For Bonnie Scheele, the 2020 USA presidential contest was second to none.
The need to curb conspiracies and disinformation, fueled in large part by President Donald Trump’s false claim that widespread electoral fraud has occurred in the state, was unlike anything the Republican Election Secretary of the ‘US state of Michigan had seen it before.
“I can’t seem to convince people that there isn’t some sort of conspiracy or fraud,” said Scheele, a right-wing Grand Traverse County clerk who had to deal with a viral video at the rest of the month of November. 3 according to which the local postmen would have backdated the ballots.
Despite Michigan President-elect Joe Biden’s dominating margin of victory of more than 154,000 votes, Trump argued that thousands of the dead voted and piles of fraudulent ballots were added to the tally after election day.
Even after rioters – prompted by Trump’s claims that the vote had been “rigged” and “stolen” – invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as Congress met to certify the final election results, the president did not refute his claims.
Instead, he claimed in a video released during the riot that “we had an election stolen from us.” Facing mounting pressure, he lukewarmly admitted a day later that Biden would take office on January 20.
Despite this muted concession, Trump’s conduct – and the first tacit or explicit support he received from the Republican National Committee and prominent members of his party – raises questions about the future of elections in the United States.
Observers say the US electoral system relies in part on the acceptance and affirmation of the results of the process by defeated candidates – and the failure to do so is felt most strongly by local election officials who often find themselves in conflict. first line of disinformation.
“I really don’t know how [the future’s] is going to play, “Scheele told Al Jazeera in an interview in early December,” because every time someone’s candidate doesn’t win, he can say there is voter fraud – by both. gone.
“This is not good because it erodes confidence in our system.”
In Wisconsin, another state that has been at the center of Trump’s campaign of baseless fraud allegations, Lori O’Bright, the Outagamie County clerk, said that while allegations of electoral misconduct have intensified in recent years, “this year has been unprecedented”.
O’Bright, a Republican, said the lack of trust in local election administrators plays into the spread of disinformation – and urged people to speak to their local officials and get involved to understand “the checks and balances of the system”.
“I am not going to talk about the allegations of one party or another party, I am only going to talk about my duties and duties that we are charged with leading,” she told Al Jazeera before Congress. meets to certify the results of the vote.
“But if [voters] really want to dig into a problem and learn more about it and find out about it, don’t look at anybody’s allegations, no matter which side. Learn what the real processes are and understand what the real process is. “
Observers say such a plea is a tall order in the face of Trump’s claims that Biden’s victory was achieved only through electoral mischief.
Claims by Trump and his allies often encompass theories so widespread and pervasive that they would require the involvement of local election officials, county clerks from both sides, and election officials from across the state, to be real.
The onslaught of unsubstantiated fraud allegations fostered electorate skepticism of local election officials, who had previously struggled with the unprecedented challenges of holding secure elections amid a pandemic, said James Young, Republican and former Chief Electoral Officer in Louisville, Kentucky. .
While past allegations of U.S. election fraud have largely focused on outside actors attempting to influence the outcome, allegations during this election cycle focus more on misconduct within electoral systems themselves.
“This time they question the question of who counts the ballots, where the machine comes from. Who created the machines? Young told Al Jazeera. “This is something that has really changed in this electoral cycle.”
Those allegations include, among other things, that there was a massive “dumping ground” of fraudulent ballots in the early hours of Nov. 4 in Wisconsin. This was actually the result of the fact that valid ballots were not counted until polling day, according to state law.
They also include debunked accusations that more votes were cast than there are eligible voters in parts of Michigan and that hordes of the dead voted there, as well as in Arizona and Pennsylvania. .
Another baseless allegation is that Dominion Voting Systems, which supplied voting machines across the United States, is owned by Democratic players. This week, Dominion filed a $ 1.3 billion libel suit against Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell for “wacky accusations” that the company rigged the presidential election for Biden.
In many cases, the allegations link minor irregularities due to human error with massive fraud.
Nevertheless, a CBS survey released on December 13 said Trump’s message resonated within his party weeks after election day, with 75% of Republicans polled saying they believed the election was not over and should always be contested.
The Capitol Hill incident, which left four rioters and a Capitol policeman dead, served as proof of the resonance of Trump’s claims. PBS NewsHour / Marist poll released two days after riot found 18% of Republicans backed the actions of pro-Trump rioters.
Even in the dark hours after securing Capitol Hill, six Republican senators and 121 Republicans in the House of Representatives continued to raise objections to election results in some states based on Trump’s claims.
‘Tarnished and confused’
Kelly Michaels, municipal election secretary for the city of Brookfield in Wisconsin and chair of the legislative arm of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, said the 2020 election cycle, which began with Trump, incorrectly claimed that increased use of postal ballots due to The COVID-19 pandemic would lead to more fraud, had been “disheartening”.
While county clerks are elected officials from Wisconsin, city clerks are career non-partisan officials, which she says makes the president’s allegations particularly deadly.
“It’s kind of like when someone is charged with a felony and is sort of judged by it, even though they haven’t had their day in court,” Michaels told Al Jazeera. in December. “It’s like, even if you are exonerated, you are never exonerated because your reputation has been tarnished and blurred.”
“If you have someone like the President of the United States who encourages [allegations of widespread fraud], how do you fight this? she added.
“No matter how many times you say that there is no proof and that you have people like me who have administered an election and have done so with great integrity, it doesn’t matter. , because you can say it as many times as you want, but [his supporters] will believe it.
Emily Sumlin contributed to the research.