The telephone call would have been laugh-out-loud ridiculous if it had not been so serious. When Tina Barton picked up, she found someone from President Trump’s campaign asking her to sign a letter raising doubts about the results of the election.
The election that Barton, as the Republican clerk of the small Michigan city of Rochester Hills, had helped oversee. The election that she knew to be fair and accurate because she had helped make it so. The election that she had publicly defended amid threats that made her upgrade her home security system.
“Do you know who you’re talking to right now?” she asked the campaign official.
If the president hoped Republicans across the country would fall in line behind his false and farcical claims that the election was somehow rigged on a mammoth scale by a nefarious multinational conspiracy, he was in for a surprise. Republicans in Washington may have indulged Trump’s fantastical assertions, but at the state and local level, Republicans played a critical role in resisting the mounting pressure from their own party to overturn the vote after Trump fell behind Nov. 3.
The three weeks that followed tested American democracy and demonstrated that the two-century-old system is far more vulnerable to subversion than many had imagined, even though the incumbent president lost by 6 million votes nationwide. But in the end, the system stood firm against the most intense assault from an aggrieved president in the nation’s history because of a Republican city clerk in Michigan, a Republican secretary of state in Georgia, a Republican county supervisor in Arizona and Republican-appointed judges in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
They refuted conspiracy theories, certified results, dismissed lawsuits and repudiated a president of their own party, leaving him to thunder about a supposed plot that would have had to include people who had voted for him, donated to him or even been appointed by him. The desperate effort to hang onto office over the will of the people effectively ended when his own director of the General Services Administration determined that Joe Biden is the president-elect and a judge Trump put on the bench chastised him for ludicrous litigation.
“Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy,” Judge Stephanos Bibas, appointed by Trump in 2017, wrote for a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on Friday as it dismissed the latest of dozens of legal claims filed by Trump and his allies. “Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
Unfounded as it is, the president’s campaign against the results may leave lasting scars. With much of the Republican establishment endorsing or staying silent on Trump’s claims, and polls indicating that tens of millions of Republicans believe the election was somehow rigged, faith in American democracy, the fundamental tenet of the social contract established by the framers, has eroded in a dangerous way. And Biden, the incoming president, now faces a country where many of his constituents consider him illegitimate.
Those who defied Trump despite their own partisan backgrounds remain bruised by the experience too, in some cases questioning the political system that they have spent years upholding. They may pay a price if their fellow Republicans see what they did as acts of disloyalty rather than conscience. But those who have spoken out expressed no regrets.
“I’ve got a pretty thick skin, but it’s hard not to feel shook by it all,” Barton reflected the other day. “We take our job so seriously that it’s devastating to us to have something like that happen. I cried every day for a week every time I thought about it. My biggest concern was, we’re already living in a time when so many people have so little confidence in the process, and to give them more reason not to trust the results was absolutely devastating to me.”
‘Numbers Don’t Lie’
The drama began within hours after the polls closed. The initial leads that Trump enjoyed in several battleground states began to dwindle as absentee and mail-in votes that favored Biden were slowly counted and added to the tallies released publicly. Trump portrayed the numbers as fraudulent and headed to court, filing lawsuits in multiple states.
In Arizona, where Trump allies complained that the use of Sharpie pens invalidated ballots because they bled through, Clint Hickman, chair of the Maricopa County board of supervisors and a Republican, sent an open letter with a Democratic colleague saying they were “concerned about the misinformation spreading about the integrity of our elections.”
Mark Brnovich, the state’s Republican attorney general, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2022, announced he would investigate the use of the Sharpies. A day later, he tweeted he was satisfied that the pens did not influence the election in any way.
Passions continued to rise. The Democratic secretary of state received threats to kill her family and pets and burn down her house. Hickman stepped up again, issuing another letter calling on Republicans to “dial back the rhetoric, rumors and false claims.”
Rusty Bowers, the Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives, likewise pushed back against the conspiracies and resisted an “enormous amount of pressure” for lawmakers to choose their own electors to support Trump. “I took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the constitution and laws of the state of Arizona,” he said.
In Georgia, Trump and his allies were blocked by Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state. A mild-mannered civil engineer, Raffensperger is a staunch conservative who won his office two years ago with an endorsement from Trump and a platform of Trumpian goals, including a promise to protect the voting system from illegal immigrants.
But he bristled at unfounded claims from Trump’s team and other Republicans, including Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who called for his resignation. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican who had just lost a challenge against Loeffler, took over Trump’s efforts in Georgia and accused Raffensperger’s office of setting rules that “seem to be changing as we go.” Raffensperger took to Facebook to push back, calling Collins a “liar.”
The dispute landed before Judge Steven Grimberg, who was nominated to the U.S. District Court by Trump and was a member of the Federalist Society, which has provided lists of conservatives from which the president has drawn his Supreme Court nominees.
But if the Trump camp believed it would find a sympathetic ear, it was disabused in the opening minutes of the hearing when the youthful judge seemed increasingly perturbed by the answers he received to his pointed questions. The suit “would require halting the certification results in a state election in which millions of people have voted,” the judge noted.
The next day, Raffensperger spurned Trump and certified Biden’s victory in Georgia. “Numbers don’t lie,” the secretary of state said. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump ally, then certified Georgia’s electors for Biden while twisting himself to say that the decision now “paves the way for the Trump campaign to pursue other legal options.”
In Pennsylvania, the legal efforts found no more traction. The week after the election, Trump and his allies lost seven cases in succession. By the next weekend, they ended up in federal court before Judge Matthew Brann, another Federalist Society member and conservative Republican appointed by President Barack Obama at the behest of a Republican senator.
Brann called the Trump team’s claim nothing more than “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” and refused to delay certification of the election. “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state,” he wrote. Brann’s ruling was the one upheld Friday.
Mark Aronchick, a lawyer who represented the city of Philadelphia in several cases brought by the Trump campaign, said the past three weeks proved that the judicial system would not simply bend to the president’s will.
“This period of time, with all the things that the Trump campaign were throwing, I viewed as very much a stress test on what I will shout from the rooftops is the best legal system the world has ever seen, in terms of independence of the judiciary and the rule of law,” he said. “And at both the state and federal level, the system has come through with flying colors.”
‘The Real Cost Was in Voter Confidence’
Nowhere was the pressure more sustained than in Michigan, even though Biden’s margin of victory of 154,000 was greater there than in other contested states. At one point, two Republicans on the Wayne County elections board bowed to the president’s wishes and refused to certify the results, only to reverse themselves later that night.
Trump then summoned the Republican leaders of the state legislature, Mike Shirkey and Lee Chatfield, to the White House in a bid to get lawmakers to substitute their own slate of electors. The two men, both rumored to be interested in higher office, were hesitant to go, according to people familiar with their thinking, but felt that if a president called, they had no choice.
Chatfield, 32, a graduate of Liberty University, the Christian school in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell, had been a vocal supporter of the president, even warming up the crowd at a rally in Muskegon before Trump arrived a week before the election. Shirkey, 65, has not been so visible but had spoken at several rallies protesting coronavirus lockdown orders issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, including on the same day the FBI announced that it had foiled a right-wing plot to kidnap her.
But they rebuffed Trump nonetheless, issuing a statement shortly after leaving the White House affirming that they had seen no evidence that would change the outcome of the election and would let the winner of the popular vote stand.
But the Trump team seized on any routine mistakes or far-fetched allegations to advance the cause. In Rochester Hills, in Oakland County, votes in one precinct were posted in the absentee tally and then also posted in the in-person total without first being removed from the absentee count.
The mistake was quickly caught and rectified before the results became official, but Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, claimed that “we found 2,000 ballots that had been given to Democrats, that were Republican ballots, due to a clerical error.”
Barton, who has served as the Rochester Hills clerk for eight years, learned about McDaniel’s comment from a reporter and promptly took to social media to rebut the “categorically false” assertion. “As a Republican, I am disturbed that this is intentionally being mischaracterized to undermine the election process,” Barton said in a video she posted to Twitter, which was viewed more than 1.2 million times.
Barton, 48, is another graduate from Liberty University, where she earned a master’s degree after graduating from Great Lakes University in Michigan. She posts Bible verses online and has said that “God orders my steps.” She served for eight years as the deputy clerk in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township before being appointed to the Rochester Hills post and has earned respect from both Republicans and Democrats.
She was initially reluctant to give McDaniel’s claim any validity by responding but decided she had no choice. “In relaying the truth, I was going to be opening myself up to criticism, and if I ever thought about running for office again, that would be impacted,” she said. “But the real cost was in voter confidence. I told my deputy that all these things have to be put aside, and I have to speak the truth.”
Soon she found herself the target of profane and threatening emails and telephone calls, and while she took comfort that she was safe because her husband is a sheriff’s deputy, they nonetheless upgraded the security system at home. “It’s just devastating to see what the response has been to our profession and how we have come, as a country, to think that violence and threats is the answer,” she said.
As an election official, she spent much of the last four years talking with other officials about cyberthreats to American democracy. Never, she said, did she realize that the real threat this year would come from within.
“But now we have to go back and rebuild voter trust and let people realize that our elections are not rigged,” she said. “We have to step back and say, 'How do we restore public confidence in a system that is completely torn down?'”