Former U.S. president Donald Trump is banking on next month’s midterms installing 2020 election deniers in positions of power over voting systems in key swing states, raising fears that his acolytes, if they win, could change electoral rules to disadvantage opponents or try to overturn the results of future elections.
Whether Mr. Trump’s campaign is actually resonating with voters, however, is an open question: Polls show several of his endorsees trailing their Democratic opponents, and some have jettisoned their election fraud rhetoric.
At a weekend rally in Michigan, Mr. Trump doubled down. He repeated falsehoods that President Joe Biden had “stolen” his election through a corrupt voting system and vowed Republican candidates would “straighten it out.”
“They cheat like hell, these people,” he thundered to thousands of cheering supporters at an exhibition hall in Warren, a Detroit suburb. “Our elections are so rigged.”
In Michigan, every Republican nominee for state office this fall subscribes to Mr. Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud.
Kristina Karamo, the candidate for secretary of state, first rose to fame in 2020 as a scrutineer who said she had witnessed election workers rigging the vote. She warned the rally that “authoritarians” from across the country were looking to steal elections in Michigan.
“They’re of the belief that, if they can corrupt battleground elections, that they can control America. This nefarious plot is real and it’s happening,” she said.
Out of the five swing states that tipped the 2020 election to Mr. Biden – Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan – election deniers are the Republican gubernatorial nominees in four, and the nominees for secretary of state and attorney-general in two. Dozens more are running for congressional and state legislative seats.
Mark Brewer, an elections lawyer and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said a governor, secretary of state or attorney-general could interfere in an election if they did not see the result they wanted.
State-level secretaries of state oversee the officials who run elections and could tell them to make it harder for people to vote, for instance. Attorneys-general could launch state-backed lawsuits accusing political opponents of voter fraud. And a governor could refuse to transmit a state’s election results to Washington in hopes of pushing the legislature to replace the winning candidate’s presidential electors with the loser’s.
“They can throw sand in the gears in a variety of ways,” Mr. Brewer said.
Repeated investigations, including one in Michigan led by a Republican state senator, have found no evidence the 2020 election was stolen. This has made little difference to Mr. Trump’s supporters.
Saundra Wall, a 53-year-old auto-industry worker, said voter fraud is the “number one” issue in the midterms. “We feel that we were robbed. There’s no way it wasn’t stolen,” she said as she waited for Mr. Trump to speak in Warren, adding that she hoped future Republican officials would “prosecute” people if it happened again in 2024.
Tony Davenport, a volunteer for Ms. Karamo’s campaign, said her stand on the 2020 election motivated him to work for her. “You see dead people voting,” Mr. Davenport, 41 said. “They brought in boxes of what appeared to be fake ballots to the counting centre.”
But there are signs this message is holding back Republican campaigns by keeping away moderate voters.
In Michigan, the Democratic incumbents for governor, secretary of state and attorney-general – Gretchen Whitmer, Jocelyn Benson and Dana Nessel, respectively – have consistently led polls in recent months. Conspiracy-minded Republican nominees for governor in Pennsylvania and senate in Arizona are also trailing.
Even as Mr. Trump leans into election fraud, some of his candidates are now downplaying it. In her speech at Mr. Trump’s Michigan rally, Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon steered clear of the subject, instead training her fire on critical race theory and teaching children about gender identity.
Matthew DePerno, the Republican nominee for Michigan attorney-general, led a legal challenge to the 2020 election and is currently under investigation over accusations he tampered with voting machines. But when The Globe and Mail asked him if, as attorney-general, he would try to overturn an election result he believed was fraudulent, his handler ended the interview.
Jenna Bednar, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said there are constitutional guardrails that would limit what Mr. DePerno and his colleagues could do in any event. Mail-in voting and same-day voter registration, for example, are both enshrined in the state constitution.
But election-denier officials could still use the bully pulpits of their offices to undermine the country’s already shaky confidence in democracy, she said.
“What they can do is make people very suspicious, make them worry about outcomes, make them feel like they can’t trust the government,” Prof. Bednar said. “The whole thing that makes democracy work is people having confidence in the system.”