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Conspiracies grip county election boards

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Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
Trump-loyalist election-conspiracy theorists are increasingly occupying county-level election positions following the 2020 election.

There’s been a rise in Trump-loyalist election-conspiracy theorists appointed to county-level election positions following the 2020 election. There are reports, particularly from swing states like Michigan, of Republicans who believe falsely the election was stolen from Trump being installed in elections offices or running to be elections officials.

Some political watchers — including academics, journalists, and political activists — are concerned. So are some current politicians.

“This is a five-alarm fire,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told the New York Times last week.

“I am frustrated that at this point, after everything we endured last year and after we all witnessed what happened on January 6, there isn’t more of a sense of urgency,” Benson continued. “We all have to band together and say, ‘Never again’ — as opposed to saying, ‘Well, maybe it will happen again, and maybe we’ll be ready.’”

How then, should the public be prepared to combat or stop those who would seek to undermine the democratic process? We asked two guys who think about these things; Mark Brewer, former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party and Jeff Timmer, former executive director of Michigan's Republican Party. These days, they host the podcast, “A Republic, if you can keep it” (you can find it on Apple, Spotify and iHeart Radio).

“We've got to wake up the voters and tell them, educate them, persuade them that we cannot take our democracy for granted at this point. These attacks are real. They are insidious and they're ongoing,” Brewer said.

Brewer said that Benson has had to step into some local elections during the past year because local clerks either “refused to do their job or were threatening to cave in to these audit demands.”

But, Democrats aren’t the only ones with these concerns. Republicans have long expressed concern over this rift within the Party.

“I'm significantly concerned about what we're seeing with Republican appointees to these county boards,” said Jeff Timmer, former executive director of Michigan's Republican Party.

“They're making no secret that they would have thrown a wrench into the gears of the 2020 election, and they're signaling very strongly that they will be throwing a wrench into the gears of the 2024 presidential election, regardless of how Michigan votes,” Timmer said.

That New York Times piece reported that “82% of Democrats said they would trust the results of the 2024 presidential election to be accurate if their candidate did not win; only 33% of Republicans did,” citing a PBS News Hour/NPR/Marist Poll published in October.

“My fear is that the damage will have been done,” said Timmer. “The faith in the election in the integrity of the system is under assault right now.”

He’s noticed the increasing speed at which people are losing faith in elections, and worries about just how much the foundations of democracy may erode by the time we get to certifying the results of the 2022 and 2024 elections.

“What we've seen is the slow normalization of extremism and even violence in our politics,” said Timmer.

“What I fear is that people have become so radicalized that it doesn't take a lot of people who are willing to go to extremes to disrupt not just the mechanism, the procedures of the election, but actual election day to try to corrupt ballots, to try to disrupt people voting,” said Timmer.

From protests at Michigan’s Capitol, to the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer, to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and protests at the TCF Center in Detroit the day of the election, violence has found its way into the political system.

Rather than an overhaul of our current system, Brewer thinks that the solution to this problem is stricter enforcement of the laws that ensure that people are qualified to serve as county boards in the first place. After all, he explained, officials have served on county boards — some of them for decades — without putting the interests of their parties above their responsibilities to the county since these boards were first established in the 1950s.

“This whole idea of vetting these candidates has fallen by the wayside. I think we need to resurrect that system and have a vigorous public vetting of these candidates,” Brewer said.

“I really like our current county canvassing board system,” Brewer said. “It's worked because 99.9% of the appointees have taken responsibility seriously and not acted as partisans.”

Although Timmer thinks the damage may be done, he sees the solution as something larger than just stricter enforcement of existing laws.

“I think it's so important that we look to safeguard the voting rights, and that's not going to happen in Lansing; it needs to happen federally,” Timmer said.

“We have to face the fact that we have a partisan Legislature who is part of the process to disrupt election[s] and subvert voting rights.”

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Claire Murashima is a production assistant for Stateside.
Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.
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