Amid all the other chaos, you may have missed it in December 2020 when a group of “alternate electors” tried to cast their various states’ Electoral College votes for the loser of that election: then-President Donald Trump. That group’s efforts — and the Trump campaign’s coordination with them — is one of the latest areas of focus for the House Jan. 6 committee.
In hindsight, one of the wildest things about the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election was how many of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election took place in the open. Trump talked about it. His advisers talked about it. His lawyers talked about it. And yet, as it unfolded, it was mostly seen as more pathetic than dangerous.
Many of these efforts, including the pro-Trump slates of electors in states he didn’t win, were dismissed as “political stunts.” But here’s the thing: It’s only a “stunt” if you know it’s not going to work. A “stunt” is meant for show. It seems, though, that the Trump campaign was hoping its plan would be consequential; in other words, it lacked the presumption of failure.
On the surface, the fake electors scheme was as simple as it was asinine. When Michigan’s 16 Democratic electors gathered on Dec. 14, 2020, a group of GOP electors attempted to cast its votes as well. The same scene played out in six other states, including Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin.
On the surface, the fake electors scheme was as simple as it was asinine.
The Michigan group never made it to the floor of the state Senate to cast its ballots, local news site MLive reported then, but that didn’t stop its members from sending in “alternative documents to Congress in case the state Legislature decides to replace Democratic electors.”
Again: There was nothing secret or clandestine about this effort. Trump had met with the Republican leaders of Michigan’s House and Senate the previous month, presumably to pressure them against certifying Biden’s win in the state. In December 2020, MLive reported that questions to the Michigan Republican Party about the “elector” efforts were directed to the Trump campaign. Trump White House official Stephen Miller went on “Fox and Friends” to promote the plan. And CNN reported last week that Rudy Giuliani and the Trump campaign were spearheading the efforts to get these alternate Electoral College votes cast.
“There’s nothing preventing any group of 16 people from getting together and saying ‘we’re electors,’ but it doesn’t have any legal force,” University of Michigan Law School professor Richard Friedman told MLive at the time. “My guess is that whatever mail 16 people choose to send in will not even see the light of day. But if it does, it would not have the same standing as the certificates of the governor.”
While Friedman was right about the certificates’ lack of legal standing, his prediction that they would “not even see the light of day” wasn’t. Instead, those documents were submitted to the National Archives, the agency charged with the preservation of government documents, as the official electoral votes of the state — which they were not. In March, watchdog group American Oversight posted the fake votes sent to Washington, but they’ve received renewed interest as the Jan. 6 committee has proceeded.
If they were clearly fake — and compared to the real deal, they are — what’s the big fuss about these certificates? For starters, most falsely claim to be from the “duly elected and qualified Electors.” (Republicans from Pennsylvania and New Mexico insisted that their versions include the caveat that the votes were only to be counted if Trump prevailed in the courts, according to Politico.) Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has referred the filings to federal prosecutors, calling them “an open-and-shut case of forgery of a public record.”
More significant is how the “certificates” fit into the larger puzzle. The states where Trump’s team coordinated alternate electoral votes were the same that an official in Trump’s Department of Justice reportedly targeted for interference. Had Trump gotten his way, the DOJ would have sent letters alleging fraud to each of the state legislatures in question, urging them to convene special sessions to support the alternate slate of electors.
That, in turn, would have increased the pressure on Vice President Mike Pence to declare victory for Trump while presiding over the electoral vote count on Jan. 6. Right-wing lawyer John Eastman’s memo arguing for Pence’s ability to overturn the election specifically mentioned the seven states with “alternate” electors:
1. VP Pence, presiding over the joint session (or Senate [President] Pro Tempore [Chuck] Grassley [R-Iowa], if Pence recuses himself), begins to open and count the ballots, starting with Alabama (without conceding that the procedure, specified by the Electoral Count Act, of going through the States alphabetically is required).
2. When he gets to Arizona, he announces that he has multiple slates of electors, and so is going to defer decision on that until finishing the other States. This would be the first break with the procedure set out in the Act.
3. At the end, he announces that because of the ongoing disputes in the 7 States, there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States. […] There are at this point 232 votes for Trump, 222 votes for Biden. Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected.
The plan ultimately fell apart as officials around the country — from the state legislatures to the DOJ to the Supreme Court to Pence himself — refused to play along. That’s what’s so dangerous about this overarching conspiracy from Trump’s campaign and allies. It wasn’t a brilliant effort, sure to succeed; it was harebrained and constantly on edge of total collapse.
But it apparently didn’t matter how ludicrous (or possibly illegal) the various components of the scheme were to the people enacting them. What mattered was that in their eyes there was a chance that they would succeed in delaying or outright preventing Biden from becoming president. That misguided belief is what Trump and his supporters sold to his legion of followers ahead of Jan. 6. And that’s the wild thing that undergirds the link between the Trump campaign and the men and women who stormed the Capitol: They really thought it would work.