Republicans are still seeking revenge for their 2020 election losses. In Wisconsin, they’ve put a target on the back of Meagan Wolfe, the state’s nonpartisan elections chief, who they’re apparently still mad at for refusing to take Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud more seriously. Wolfe called the 2020 election “an incredible success that was a result of years of preparation and meticulously, carefully following the law.” Nevertheless, state Republicans heeded Trump’s election lies, launching a review of the 2020 results, which was led by a former right-wing judge—who attended a symposium on election fraud headed by MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. The investigation cost taxpayers over $1.1 million and ultimately, in 2022, reported no evidence of fraud. Unsatisfied, and still without a smoking gun, Wisconsin Republicans have made Wolfe a scapegoat. Nearly a year from the 2024 election, it looks like they want to fire her, subject to a possibly illegitimate confirmation hearing last week. Wolfe’s future as elections administrator remains in limbo.
The power struggle playing out around her post serves as a portent of the machinations to come in 2024—when it’s highly possible Trump will once again be on the ballot. It also comes as Democratic secretaries of state are sounding the alarm of continued and emergent threats facing American democracy. Trump allies are already deploying the same playbook as they did in 2020.
“The attack on democracy has not stopped—very specifically Trump’s efforts to undermine American democracy have not stopped,” Colorado secretary of state Jena Griswold tells Vanity Fair.
The breadth of Trump’s election denialism was thrust back into focus last month, when Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis released a damning indictment laying out an alleged conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election in not only Georgia, but in other states including Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and New Mexico. “It is sort of a roadmap in a sense. It gives us an idea about what to expect and what to guard against,” Minnesota secretary of state Steve Simon said of the indictment. “If there’s a similar plot or scheme by anyone in 2024, they won’t necessarily follow the same roadmap as in 2020. But it does give us an idea about what the pressure points are.”
Arizona secretary of state Adrian Fontes—who served as the election recorder for Maricopa County, one of the fiercest battlegrounds, in 2020—points out that Trump continues to push election disinformation. Trump was “mildly inciting folks to violence” in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson, Fontes said, referring to the ex-president saying that his political opponents were “savage animals; they’re people that are sick,” and entertaining Carlson’s suggestion that the former president could be assassinated. The indictments haven’t stopped Trump from pushing election denialism and engaging in dangerous hyperbole. And at the state level, his supporters are following suit with organized attacks on the system, such as that against Wolfe. Both Fontes and Griswold said they regularly receive death threats, as do other elections officials.
As Democratic secretaries of state are sounding the alarm ahead of the 2024 presidential election, some Republican officials are amplifying Trump’s unfounded claims. For instance, as the Associated Press reported, secretaries of state in Ohio, West Virginia, and Missouri—three states Trump won—have supported increased voter restrictions, which appears to buy into the former president’s false rhetoric that Biden stole the presidency, despite being the very individuals tasked with ensuring election integrity. In a recent interview, West Virginia secretary of state Mac Warner summed up the balance he and other Republicans are trying to strike. “I will admit Biden won the election, but did he do it legitimately? Or did that happen outside the election laws that legislatures in certain states had put in place? That’s where I balk and say no,” he said. As Republican officials continue to engage in election denialism, they are only adding to the confusion and challenges ahead of next year’s election.
As 2024 approaches, there is a real fear of what Griswold described as “insider threats” to the system—something she experienced firsthand in Colorado. Former Colorado county clerk Tina Peters was indicted in 2022 in a breach of Mesa County’s election system; she was accused of allowing an unauthorized individual access to the voting system in search of evidence to support Trump’s claims of election fraud (Peters pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial). Griswold says Conan Hayes, who has also been identified in media reports as individual 27 in Georgia’s Coffee County indictment for accessing election data, and, as the Times reported, was associated with Peters, was the one to physically compromise the voting equipment in Mesa County. A second breach occurred in Colorado when an Elbert County clerk, Dallas Schroeder, gained unauthorized access and made copies of the county’s election system. (Schroeder did not face charges.) In legal filings, Schroeder said he had help from an individual named Shawn Smith, who leads pro-Trump election denial groups and has been associated with John Eastman, the former Trump attorney behind the 2020 fake electors scheme, and one of the central figures of the Georgia indictment. Griswold recalls, “Eastman was on the stage as a far-right militia called for me to be hung.” (Smith said onstage at an event in February 2022, where Eastman was reportedly in attendance: “I think if you’re involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”)
After the 2020 election, Colorado governor Jared Polis signed into law new legislation aimed to protect against “insider threats” and impose greater protections for election workers against harassment and intimidation. “Every state needs to pass that legislation immediately because it’s a tremendous risk for the ’24 election,” Griswold told VF.
The secretaries of state who spoke with VF described an ongoing game of whack-a-mole when it comes to election denialism and disinformation. “I always make a distinction between disinformation and disagreement. Disagreement is welcome and normal and a sign of health, I think for a democracy for people to disagree on issues. But I’m not talking so much about what the election system ought to be as what it is. Let’s agree on what it is, whether you like what it is or isn’t,” Simon said. But, “There are some people who are pushing election disinformation knowing that it’s false and doing it for political purposes.”
The hope, Simon added, is that greater transparency into the election process will cut through the barrage of mis- and disinformation. But he added, “I’m not naive… It’s not a binary thing. It’s not that someone’s going to hear something and completely change their mind,” he said. However, “They might do some incremental changing.” The 2024 election is only poised to be more combustible, as it will likely happen in tandem with Trump’s multiple criminal trials. “We’re heading into a presidential election year, which always means more passion, more drama, more intensity,” Simon says. “It’s worth revisiting 2020 if for no other reason than to talk about the lessons learned and what we can do to stabilize democracy in America.”
“[Trump] is the sexy clickbait right now, but that’s not what this is about,“ Fontes told VF. “There are so many things that go into the day-to-day of election administration. It is 365 days a year that every once in a while something pops up like a new lawsuit, a new scandal, a new headline, a new indictment. Nowadays they’re coming fast and furious.”