says. “That’s what you had to do.”

At March 26’s rally in Commerce, Mr. Trump dons one of his signature caps. Earlier in the day, Mr. Perdue waves to supporters; Herschel Walker, a U.S. Senate candidate, throws a hat into the crowd. Alyssa Pointer/Reuters; Megan Varner/Getty Images

The Trump party

The same dynamic at play in Georgia is unfolding in other swing states Mr. Biden won.

Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also have gubernatorial elections this year, and leading Republican candidates in all of them have embraced Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud. In Michigan, Republicans have begun appointing people who promote these conspiracy theories to local elections boards.

Among the crowd that comes to listen to Mr. Perdue in Cartersville, he finds a receptive audience for such claims.

Molly Sturgeon says she believes the Democrats stuffed ballot boxes. Mr. Biden could not have prevailed because he ran a socially distanced campaign, she says, while Mr. Trump continued holding mass events.

“You would have to be an idiot to think that Biden, who didn’t have a dozen people at his rallies while Trump had thousands, could have won,” says Ms. Sturgeon, a 53-year-old homemaker.

If the state government can’t find any evidence of election-rigging, they should keep looking until they do, says Kevin Tieman, 61, a retired construction company owner. “I don’t care for anybody hiding behind the veil of ‘you bring me the evidence, you prove to me,’ ” he says. “It should be on them.”

Tammy Rogers speculates that dead people voted, there was something dodgy going on with the voting machines and Mr. Kemp may have been paid by the Democrats. “It was so stolen,” the 56-year-old realtor says.

They aren’t outliers. In a December poll by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 71 per cent of Republican voters said they did not believe Mr. Biden’s victory was legitimate.

Mr. Trump has endorsed Mr. Perdue, holding a rally for him last month and helping fund attack ads proclaiming Mr. Kemp “dismissed concerns about voter fraud.” The former president is also backing Congressman Jody Hice, who is running against Mr. Raffensperger’s renomination bid.

The conspiracists have already taken over much of the state Republican Party’s machinery, and tried to sideline those who don’t agree with them.

Jason Shepherd, an Atlanta-area lawyer and long-time Republican organizer, says that after the 2020 election, local party meetings were flooded with Trump supporters convinced Mr. Biden had rigged the vote.

Most had never previously been involved in political organizing, but were convinced the party was failing Mr. Trump. They had been urged to take over Republican groups by Steve Bannon and other far-right pundits.

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Trump supporters rally in Perry, Ga., this past September.Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Trumpists have voted in fellow believers as party officials. Those who accept Mr. Biden won fairly are derided as RINOs – Republican in Name Only.

“These days, RINO means ‘everybody who doesn’t support Donald Trump and everything he does 110 per cent,’ ” says Mr. Shepherd, 46, who has been involved with the party since his first year of university. “Donald Trump hasn’t been a Republican as long as I have, and I’m 30 years younger than him.”

The newcomers pushed to organize candlelight vigils for “political prisoners” arrested at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Mr. Shepherd says. At state-level party meetings ahead of two crucial Senate elections last year, fellow members spent more time talking about imagined 2020 fraud than how to win the coming races. Mr. Perdue and another Republican incumbent both lost to Democratic challengers. Then, Mr. Shepherd’s county party chapter voted to censure Mr. Kemp.

Mr. Shepherd quit the county committee.

“The reason I’m a Republican is that the Republican Party has certain basic principles,” he says. “We believe in the rule of law and the Constitution. I hear Republicans tell me we should violate the law, we should violate the Constitution because the result is not what we want.”

Federal efforts to stop voter suppression and make it easier to cast a ballot, meanwhile, are failing. Last year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would require more early voting days and mail-in voting, and stop states from cutting polling places or purging voter rolls. But the bill is blocked in the Senate, where Democrats need 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

In the absence of legislative help federally, some groups are turning to the courts. There are 60 legal challenges to new Republican voting laws across the country, including eight in Georgia.

On the ground, voting-rights advocates are working to register voters, recruit poll watchers to guard against efforts to stop people from voting, and train lawyers to launch legal challenges when people are turned away at the polls.

Much of the fight is playing out at the county level. In Lincoln, activists gathered petition signatures against closing polling stations, and showed up at election board meetings. The board relented last month, and voted to keep all seven voting stations open.

Mr. Norman, the county chairman, says the issue is not over, and he expects a proposal to shut at least some polls will come up again.

If it does, advocates vow to be ready.

Rev. Denise Freeman, 64, one of the chief organizers against the closings, remembers growing up in rural Georgia during segregation. There was just one polling station in her county, about 20 miles from home. As the civil-rights movement took hold, officials eventually opened a poll just a few minutes’ walk away. It was exciting, she recalls, and represented a progress that she is determined not to see reversed.

“It’s like turning the clock backwards,” she says. “They worked too hard all over this country to improve our access, to secure our franchise, for us to allow anyone to push us back.”

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