Escalating attacks put pressure on vote certification process

BIDEN: President-elect Joe Biden speaks Thursday at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., after meeting virtually with 10 U.S. governors. Biden has brushed aside President Trump’s efforts to reverse the election results, saying, “It’s hard to fathom how this man thinks.” Salwan Georges/The Washington Post  

The chaotic effort to upend the U.S. presidential election has moved from the courtroom to a series of traditionally mundane events in county seats and state capitals, deliberations now under enormous pressure as President Donald Trump and his allies seek to block formal recognition of President-elect Joe Biden's victory in key battleground states.

In the immediate term, the focus is on the four-member Michigan state canvassing board, which is scheduled to meet Monday on whether to certify Biden's large win in that state.

On Thursday, one of the two Republicans on the board said that although he expected Biden to win the election, he may suggest a delay to allow for an audit of the state's ballots amid unfounded allegations by the president's legal team of widespread fraud. Biden is now leading in Michigan by roughly 150,000 votes.

"I do think with all of the potential problems, if any of them are true, an audit is appropriate," board member Norman Shinkle said in an interview.

"Right now the idea to check into some of these accusations seems to make sense to me," he added. "We have to have people trust our system going forward."

A partisan deadlock on the board could set off a series of explosive political fights in the state between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP lawmakers aligned with Trump.

This week, the president personally intervened in Michigan, first calling a GOP member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, who subsequently sought to withdraw her vote to certify the result there, and then inviting the two top Republican lawmakers to the White House on Friday.

Beyond Michigan, the president and his allies also have escalated their efforts to derail the vote certification process in the other key states that delivered Biden his victory: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, which are all set to finalize their vote tallies in the coming weeks.

The looming deadlines: Dec. 8, the warning bell when states are supposed to have resolved disputes over who won, and Dec. 14, when electors officially cast votes.

On Thursday, legal experts said Trump's pressure campaign was unlikely to actually change the electoral college's vote. But, they said, the fact that Trump was trying it posed a historic level of danger for American democracy - by raising the prospect that a presidential election could be stolen from the inside.

"We have never had anything comparable in the history of the country to the level of interference with democracy that the Trump people are asking these legislatures to do," said Paul Smith, vice president for litigation and strategy with the Campaign Legal Center. "With the political pressure on the legislatures, that really is a scary thing."

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who represents a district outside of Detroit, said that although Trump's threats may not have legal standing, they should be taken seriously.

"My personal view of this is, yes, it's pathetic, yes it's ridiculous," Levin said. "However if you look at history, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are born often when there's some exit ramp out of democracy. And I'm sure a lot of the people involved at those times said, 'Oh whatever, obviously they're so completely breaking the rules that they'll be stopped.' But they aren't."

He said that a range of Michigan's top elected officials have been meeting constantly to talk about the issue.

"We are not going to let Donald Trump hijack Michigan's democratic structures," he said.

Trump's effort to pressure GOP officials amounts to a kind of Plan C for his reelection effort. After losing at the ballot box, Trump and his allies sought to overturn the election results in court - but lost, repeatedly, because they could not supply proof for their allegations of widespread voter fraud.

The current plan is even more difficult, since it involves persuading GOP officials to discard legal votes cast by their own constituents. Biden won the electoral college with 306 votes - 36 more than the 270 required for victory. So Trump would have to persuade Republicans in at least three out of the six key states to throw out their results.

Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said Thursday that the tactic would fail, calling it "a completely losing hand."

The strategy is being spearheaded by the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who, at an incendiary news conference in Washington on Thursday, made baseless claims that Biden had orchestrated a national conspiracy to rig the vote.

Behind the scenes, Republicans familiar with the plan said that even Giuliani believes the legal path is arduous - but thinks he can delay the results enough to cast doubt on Biden's win.

In a new legal filing Thursday in federal court in Pennsylvania, Trump's lawyers argued that the judge might have the power to decertify electors as late as Dec. 14, the date the electoral college formally votes - an indication of the campaign's intent to keep up the fight to overturn Biden's victory.

Trump's plan appears to be to stir up enough allegations of election fraud that - even if they are baseless - could give Republicans a reason to act. In Michigan on Thursday, there were signs that GOP officials were not dismissing Trump out of hand.

In explaining why he was leaning toward a delay in certifying the vote, Shinkle cited a debunked conspiracy theory aired by Trump and one of his lawyers, Sidney Powell, that Dominion Voting Systems, the Colorado-based manufacturer of voting machines, deleted thousands of Trump votes. That theory has been rejected by election experts, including Trump's own chief of election security - whom the president fired this week.

"If Dominion was fudging votes, that's a serious problem," Shinkle said. "If it's true. I don't know. I have to be convinced of it. That's why the audit makes sense."

Earlier this month, Shinkle's wife filed an affidavit in a lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign alleging widespread irregularities in Detroit's ballot-counting operation. He said Thursday that he had not read it.

Asked whether Biden was indeed the president-elect, Shinkle said "the odds are probably that he will become president. But I don't know what's going to happen in Pennsylvania or Nevada. My job is to try to do the right thing for the vote in Michigan."

Shinkle said that Trump and his allies had not contacted him, but if they did, "I would say hi. They have a position to advocate."

The board's other Republican member, Aaron Van Langevelde, could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Chris Thomas, an adviser to the Detroit city clerk who served as Michigan's elections director from 1981 to 2017, said he could not recall a single instance of the canvassing board requesting an audit before certifying an election.

"It's not something that has happened," he said. "They have duties - they don't have a lot of discretion. The statute tells them what they should do. They certify elections based on certified results that come from the counties."

If the Board of Canvassers deadlocks on the decision to certify Michigan's results Monday, Whitmer could seek to replace its members on the spot, or seek a court order requiring the board to certify. Whitmer's office has not said whether it intends to use those options.

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