Officials Fear a New Normal as Republicans Make False Claims About California Recall Election

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Close-up of Donald Trump raising his fist toward a microphone.
Former President Donald Trump salutes cheering fans as he prepares to provide commentary for a boxing event headlined by a bout between former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield and former MMA star Vitor Belfort on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Hollywood, Florida. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

For years leading up to the 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump was clear: If he lost, it would be because of voter fraud.

Ahead of California's recall election Tuesday, for which ballots were mailed to all 22 million registered voters in the state, he made a similar baseless declaration.

"Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn't rigged?" Trump said in a statement Monday. "Millions and millions of Mail-In Ballots will make this just another giant Election Scam, no different, but less blatant, than the 2020 Presidential Election Scam!"

A Republican hasn't won a statewide race in California since 2006, and recent polling shows Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom favored to beat the recall and keep his office.

Still, Republicans are already setting the stage to blame a loss on voter fraud, and not on a declining base of support in a state that President Biden won by 5 million votes last year.


"There are all sort of reasons the 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans," the leading GOP replacement candidate, Larry Elder, said this month. "And my fear is they're going to try that in this election in the recall."

Elder's campaign even set up a website where concerned voters can report suspicious election activity.

It's a tactic that experts said is leading to threats against election workers, but also one they now expect to continue moving forward.

"I'm just kind of hanging on for '22 and '24, because I don't think this is going anywhere anytime soon," said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters in California's Orange County and a Republican.

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There has never been evidence to support the claim that widespread fraud affected the results of the 2020 election, but a wide majority of Republican voters still believe it did. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for instance, found that 66% of GOP voters said last year's election was stolen.

That conspiracy theory is taking a toll on voting officials, who now have to administer the country's elections while also being subjected to death threats and intense pressure.

One recent survey found that a third of election administrators nationwide felt unsafe while doing their jobs during the last election cycle.

Kelley said members of his staff have been followed and videotaped while picking up ballots from drop boxes in recent weeks.

"I've been doing this almost 18 years, and I would say the end of '19 leading into '20 and then all the way up to today has been the most stressful period of my career," Kelley said.

Up until now, the fraud claims have been mostly isolated to national campaigns and the occasional statewide race.

But Jamie Shew, who oversees elections in Douglas County, Kansas, said he worries the tactic could trickle down to local races, where margins are often extremely thin. Last year, for instance, a county commission race was decided by just three votes.

Both candidates running accepted the results after a hand recount, but Shew said he worries next time they might not be so lucky.

"Even in [2016 and 2018], candidates were going to 'there was fraud' rather than it was a bad campaign," Shew said. But "2020 took it to a whole new level. And I don't think that's going to go away."

Not all Republicans are embracing the claims. John Cox, a business executive running to replace Newsom, said voter fraud concerns are “another distraction.”

"Frankly, all this talk about the election not being valid is a cul de sac because it’s going to result in some people deciding not to vote," Cox said as he campaigned Monday outside the Capitol.

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber — the state’s chief elections official — said concerns about election security are "inaccurate." California, she said, has "the strictest voting system testing, procedures for use and security requirements in the nation.”

All votes, whether in person, by mail or drop box, will be cast on paper ballots that can be hand-counted afterward if there are questions about the tally in any county.

Part of the challenge for election officials is the vote counting and vote reporting process, which can lead to changes in results that appear to swing back and forth before final tallies are released.

In California, where election officials can begin processing mailed ballots ahead of Election Day, the first batch of results often is from mail-in ballots. Those are expected to slightly favor Democrats. Then come results from in-person polling places on Election Day, which is when higher percentages of Republicans typically vote. Finally, late-arriving mail ballots are counted and reported.

Ballots will be counted up to seven days after the election as long as they are postmarked by Tuesday.

Local elections officials are seeing increased activity from a group of election observers aligned with Republicans, said Donna Johnston, Sutter County registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

Johnson said election officials welcome observers and the chance to explain procedures that ensure election security and integrity. The increase in distrust, though, is “heartbreaking to us,” she said.

“Election officials take it personally when somebody is just making unfounded accusations about what we do,” Johnston said.

The Associated Press's Adam Beam, Christina A. Cassidy, Michael R. Blood and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.

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