Advertisement

Potential 2024 ‘Chaos’: Election Deniers Refusing to Certify Results

Workers strained their eyes to decipher ballot designations that voting machines had already tabulated as the hand count dragged on. Some officials on the Spalding County Board of Elections and Registration in Georgia didn’t trust the machines, so they’d initiated automatic hand recounts of all elections, and at the end of the third day of counting, Nov. 14, 2023, the workers had found what was to be expected: The counts by machine were the same as counts made by hand. The hand count was completely unnecessary, but the results had added up just fine, so everyone should have been happy. Except everyone wasn’t.

As the final results came in and two members of the board prepared to vote to officially certify results from the Nov. 7 municipal elections, Republican election board member Roy McClain walked out of the room. Then he walked out of the building and into his truck in the parking lot, and began to drive away. County election supervisor Kim Slaughter, a Donald Trump-supporting Republican with a librarian’s glasses, called McClain and coaxed him to come back. Without McClain, the board wouldn’t have a quorum, and the three members of the five-person board there that day wouldn’t have been able to certify election results.

Eventually, McClain came back into the room. But he was no more convinced than when he had left. Despite the results of the hand recount being exactly the same as the results tabulated by voting machines, McClain refused to certify the election.

“He said, ‘I can’t do this,’” Jim O’Brien, a Democratic member of the election board, recalls. “We were in shock. Our mouths were hanging down to the floor.”

The motion to certify results passed 2-1, with McClain voting no in protest.

That day, McClain joined what has become a startling number of Republicans who have refused to certify election results in recent years, despite their legal obligations to do so. In at least 15 instances since November 2020, local Republican officials in eight states have refused to certify election results, a typically routine matter that has become anything but in the wake of Trump’s lies about his loss in the 2020 election, Rolling Stone has found.

Across the country — in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — Republican officials have refused to certify or delayed certification of results for the election of local, state, and national candidates, over debunked claims that mail-in ballots aren’t secure, conspiracies about voting machines, claims of unsecured ballot drop boxes, and myriad other claims rooted in election denier beliefs.

If local election officials nationwide decide en masse to refuse to certify election results this year, it could slow the certification of statewide tallies crucial to determining the next president — and create chaos.

O’Brien believes McClain’s refusal to certify election results is “a setup for the upcoming national election,” he says. “It’s possible that it’s going to happen all over the place, cause chaos, and tie the election up in the courts.”

Wendy Weiser, a vice president at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which tracks threats to democracy, says the instances of Republicans refusing to certify election results show clear intent: “Part of the strategy is to create chaos and to create a false basis for trying to find some way to challenge the outcome” of the November election, she says. “The chaos that ensues when something like that happens simultaneously across the country creates its own problem.”

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, 18 states allow for some level of local administration over elections, which includes certification of results — typically a routine first step toward final approval of results from a secretary of state’s office. In just two of those states, Mississippi and Arkansas, nearly 30 local election officials have posted election-denying material on their personal Facebook pages, and more than 40 others have liked or shared posts from pages that shared content questioning the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.

Since Trump’s loss in 2020, local officials in eight states have delayed or outright refused to certify election results, an act that could prompt fines or other penalties from secretaries of state, lawsuits from political parties or voter rights organizations, or simply disagreements between the local bodies refusing to certify and state offices tasked with tallying vote totals for the entire state.

Following a spate of refusals to certify in the summer and fall of 2022, Democratic lawyer Marc Elias wrote in a blog post that “Trump and his allies viewed these largely ceremonial county certification meetings as opportunities to undermine” democracy. Democrats at the state and county levels in locations where the refusals to certify have taken place tell Rolling Stone they had no evidence that the events were driven by forces higher up within the Republican Party. Still, those refusing to certify results are part of a broader network of election deniers that often have traceable ties.

“They’re participating in the same conferences and being funded by a small number of extremist folks,” Weiser says of some Republicans who have refused to certify election results. “We have seen many of the officials that have been involved in rejecting certification or engaging in infiltrations of voting machines have been engaged with groups and conferences associated with prominent election deniers.”

Many of the officials on these local bodies — called boards of elections or boards of canvassers — are unpaid residents of the area who are appointed by local political parties. In Georgia, Republicans have taken control of election boards through legislation that has given power to Republicans, even in places where Democrats represent a majority of voters.

In Georgia and elsewhere, these local boards can’t entirely undo election results, but they can slow the process of certification that’s required to tally statewide results and, crucially for a presidential election, determine how a state’s electoral votes are to be doled out.

If local officials refuse to certify results, “state courts will force them to do so,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UCLA.

In other cases, officials who refuse to certify will face fines and other penalties from state courts, or may be threatened with being removed from their positions, according to Derek Muller, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who has written about the issue of local certification of elections.

The incidents of refusals to certify discovered by Rolling Stone “were localized, they were not particularly effective, and they were resolved relatively quickly,” Muller says. “It’s hard to think if that were a dress rehearsal for November that anyone would be very excited about the performance.” Still, widespread refusals to certify could generate fear and distrust in the system, and potentially inspire riots, according to Muller.

The first instance of local election officials refusing to certify results was perhaps the most obvious. Days after Trump’s 2020 loss, two members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers in Michigan received a phone call from none other than Trump himself in which the then-president pressured them to refuse to certify vote totals. “We’ve got to fight for our country,” Trump told the members of the canvassers board. “We can’t let these people take our country away from us.”

Then, on December 4, 2020, election officials in Coffee County, Georgia refused to certify election results. “To demand certification of patently inaccurate results neither serves the objective of the electoral system nor satisfies the legal obligation to certify” results, the board wrote to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R). The act caught the eye of people like Sidney Powell and disgraced Army general Mike Flynn, who at the time were trying desperately to sway Trump and others within his administration toward extreme ideas like seizing voting machines in an attempt to prove widespread voter fraud.

Powell and Flynn were behind a never-issued executive order to seize voting machines. That order, while detailing a slew of false conspiracies about widespread election fraud, mentioned just two counties in the entire country, both in Georgia. In one, Coffee County, officials had refused to certify November 2020’s election results. The memo used the refusal to certify as part of Flynn and Powell’s plan to seize voting machines.

“Witnesses in Georgia have provided evidence of crashes, the replacement of a server, impermissible updates to the system, connections to the internet, and both Coffee and Ware counties have identified a significant percentage of votes being wrongly allocated contrary to the will of the voter,” the draft order read. “Coffee County Georgia has refused to certify its result.”

The refusal to certify results in Coffee County was just another piece of evidence, Powell and others argued, that widespread fraud existed — nevermind that the officials there not only had no evidence of fraud, but would soon be engaged in an illegal scheme to access voter data themselves. The officials in Coffee County were eventually caught in the act of hiring an Atlanta IT firm to access voter data from election equipment and distribute it to Powell and other election denier figures. The episode is part of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ sweeping conspiracy indictment against Trump and his allies for their efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

It wasn’t the first time that Coffee County has refused to certify election results: In 1899, the county refused to certify results over disagreements with returns from a single precinct, according to research conducted by Lauren Miller for the Stanford Law & Policy Review.

Miller, who is a lawyer with the Brennan Center, says that officials in Coffee County and elsewhere who have refused certification in recent years are part of a network of “sources of funding and connectors who are sharing information and strategies.” The decentralized nature of those refusing to certify election results “doesn’t mean that people aren’t paying attention to what happens elsewhere and thinking they can do the same thing,” Miller says, adding that the law is clear that local election officials are not allowed to refuse to certify results based on claims of election fraud or their own beliefs about election systems.

Coffee County was at the vanguard of a movement among local election officials to refuse to certify results. By summer 2022, when elections were held in several states for local and statewide office, Republicans again took the opportunity to ignore their duties and attempt to interfere in the routine process of certifying results. In June 2022, New Mexico and Nevada saw six incidents of refusals to certify.

In Otero County, New Mexico, Republican county commissioners cited fears that voting machines could be manipulated and about “ghost voters” — dead people showing up on ballots — as reasons to refuse to certify results there. Faced with their legal obligation to certify election results by June 17, the board met four days prior and unanimously refused to certify. Only after a ruling from state judges ordered them to certify — and faced with possible removal from office — did some of the commissioners vote to approve certification.

One of the commissioners, Couy Griffin — the infamous Cowboys for Trump founder and an attendee of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol — stated the obvious in his refusal to vote for certification: “My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.”

Griffin, who was subsequently removed from office by a federal judge over his participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection, tells Rolling Stone that he has no regrets about his decision to refuse to certify results. He says local election officials should follow his example.

“The fraud will stop when we have local county commissioners who care more about the people than their own personal demise,” Griffin says in a statement. “And when that happens the pyramid of control established thru the lie of democracy will come tumbling down and out of the ashes our republic will re-emerge and bring the true freedom and liberty that every American should desire.”

Elsewhere in New Mexico last June, officials in Torrance County certified results of the June primary, and faced an onslaught of in-person criticism at public meetings that prompted the county to institute hand recounts of results. In Sandoval County, a Republican county commissioner who later ran for state senate tried to block certification. In Nevada, county commissioners in Esmeralda, Washoe, and Nye counties all tried to block certification during the June elections.

The spate of refusals to certify in New Mexico and Nevada preceded two other instances of Republicans refusing to certify election results in 2022, according to Rolling Stone’s analysis. The first came in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania in November 2022, where Republican officials delayed certification over concerns that some voters had been turned away from precincts, and by citing vague issues with election equipment. (Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, in May 2022, three Republican counties were ordered by a judge to count mail-in ballots so statewide certification of primary votes could be completed.)

The Luzerne County debacle was short-lived and didn’t get much attention beyond local media, but that same month, the actions of officials in Cochise County, Arizona drew national coverage over their refusal to certify election results. The officials, Peggy Judd and Tom Crosby, were eventually charged by the Arizona Secretary of State for their attempt to further delay certification by demanding a hand count and audit of election results. Since then, Judd has taken to Facebook to ask supporters to help her cover legal fees as a result of her indictment, Rolling Stone has found.

“I hope Cochise is an outlier and I hope that the indictments would be deterrents for others that would attempt this,” says Yolanda Bejarano, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. “If you want to get indicted, go ahead and try it. We’re going to be watching.”

THE TREND OF REPUBLICANS skirting their traditional duties to certify election results continued into last year. In Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, Republican officials have carried out their own plans to delay or deny certification despite any evidence of widespread election malfeasance.

In Colorado, the call to refuse to certify results first came from a state lawmaker before local officials acted on the apparent directive. On Nov. 22, 2023, the chair of the Colorado GOP’s Ballot and Election Security Committee, Ron Hanks, urged local election officials to refuse to certify results on familiar grounds of election conspiracies.

In Boulder County, he found a sympathetic ear in county canvasser Theresa Watson, who refused to certify election results based on claims that drop boxes didn’t have proper surveillance, and over disagreements with signature verification requirements. In La Plata County, a county canvasser and chair of the local Republican party refused to certify election results in protest of the races and ballots chosen by Secretary of State Jena Griswold to be audited as part of a routine check of election systems.

“The Colorado GOP’s attempts to not certify elections they rightfully lose is the same as a kid flipping a board game over,” Shad Murib, Colorado Democratic Party Chair, says in a statement. “Colorado’s election system is the gold standard and it elects Democrats as well as Republicans, and the MAGA attempt to undermine our elections is because they can’t believe their agenda of ripping away our freedoms and giveaways to irresponsible corporations results in them losing fair and square time and time again.”

In Pennsylvania, a county election board member was similarly encouraged to deny certification by a higher up within the local Republican party, Northampton County GOP Chair Glenn Geissinger. Meanwhile, in Georgia, three counties nearly failed to certify election results thanks to local Republican officials going rogue.

In DeKalb County, Republican election board members Nancy Jester and Anthony Lewis refused to certify results of November’s statewide municipal elections without much in the way of explanation, Democratic state Rep. Saira Draper says.

“This was extremist behavior,” Draper tells Rolling Stone. “They essentially tried to suppress the will of voters, in this case some 70,000 people in DeKalb County.”

Jester and Lewis were joined by Cobb County election board member Debbie Fisher, a Republican appointee, who voted against certification.

“I don’t know that the actions she took were that of an election denier,” says Tori Silas, chair of the Cobb County Board of Elections and a Democrat. “But our job is to certify the results, not to question them.”

While Silas wouldn’t qualify Fisher as an election denier, Fisher’s Facebook page shows an affinity for election conspiracies, Rolling Stone has found. In May 2021, Fisher shared a Gateway Pundit story claiming that Georgia’s voting machines were remotely controlled by the voting machine company Dominion during the 2020 election. That same month, she shared another post that tied Dominion to members of Gov. Brian Kemp’s staff. (Dominion has been the target of many baseless conspiracy theories on the right; one purveyor of those theories, Fox News, has agreed to a $787 million defamation settlement with the company.)

Asked about her refusal to certify, Fisher tells Rolling Stone she has “no comments on my decision.”

That same week, Cobb and DeKalb were joined in attempts to deny certification by Spalding County, a hotbed of election denier activity where a county commissioner, two members of the election board, and the election supervisor herself are Trump supporters and believers in his Big Lie. Like Coffee County, election officials in Spalding County consulted with the Atlanta IT firm SullivanStrickler to conduct a forensic audit of voting machines. Unlike Coffee County, election officials in Spalding were turned away from hiring the firm at the last minute by Spalding’s county attorney, who warned them that what they were about to do was probably illegal, Rolling Stone previously discovered.

Since 2020, Spalding county election board members McClain and Ben Johnson, a QAnon adherent and vehement Trump supporter, have been “obsessed” with Dominion voting machines, colleagues say. That obsession has carried over into policies implemented by the board. When a fake ballot was dropped into a voting machine during the 2022 midterms, it was just the latest piece of evidence that the machines couldn’t be trusted, McClain and Johnson argued. During an election board meeting, McClain cited the fake ballot as one of the reasons the board should completely do away with voting machines — a proposal barred by state law.

By July 2023, Johnson, election supervisor Slaughter and other Spalding County officials attended a hand count demonstration hosted by prominent Georgia election denier David Cross, according to video and photos of the event reviewed by Rolling Stone. Then, at an elections board meeting that same week, McClain mentioned the fake ballot snafu along with his typical litany of complaints about voting machines in arguing for automatic hand recounts for all elections. At a packed elections board hearing two weeks later, the board approved automatic hand recounts on a party-line vote.

The first test of the hand recount system took place over a two-day period following the Nov. 7, 2023 municipal elections. That’s when McClain walked out in protest before returning and refusing to certify the results. Following his refusal, McClain, along with Jester and Lewis in DeKalb and Fisher in Cobb, received a letter from a lawyer representing the state Democratic party.

“McClain’s vote against certification of the 2023 election was improper regardless of any purported justification given,” the lawyer wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Rolling Stone. “The Georgia Election Code is clear that certification of election results is a ministerial task performed by members of the Board of Elections and is not subject to their discretion.”

On Feb. 13, McClain took to the microphone at a meeting of the Spalding County election board to dismiss the warning letter he received from Georgia Democrats, calling it a “threat.”

“I think that everybody here knows that if you’re going to try to bully or intimidate somebody, I’m probably not the good candidate for that,” McClain said.

Bree Zender contributed to this report.

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone