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News / Politics

Election certification disputes in a handful of states spark concerns over 2024 presidential contest

Published: June 6, 2024, 1:34pm
2 Photos
FILE - A man protests outside the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors auditorium prior to the board&#039;s general election canvass meeting, Nov. 28, 2022, in Phoenix. A ghost from recent election cycles, controversies over certification of results, is beginning to re-emerge as the nation heads closer to the 2024 presidential contest.
FILE - A man protests outside the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors auditorium prior to the board's general election canvass meeting, Nov. 28, 2022, in Phoenix. A ghost from recent election cycles, controversies over certification of results, is beginning to re-emerge as the nation heads closer to the 2024 presidential contest. (AP Photo/Matt York, File) Photo Gallery

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, two Republican members of a county canvassing board last month refused to sign off on the results of an election that led to the recall of three GOP members of the county commission. They did so only after state officials warned them it was their legal duty to record the final vote tally.

In Georgia’s Fulton County, which includes the Democratic-voting city of Atlanta, a group run by members of former President Donald Trump’s administration last month sued so a Republican member of the local elections board could refuse to certify the results of the primary election.

And in Arizona, GOP lawmakers sued to reverse the state’s top Democratic officials’ requirement that local boards automatically validate their election results.

The past four years have been filled with battles over all sorts of election arcana, including one that had long been regarded as an administrative afterthought — little-known state and local boards certifying the results. With the presidential election looming in November, attorneys are gearing up for yet more fights over election certification, especially in the swing states where the victory margins are expected to be tight. Even if those efforts ultimately fail, election officials worry they’ll become a vehicle for promoting bogus election claims.

Trump and his allies have tried to use the tactic to stop election results from being made final if they lose. In 2020, two Republicans on Michigan’s state board of canvassers, which must certify ballot totals before state officials can declare a winner, briefly balked at signing off before one relented and became the decisive vote. Trump had cheered the delay as part of his push to overturn his loss that ultimately culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

During the 2022 midterms, some conservative, rural counties tried to hold up their state election results, citing the same debunked claims of voter fraud that Trump has made.

In New Mexico, rural county supervisors refused to certify the state’s primary vote until they were threatened with prosecution. In Cochise County in southeastern Arizona, two Republican supervisors who refused to certify the local vote totals said they had no doubt their own county’s tally was accurate but were protesting the counts in other counties that gave Democratic candidates for governor, attorney general and secretary of state their victories.

Responding to the certification controversies, Michigan’s Democratic legislature passed a law making clear that state and local canvassing boards must certify election totals. The two Arizona county supervisors are currently facing criminal charges filed by the state’s Democratic attorney general.

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Democrats and nonpartisan groups say the thousands of local election oversight boards across the country aren’t the place to contest ballot counts, and that state laws make clear they have no leeway on whether to sign off on their staff’s final tallies.

“Election authorities don’t have the discretion to reject the results of an election because of their vibes,” said Jonathan Diaz of the Campaign Legal Center, adding that lawsuits and recounts are the proper recourse. “They’re there to perform a function. They’re there to certify.”

But some Republicans argue that’s going too far. Kory Langhofer, the attorney suing to overturn the election procedures manual’s directive in Arizona that was issued by the Democratic attorney general and secretary of state, said he didn’t support the effort to block certification in Cochise County in 2022. But, he argued, locally elected boards of supervisors have to have some discretion to police elections.

“It seems to me the system is stronger when you have multiple eyes on it,” Langhofer said. Of the efforts to block certification in 2020 and 2022, he added, “I hope that’s behind us.”

Democrats doubt that’s the case. They note that the America First Policy Institute, a pro-Trump organization run by former officials from his administration, filed the lawsuit in Georgia to let Fulton County Elections Board member Julie Adams vote against certifying elections. Adams’ four other board members voted to certify last month’s primary but Adams abstained last week, contending she couldn’t accept the results given prior election administration problems in the county.

“This action will re-establish the role of board members as the ultimate parties responsible for ensuring elections in Fulton County are free from fraud, deceit, and abuse,” the institute wrote in its release announcing the lawsuit. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

Fulton County is the heart of the Democratic vote in Georgia, and anything that holds up its totals in November could help make it look like Trump has a large lead in the state.

“Trump and MAGA Republicans have made it clear they are planning to try to block certification of November’s election when they are defeated again, and this is a transparent attempt to set the stage for that fight,” Georgia Democratic Party chair and Rep. Nikema Williams said in a statement.

In Michigan’s Delta County, clerk Nancy Przewrocki, a Republican, said the two GOP canvassers had requested a hand recount of the votes, which is beyond the scope of their position. The canvassers eventually voted to certify the May election after receiving a letter from the State Elections Director Jonathan Brater, which reminded them of their duties and warned them of the consequences of failing to certify.

Still, Przewrocki said she’s concerned about what could happen in November if a similar situation arises.

“I can see this escalating, unfortunately. I’m trying to keep our voters confident in our voting equipment, and this is completely undermining it when there’s really nothing there,” Przewrocki said.

Following the Delta County incident, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats, issued a reminder to local canvassing boards throughout the state warning them of their legal obligation to certify election results based solely on vote returns. If they don’t, there will be “swift action to ensure the legal certification of election results,” along with “possible civil and criminal charges against those members for their actions,” Benson warned.

Michigan is an example of the futility of the tactic. The new state law makes it clear that canvassing boards can’t block certification, but Benson said in an interview that she still worries such an effort, even if legally doomed, would help spread false allegations about the November election.

“Misinformation and talking points emerge that enable others — particularly politicians — to continue to cast doubt on the accuracy of election results,” she said.