PHOENIX — Bill Gates, a Republican member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, never used to feel like persona non grata in the party that’s long been his political home.
A nuts-and-bolts functionary who can expound upon issues like air quality and animal control, he has a 10th-floor office adorned with mementos that show his many years of devotion to the GOP, including a taxidermied “jackalope” given to him by a Koch brothers-backed organization, and a framed photograph of him greeting George W. Bush in front of Air Force One.
But then he and his colleagues on the board certified the 2020 election in their county, performing their ministerial function over the screams of angry Donald Trump supporters outside.
Since then, Gates’s once-mundane job has taken a nightmare turn. He has been deluged with violent threats, named in Trump’s and his allies’ lawsuits and called by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, asking him to “get this thing fixed up.” He even found himself and his colleagues one vote short of being held in contempt by the state Senate — an outcome he feared could lead his most unhinged detractors to detain him.
He wants to keep his job, hard as it’s been, and run for reelection in 2024. But he knows his decision to defy his party’s leaders and stand by the election results could doom his chances.
“You’re like, OK, is there a place for me? Is there a place for someone who does — who tries to do — the right thing? Who speaks truth, who isn’t willing to follow the current Republican talking points?” Gates asked last month.
“It’s just not what I believe in,” he said. “I don’t believe in the big lie.”
From November to January, a sitting president falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him by rampant fraud, putting the peaceful transfer of power in greater peril than it had been at any other time in recent American history. As President Trump and his allies looked for the pressure points in the country’s sprawling election system, hoping to overturn his loss, they met resistance from Democrats but also a cadre of Republicans, from low-level local officials like Gates to well-known politicians like Representative Liz Cheney, who acted as the guardrails of American democracy by prioritizing truth and law over political allegiance.
“We never got to that ultimate situation because Republicans at various steps along the way … prevented the situation from escalating,” said Ned Foley, a professor of constitutional law at Ohio State University. “It was Republicans who kind of saved the day in that sense, but it was other Republicans who created a mess of a situation.”
Yet those guardrails may be disappearing. Some of the very people who refused to subvert the electoral system under immense pressure are now facing political consequences for their actions, raising the prospect that they will not be there in 2024. Even the loss of a few key people could leave the nation’s elections system vulnerable to a more sophisticated attempt to undermine it in the future if they are replaced with officials more willing to skate around the law.
“We cannot take for granted that our system will continue to function and we need to realize how fragile it is,” said Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who was purged from her party’s leadership after she became a vocal critic of Trump’s claim that he won the election. “We’re at a moment that is still very perilous.”
Some of the people, including Cheney, who worked to shore up that fragile system last year have already been actively removed from their positions of authority by the GOP. Some, reading the political winds, have fallen in line with a party in which Trump’s lies about the election are as powerful as ever. And some, like Gates, are unsure that the party still wants them.
Democracy experts worry that a system that held up in 2020, and ultimately orbited around officials upholding the rule of law, would be hobbled in 2024 and beyond by their loss.
“The experience of what happened this time,” Foley said, “in some ways puts us in greater danger next time.”
It hardly drew national notice when, earlier this year, Michigan Republicans gave Governor Gretchen Whitmer three names to choose from to fill a spot on the Board of State Canvassers, which has two Republicans and two Democrats. Missing from that list was the name of the person who held the role during the 2020 election: Aaron Van Langevelde.
Two months earlier, Van Langevelde, a young GOP lawyer who serves as counsel in Michigan’s House Republican Policy Office, had cast the decisive vote to certify the presidential election in the state, as President Trump seemed to be putting extraordinary pressure on Republicans there to overturn the results.
It did not appear to matter to Trump that President Biden had won Michigan by the insurmountable margin of more than 150,000 votes, or that his team’s legal challenges there and in other swing states were overwhelmingly rejected.
Trump’s strategy homed in on a foundational characteristic of the American elections system. While the system is bound by many laws and regulations, at the end of the day, it relies on the good faith of officials and politicians across 50 states to ultimately accept and certify election results, even if their preferred candidate does not win. By ginning up anger in the base and pressuring officials to delay or vote against certifying, Trump appeared to seek to gum up the gears of election certification as constitutionally-set deadlines approached. It might have been enough to trigger a Constitutional crisis — or at least a bigger and more precarious mess — if even a few states drifted toward or past those deadlines with no resolution, potentially creating openings for Republicans to send alternate slates of electors to Washington. But that could only happen if key officials like Van Langevelde got on board.
“It may not be the institutions that held things together, it may be the people in those roles,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican commissioner on the Philadelphia Board of Elections. “At the end of the day, democracy’s on the line because of a dozen people in real obscure, parochial positions.”
At the time, Trump began reaching out to officials in key positions, personally calling a Republican on the canvassing board in Wayne County, which contains Detroit, after she initially voted not to certify the election, according to reports at the time. He invited Mike Shirkey and Lee Chatfield, the state Senate majority leader and the House speaker at the time, to the White House. If the canvassing board Van Langevelde sat on deadlocked, the ensuing delays and litigation could have kept Michigan’s certification up in the air as the Dec. 8 “safe harbor” deadline approached.
This dire outcome was in reach. The other Republican on the board, Norm Shinkle, was already speaking publicly about his doubts in the election results and ultimately abstained from the vote.
The situation put enormous pressure on the formerly obscure Van Langevelde, who ended up quietly but firmly certifying the result in Lansing on Nov. 23.
Van Langevelde revealed he faced pressure from political leaders to withhold certification in a March 26 speech at Cardozo Law School, which he provided to the Globe and which has not previously been reported.
“We were asked to take power we didn’t have. What would have been the cost if we had done so?,” Van Langevelde asked. “Constitutional chaos and the loss of our integrity.”
“There were a lot of people who would have preferred I said nothing, voted no, or abstained. I am sure a lot of people didn’t want me to make it to that meeting,” he continued. “I did everything I could to make it to that meeting, even though I knew it would cost me my position on the Board.”
It appears he was correct that doing the right thing would cost him his job. In January, Republicans decided not to reappoint him to the board — a chilling sign to democracy experts and political observers.
“All of the people who really stood their ground are either gone or being challenged. And that is on purpose,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist.
While Van Langevelde, a lower-level civil servant, was purged from his post with little fanfare, more high-profile Republican politicians who ultimately resisted Trump’s calls to block the certification of election results are facing the ex-president’s wrath. The next few years will be a test of what that means for their political futures.
Trump’s lies about a stolen election gripped so much of his party that 139 Republicans in the House — the vast majority of their conference — and eight Senate Republicans voted not to certify the outcome in at least one state. To challenge the prevailing fiction was to invite censure motions from local activists, angry condemnations from Trump himself, or even boos in public, as was the case for Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the former Republican presidential nominee.
That backlash could very well cost some Republicans their political careers. In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stood by the election results that gave Biden a narrow, 11,779-vote lead and resisted Trump’s entreaties to “find” more votes for him. Now, Raffensperger faces a challenge from a Trump-endorsed congressman, Jody Hice, who embraced Trump’s “stop the steal” movement. Few in the state are betting on Raffensperger’s survival.
“He’s done, he’s over,” said Jay Williams, a Republican strategist in the state. “There’s just no way he’s going to recover.”
Vice President Mike Pence let Trump’s fictions about the election fester through much of the fall, but he ultimately presided over the certification of Biden’s victory at the Capitol after rioters called for him to be punished — even hanged, some said. The move was widely seen as a betrayal by the Republican base and could imperil his political ambitions.
Other Republicans who certified the election or who have opposed continued efforts to relitigate it have been targeted directly by Trump. In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, certified his state’s election — ignoring a phone call from Trump — and posted nine tweets explaining why the Arizona election was not fraudulent. Since then, Trump has railed against him in public statements, promising to do everything in his power to stop the term-limited governor should he decide to run for Senate.
The former president has also targeted Republican state lawmakers who would not help him, calling for some to face primaries.
Not everyone who crossed Trump during those months faces immediate political peril. Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, who joined three liberal judges to cast tie-breaking votes to uphold his state’s election results against Trump-backed challenges, has been pilloried by conservatives, but is not up for reelection until 2029, offering the possibility he could outlast the rage of Trump supporters.
It’s also unclear whether Trump’s calls for primary challenges against his election critics will materialize in every case, or whether enough Republican voters will still care about the issue to vote them out in 2022 or 2024.
But in the case of Cheney, the scion of a conservative family and Wyoming congresswoman, the consequences of her outspoken resistance to Trump’s fraud lie are already being felt.
Cheney initially joined the rest of her party in supporting Trump’s right to bring flimsy legal challenges to the election results, although she called on him to respect the Constitution if he couldn’t prove his claims. The peril became clearer, she said, when the Electoral College was poised to gather to recognize Biden’s win on Dec. 14 with Trump still loudly refusing to accept the results. As many of her colleagues signed on to a Texas lawsuit seeking to throw out the election results in key swing states, Cheney decided to take action to attempt to convince her colleagues the election had been fair.
Working between Christmas and New Year’s, Cheney and her husband, Phil Perry, crafted a 21-page memo explaining why there was no basis for Congress not to certify the election. She also worked to organize an op-ed by all of the living former defense secretaries — including her father, former vice president Dick Cheney — opposing any military involvement in resolving election disputes.
Since then, she’s voted to impeach Trump and continued to call out her party’s lies about the election, costing her her leadership position and imperiling her hold on her seat in Congress in a deep red district. But she doesn’t like to think in terms of the political price she paid.
“I think those of us who are elected officials have a duty to the Constitution and a duty to put the Constitution above party and above politics,” Cheney said. “It’s a battle that I intend to fight and to win.”
When Trump prematurely declared victory after midnight on Election Day, he did not have the facts or the law on his side, but he did have an enormous platform and a willingness to repeat the lie of fraud over and over again. That’s why the battle to preserve the election’s sanctity wasn’t only fought in political offices; it was also an effort to counter Trump’s disinformation through the media, reassuring voters that the result was fair.
Chris Stirewalt, a political editor at Fox News who was key to the network being the first to call Arizona for Biden, played a role in that battle. Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota called for him and the other “knuckleheads” at the network to be fired, part of a chorus of Republicans pressuring him to recant his call. But Stirewalt knew he was correct, and that backtracking would only aid Trump’s attempts to paint the results as uncertain.
“There were a lot of people who wanted us to take it down. I know because I heard from a lot of them,” Stirewalt said. “You can’t take down a right call to please people that were upset with the narrative, especially when a sitting president had said in advance how he was going to steal the election.”
Stirewalt was fired from Fox earlier this year. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp, told the Washington Post the firing wasn’t caused by the election night call. Stirewalt believes networks have more incentive to tell their audiences what they demand to hear than the truth.
“It’s not about appealing to the largest possible audience, it’s about keeping your small audience loyal to you,” he said. “That does not align well with good election coverage.”
Some elected officials took it upon themselves to push back on Trump’s lies in the media, and faced a barrage of threats to their safety and their careers as a result.
“I wanted to make sure the facts of the election were out there,” said Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan of Georgia, who took to CNN after the election to try to “block and tackle” Trump’s disinformation. He has since announced he is not running for reelection and was not invited to Georgia’s most recent GOP convention last month.
In Philadelphia, Al Schmidt, a Republican city commissioner, pushed back on the conspiracy theories that revolved around his city through television appearances and press conferences, particularly after Trump claimed repeatedly that, “bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
“They were lying about what was going on in front of us,” said Schmidt, who was still working in the city’s tabulation facility when, on Nov. 11, Trump tweeted about him by name. Soon, he and his family received threats that named his children and called him a traitor.
“What they were really saying is, ‘If you lie, this will go away,’” Schmidt said. He wouldn’t.
Schmidt had already decided before the election that he was ready to retire from the job, but the events of 2020 convinced him he had made the right choice. He worries, however, about who will replace him and people like him.
“These aren’t high-profile positions. They’re incredibly important a couple times a year. So to try to ... get bad faith actors elected into those positions, isn’t that difficult and it’s not that expensive,” Schmidt said. “And that I think is a real danger.”
As some key officials who resisted election chaos lose their jobs, face uncertain political futures, or retire, experts are also worried about another development. Since January, at least 14 states have passed bills in state houses that give partisan lawmakers more power over elections and election officials.
“There’s a view like we made it through the 2020 election by the skin of our teeth but our democracy survived and now we’re good,” said Joanna Lydgate, cofounder of the States United Democracy Center, which is tracking those laws. “The reality is, it never stopped — the assault on our democracy, it never stopped.”
Gates, the member of the board of supervisors in Phoenix, can see the latest iteration of that from his office. He has a view of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where his county’s ballots were “audited” by a private company in an exercise that is widely seen as a sham.
Gates opposes the audit. He and his colleagues refused to hand over ballots and voting machines until they were forced to do so under a court ruling following a subpoena from the Senate president. He has continued to speak out against the audit, even as it draws a parade of Republicans around the country who have come to admire it.
“This is about an attempt to delegitimize our democratic system,” Gates said.
For now, he is trying not to let the threatening messages — including a voice mail reviewed by the Globe that called for him to be given an “Alabama necktie” — get to him. And though he wrestled with the decision, he’s resolved to run again to keep his job, in an attempt to keep the guardrails on the electoral system for next time.
“If following the law ... leads me to losing my next political race, that’s fine,” he said. “We have to stand up to these people.”