Georgia's Trump supporters are not giving up. On Saturday, scores massed outside the statehouse in Atlanta, a small sea of mostly men in red MAGA hats hoisting signs hurling accusations against Joe Biden and wearing campaign tee-shirts saying "STOP the STEAL."
It barely mattered that Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had certified Biden's unexpected nearly 13,000-vote victory one day before. Also irrelevant was Georgia's unprecedented manual hand count of presidential votes on 5 million paper ballots, which was more than any 2020 swing state has done since Election Day to verify its votes.
Instead, Trump supporters in Georgia, like many across the country, are not just embracing a growing catalog of vote-counting conspiracy theories as the president pressures state officials to reject the popular vote and select him, via Electoral College slates, for another term. Among Trump's ranks are activists who witnessed the latest vote-counting steps as credentialed GOP observers and have studied these steps via social media and online forums. These activists appear to be coalescing into a new right-facing election reform movement, much like left-leaning activists launched a progressive "election integrity" movement after the fraught presidential elections in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.
"Oh my God, where do I begin?" exclaimed Stacey, an official Republican Party observer during Georgia's hand count last week in DeKalb County near Atlanta. Stacey, who didn't want her last names used, was a blond woman in her 40s wearing an American flag sweatshirt and a bracelet with red, white and blue rhinestones and Trump's name spelled out in baby beads. She was taking a break with a friend, another GOP observer.
The pair, like many Trump supporters watching Georgia's audit, said they were citizens who cared about democracy and honest elections. But instead of appreciating that Georgia's first-ever hand count of millions of paper ballots had found and fixed mistakes that added more than 1,000 votes to Trump's total, they were increasingly incensed by the fine print in the election process they witnessed. Their discovery that election administration was under-resourced, complex, opaque and at times, mistake-prone, only affirmed their belief that the process had conspired to defeat Trump. Election officials across Georgia might have been counting every ballot, but that exercise and the overall process lacked the tools to convince a slice of the public that was critical and cynical.
"We're not allowed to talk to anybody—so you can't even ask questions," Stacey said, when asked what concerned her, as she sat in the viewing area inside a vacant department store that DeKalb County had converted into an early voting center and then used for the hand count.
"There's a lot of things," she said. "Like here's a box [of paper ballots]. What is this box? What is it that you're doing? You can't tell. You can't see anything. They're supposed to sort them first, according to the person they voted for, and then they're supposed to count them… But I can't see, because I'm so far away, if that really is a Biden vote going for Biden in the Biden pile—or was a Trump vote, or a Jorgensen vote."
"There's so many unknowns," her friend and fellow GOP observer added. "We don't know where they're bringing them from. We don't know where they're taking them to. Who's watching? Who's watching?" She sighed. "There's a lot of question marks. We feel really powerless. We want to be here with good intentions. But we feel powerless."
There's a direct line between campaign observers such as these women and the affidavits—or sworn statements by witnesses in lawsuits—that Trump's lead lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was waving at a widely ridiculed 90-minute news conference on Thursday, November 19. Giuliani reeled off allegations of dishonest election administration and vote-counting processes in other states that Biden won—denying Trump another term. Giuliani's affidavits, often based on what people thought they saw, which was not necessarily accurate nor the full picture, were from Republican observers like Stacey and her friend.
This sprint by Trump's team to get witness statements from allies and activists on the frontlines in 2020's swing states was what Green and Libertarian Party lawyers did in Ohio in 2004, when they assumed that the election had been stolen for President George W. Bush—not just won by brazen GOP voter suppression tactics. That scramble in Ohio and its aftermath sparked a left-leaning election integrity movement that endures to this day. That movement has helped push every state (including Georgia) to recently replace the all-electronic voting systems acquired a dozen years ago with more accountable paper ballot-based voting. In Georgia, the type of audit that was be done before certifying the general election's winners—which turned into the hand count that drew Trump observers—also emerged in the aftermath of Florida and Ohio.
But now, in 2020, it looks like Trump supporters are discovering election administration issues and may be changing the script that emerged after Ohio's election in 2004 and was embraced in red-run states. That playbook greatly exaggerated the threat of voter fraud—or one person repeatedly voting—to overly police the voting process. State-level responses, such as passing stricter voter ID laws, happened to impede more voters in blue than red epicenters.
Since 2020's Election Day, Trump's supporters have discovered a palette of problems focused less on individuals and more on systemic issues with how elections are run, including Trump supporters discovering how much privatized technology, paid consultants and frustratingly opaque administrative procedures undergird American elections.
For example, after Guiliani spoke, Sydney Powell, a Trump team lawyer, echoed and amplified the kinds of suspicions heard from Trump supporters on Georgia's frontlines. Powell declared that the firms that made America's voting systems were infiltrated with leftist foreigners who could sabotage results. Beyond an operatic performance that caused her to be dismissed by the weekend, that screed was an example of disinformation based on taking a small thread of truth (foreign investment among America's handful of voting system vendors) and layering fearful partisan clichés on top. Where did her claim originate? A blogger active in progressive election integrity circles since Ohio said that it had been "bastardized" from his website.
"This is stunning, heartbreaking, infuriating and the most unpatriotic acts I can even imagine for people in this country to have participated in," Powell declared, speaking of the hidden hands and local election officials who conspired and acted to deprive Trump of a second term.
"It's completely pointless," said Stacey, the Trump observer in Dekalb County, Georgia, saying much the same thing though not on national television. "This is optics. Take a look around you. I don't care what side of the fence you're on. You can just feel the attitude. There are too many cooks in this stew. They're too many things going on. They bring in ballots to the ballot room. Where's the ballot room?"
"People are assuming that what they are counting is valid," she said, referring to the assembled paper ballots with votes for president. "Where did that come from?"
A New Cause
These sentiments and a growing distrust of election administration and voting technology are not likely to vanish. Legal scholars, such as the University of California Irvine's Rick Hasen, who curates the country's most influential election law blog, have focused on the higher altitude impacts of Trump's failing legal strategies. The president's attacks and smears, though not succeeding in court, were eroding public trust in the democratic process and could even pressure some courts and legislatures to embrace new anti-voting measures.
"The good news is that there is no real prospect that Mr. Trump can avoid a reluctant handover of power on Jan. 20," Hasen wrote for the New York Times. "The bad news is that Mr. Trump's wildly unsubstantiated claims of a vast voter fraud conspiracy and the litigation he has brought against voting rights have done — and will increasingly do — serious damage to our democracy. Our problems will deepen, in particular, because Mr. Trump's litigation strategy has led to the emergence of a voter-hostile jurisprudence in the federal courts."
At the grassroots level, hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters are discovering eye-popping features about the mechanics of America's voting systems that are fueling more doubt, speculation and outrage. One video that went viral explained that an unadvertised feature in the software used to compile a spreadsheet of all of the votes cast in a county could apply a fractional value to any column of vote totals. That feature, called weighted voting, was put there by the country's biggest voting system makers for use in private-sector elections, such as counting different classes of stock in shareholder elections. If someone knew how to use this application, which can multiply any vote total by a fractional value that's greater or less than one, and were not caught doing so, they could possibly alter the reported results. Trump's supporters are seizing such tidbits as revelations of how invisible strings can be pulled.
"Those who pretend to be for Election Integrity but mock the many intelligent and passionate voices calling into question the veracity of our election system simply because they are pro-Trump are themselves making a mockery of the topic," commented one activist on an email thread. "The media, and many of the pretenders in this group, were all for looking into hacking and other forms of election fraud, until...Orange Man Bad. Now, for the first time there is incredible grassroots support to make a real impact on our entire election system."
Meanwhile, broader statements from voting system manufacturers denying that their systems were vulnerable to manipulation and errors are not persuading many Trump supporters. Nor were daily assertions from top statewide election officials in Georgia that the discovery of uncounted Trump votes during the state's hand count were caused by human errors, not the underlying technology or system design.
Since last week's hand count in Georgia, where Voting Booth profiled how Trump observers kept raising claims of stolen votes without producing any evidence, this reporter has heard new details and explanations for behind the scene breakdowns that occurred during the hand count audit. (The presidential recount that begins on Tuesday will use high-speed scanners).
Why were memory cards with uncounted votes left in precinct scanners? Because the state's new machinery from Dominion Voting Systems does not alert poll workers if vote count data on thumb drives in precinct scanners has been successfully uploaded, a longtime voting consultant who was in touch with contractors hired for Georgia's audit said. That exact same problem has roiled countywide elections in Florida, he added.
Did local officials in one Georgia county panic after they could not find 600 paper ballots, but not tell state officials? Yes, this same source said, adding that they found the missing ballots not by recounting every batch of ballots by hand (the audit's protocol), but by weighing the sealed bags containing ballots —one bag was too heavy.
This design flaw (not confirming precinct vote-count data was sent) and panic moment (due to a ballot inventory error that should have been caught before the audit began) were kept hidden from the press and public during the audit. But they are part of an election administration landscape that a cadre of Trump supporters have been discovering.
As Georgia's hand count began, election integrity activist Garland Favorito, who has worked with progressives for 15 years, said that he sympathized with the Trump activists. There were "three top things" driving Trump's supporters, he explained. They did not understand how a candidate who could fill arenas lost to a candidate who had barely left home. They did not trust that millions of mailed-out ballots had not been tampered with somewhere along the line. And they felt abused by mainstream media, who they despised more than Democrats.
Trump's frontline election observers had little appreciation that Georgia's hand count, which was not without flaws, was still more transparent than anything that had been done before. They had little appreciation for the thousands of people who were spending days counting 5 million paper ballots by hand. They did not think that Trump's ongoing efforts to smear the process was at odds with their quest for truth and honest elections. They also did not like Voting Booth's profile of their efforts, they said, because they looked foolish. They did not contest its accuracy, nor realize that reporters from the New York Times, PBS and other media stood near them during the hand count and could have written the same account.
But the cadre of Trump supporters who have discovered the world of election administration are not going away. They don't like what they have seen, even if they do not fully understand what they are looking at. Meanwhile, they and the president are fueling dizzying conspiracies where Americans who don't follow the arcana of elections do not know what to believe. And election officials are not helping to clear the air. Their systems, procedures and technologies do not easily convey ground truths—how votes are cast, counted, secured and verified—apart from noise from campaigns and the backdrop of partisan rules affecting who can vote.
Deep new currents are stirring, despite what many policy experts have said was a well-run election—given the pandemic, unprecedented attacks on the post office and millions of people voting by mail for the first time. How the festering distrust among Trump's supporters evolves into a new right-facing election reform movement is not yet clear. The seeds are planted.
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.