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How Trump's biggest fans are taking over America's elections

The threat to U.S. elections now runs all the way from top to bottom.

ProPublica recently published a stunning investigation into a new right-wing movement to infiltrate the American electoral system, spurred by the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

What Bannon is fomenting is different and more worrying.

Fueled by calls from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, thousands of new precinct officers — who in some cases collectively have the power to help elect members of election oversight boards — have already signed up in key battleground states, including Michigan and Florida.

At first blush, the new army of Republican operatives may appear similar to the tea party backlash to then-President Barack Obama, which caused the Republican Party to lurch to the right as more activist candidates won office. But what Bannon is fomenting is different and more worrying. Because this new grassroots effort to penetrate the machinery of our electoral system isn’t only trying to win back control of government — it’s also an attempt to subvert the very basis of its legitimacy.

As the ProPublica report explains, the new movement appears to have gotten traction after Bannon, repeating the false claim that Trump had the 2020 election stolen from him, urged listeners of his hugely popular podcast in May to win back control of the country “precinct by precinct.” ProPublica found that in recent months, at least 8,500 new Republican precinct officers (or equivalent lowest-level officials) have joined county parties in 41 of 65 counties targeted by activists.

Republican Party operatives are describing the influx as unprecedented. Precinct officers don’t have much power individually, but collectively they can wield substantial influence in some states by choosing poll workers and helping select boards that oversee elections.

As Pro Publica explains:

In Michigan, one of the main organizers recruiting new precinct officers pushed for the ouster of the state party’s executive director, who contradicted Trump’s claim that the election was stolen and who later resigned. In Las Vegas, a handful of Proud Boys, part of the extremist group whose members have been charged in attacking the Capitol, supported a bid to topple moderates controlling the county party — a dispute that’s now in court.

In Phoenix, new precinct officers petitioned to unseat county officials who refused to cooperate with the state Senate Republicans’ “forensic audit” of 2020 ballots. Similar audits are now being pursued by new precinct officers in Michigan and the Carolinas. Outside Atlanta, new local party leaders helped elect a state lawmaker who championed Georgia’s sweeping new voting restrictions.

And precinct organizers are hoping to advance candidates such as Matthew DePerno, a Michigan attorney general hopeful who Republican state senators said in a report had spread “misleading and irresponsible” misinformation about the election, and Mark Finchem, a member of the Oath Keepers militia who marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and is now running to be Arizona’s top elections official.

This is all alarming. What we’re seeing is the emergence of a seemingly organized movement with a clear call to action and clear goals: Penetrate the administrative apparatus of the electoral system on a state-by-state basis, and populate it with people who believe the last election was stolen and that their duty is to prevent a future recurrence. Given that President Joe Biden won 2020 decisively and that there is no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities, this amounts to an authoritarian enterprise meant to tilt the election in favor of the candidate these right-wing activists prefer.

It’s unclear if the new wave of participation will coalesce into a meaningful change in the administrative apparatus of these precincts. Consider that some pushing for the precinct activist strategy consider Arizona’s Republican state senators’ preposterous and failed effort to conduct a “forensic audit” of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots a success story. In reality, that effort has been so thoroughly plagued by unprofessionalism and basic calculation errors that it has discredited its own cause.

It’s unclear if the new wave of participation will coalesce into a meaningful change in the administrative apparatus of these precincts.

Still, there are reasons for concern. For one, the precinct strategy opens up a new avenue through which right-wing activists with increasingly extreme views can influence political life without getting elected to a major office. Many can simply join their local party and create incentives for local election officials and lawmakers to continue pushing the false narrative that voter fraud poses a serious threat to our electoral process.

Even if this doesn’t amount to much on the level of policy changes or election board personnel, these activists can still accelerate the corrosion of public trust in the election system. After the 2020 election, Trump relied on far-fetched lawsuits and a disinformation campaign on social media to advance his cause. But imagine a scenario where this disinformation is being backed by thousands upon thousands of official party poll workers who claim they’ve seen fraud.

Educated political junkies might know those activists turned precinct officers aren’t credible, but many would probably be quoted by mainstream news stories and go viral on social media. That in turn could change the calculus of bad faith Republican lawmakers in charge of certifying elections and encourage politically motivated violence. The fact that much of the Republican Party has decided to align itself with Trump’s Big Lie makes it unclear if these activists will be seen as at odds with the party establishment.

Republicans repeating that lie helped lead to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, but if you thought Jan. 6th was bad, Bannon’s new army could make the size and appeal of such an event five times worse.