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A Hidden Latest Threat to U.S. Elections

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It’s been greater than nine weeks for the reason that Pennsylvania primary. The election remains to be not certified.

The explanation: Three counties — Berks, Fayette and Lancaster — are refusing to process absentee ballots that were received in a timely manner and are otherwise valid, except the voter didn’t write a date on the declaration printed on the ballot’s return envelope.

The Pennsylvania attorney general has argued in court amid a lawsuit against those three counties that the state won’t certify results unless they “include every ballot lawfully solid in that election” (emphasis theirs).

The standoff in Pennsylvania is the newest attempt by conservative-leaning counties to disrupt, delay or otherwise meddle with the strategy of statewide election certification, a normally ceremonial administrative procedure that became a goal of Donald Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 contest.

It’s happened in other states, too. Earlier this yr, Otero County, a rural conservative area in southern Latest Mexico, refused to certify its primary election, citing conspiracy theories about voting machines, though no county commissioner produced evidence to legitimize their concerns.

Eventually, under threat of legal motion from the state’s attorney general and an order from the State Supreme Court, the commissioners relented and licensed the county’s roughly 7,300 votes.

Pro-democracy groups saw Otero County’s refusal to certify the outcomes as a warning of probably grave future crises, and expressed worries about how a state might find a way to certify a presidential election under similar circumstances.

The showdown in Pennsylvania is almost definitely less severe. The variety of undated ballots is kind of small, and in the event that they needed to, state officials could certify the election without counting those ballots, disenfranchising a small variety of voters but preserving the power to certify and send presidential electors to Congress (or elect a governor, senator or local official from the world). For now, the attorney general’s argument is to easily force the counting of each legal ballot.

“It’s imperative that each legal vote solid by a certified voter is counted,” said Molly Stieber, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, Josh Shapiro, who’s now the state’s Democratic nominee for governor. “The 64 other counties in Pennsylvania have complied and accurately certified their election results. Counties cannot abuse their responsibility for running elections as an excuse to unlawfully disenfranchise voters.”

The battle over the undated envelopes in Pennsylvania also presages what’s more likely to be one other litigious election season, through which partisans will look to contest as many ballots as possible to assist their side win, seizing on technicalities and immaterial mistakes in an effort to cancel votes.

Election experts say that such sprawling legal challenges, combined with false accusations of fraud, could create chaos akin to the 2020 election aftermath.

“Had this unfolded on this sort of timeline in 2020, it really could have created problems, because there would have been questions on whether the state could have actually named a slate of electors,” said Robert Yablon, a law professor on the University of Wisconsin Law School. “You may imagine there being disputed slates of electors that were sent to Congress, and it might have been an enormous mess.”

The difficulty reached the courts last yr, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in a dispute over a judicial election that ballots couldn’t be discounted because voters had not dated the return envelope’s declaration. The Supreme Court upheld that call in June.

In Pennsylvania’s tight Republican primary race for Senate between Mehmet Oz, now the nominee, and David McCormick, a state court again ruled that the undated ballots should be counted, but in addition instructed counties to report two separate tallies to state election officials — one including the undated ballots, and one without them — should there be a later decision on appeal going the opposite way.

Up to now, there was no recent opinion allowing counties to not count the ballots. Local officials in each county have declined to comment, citing the continued lawsuit.

Charles Homans

On Politics chatted on Thursday with Charles Homans, a Latest York Times reporter who just published a landmark feature article in The Times Magazine on the history of the “Stop the Steal” movement. Our conversation, calmly edited for length and clarity:

Your story is known as “How ‘Stop the Steal’ Captured the American Right.” Was there ever any moment when that prospect was unsure, or was it all the time destined to end up this manner?

It’s inconceivable to assume it taking root because it has if Donald Trump had conceded the election. That’s the specific difference between him and former presidents. And it’s what has distinguished “Stop the Steal” from the skepticism, each reasonable and conspiratorial, that surrounded previous elections.

But for those who take a look at the prehistory of the 2020 election, as I did on this story, it’s equally hard to assume Trump conceding that election, or really any election. He was disputing the validity of elections he lost (and even some that he didn’t) going back to literally the first Republican caucus in 2016.

And starting in those 2016 primaries, he had an ally in Roger Stone, who was attempting to construct a movement around Trump’s false claims — and linking those claims to the then-current preoccupation on the appropriate with settling refugees from Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries.

That connected Stop the Steal, from the start, to an entire cosmology of far-right conspiracism that prolonged well beyond Trump himself, and which you may still see reflected within the movement today.

Do the politicians promoting Stop the Steal really consider these things? Or are some just playing along for political gain?

Some do and a few don’t. There are also Republican strategists and even some Stop the Steal activists who will complain (though rarely on the record) that the pursuit of essentially the most baroque and clearly conspiracist claims in regards to the election have given a foul name to what they argue would have otherwise been more credible arguments — specifically challenges to the legality of the expansions of absentee voting provisions and infrastructure in response to the pandemic in 2020 in some key states, that are generally thought to have helped Joe Biden.

Those challenges have found success within the courts in just one state, Wisconsin, and nobody has demonstrated that the expansions in query led to meaningful fraud (some extent that even the conservative law firm that brought the Wisconsin lawsuit has made).

But they do exist on a spectrum with the legal battles over voting rights which have played out between Republicans and Democrats and civil rights groups for years — the battles that William Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, is reportedly joining now — and don’t depend on proving an unlimited conspiracy of voting-machine manufacturers or finding bamboo fibers on ballots.

The grass-roots activists who’re most intensely engaged within the project of overturning the 2020 election, nonetheless, are sometimes very invested within the voting machine conspiracies and a variety of other unproven or debunked claims. So are the figures who’ve invested essentially the most money within the cause, like Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive, and Patrick Byrne, the previous Overstock.com chief executive.

And after all, so is Trump, who personally directed his Justice Department officials to run down a number of the most out-there claims, and who has continued to repeat them since.

One takeaway out of your story is that Trump has used this fantasy of a stolen election to solidify his hold over G.O.P. base voters. Yet it’s also driven many Republican elites and college-educated voters away. Help us assess the political costs and advantages.

As Trump’s claims in regards to the election have hardened right into a tenet of Republican orthodoxy, they’ve paradoxically turn into less tied up with him personally. They’ve turn into a part of a more generalized story the appropriate tells in regards to the groups it perceives as its enemies — Democrats, “RINOs,” the media, the intelligence community, state-level bureaucrats — and the supposed lengths they’re willing to go to maintain the appropriate’s champions out of power.

Trump is a martyr in that story, and after all stays by far the largest-looming figure on the appropriate. But I don’t think a restoration of the Trump presidency is a singular goal of even the movement crystallized across the false election claims.

To your second point, there are obvious limits to this view of politics in the case of winning over anyone who’s not already a partisan. What I’m wondering, though, is how much these views matter to voters who aren’t especially partisan or particularly engaged.

The polling around this subject has consistently shown an asymmetry that clearly advantages Republicans: Republican voters are highly frightened about threats to democracy (which they presumably define in Trump-aligned terms) and Democrats are much less so.

That is where the Democrats’ tactic of openly helping a number of the most Stop the Steal-minded candidates on this yr’s Republican primaries, other than its cynicism, also strikes me as strategically dubious insofar because it presumes that their views on the 2020 election are something that swing voters will actually hold against them.

A certain religious fervor runs through the “Stop the Steal” movement. To what extent do conservative Christians see Trump as a type of Messiah-like figure? And in the event that they do, does that help explain the eagerness behind the idea that he was robbed of a second term?

I don’t think that even many far-right Christians view Trump as a Messiah-like figure. They did broadly view him as someone who was willing and capable of deliver a rustic that was governed in accordance with their view of Christianity and its relationship to the state.

I’m talking here in regards to the set of beliefs (discrete from, if often overlapping with, conservative evangelical Christianity) which might be sometimes described as Christian nationalism: the idea that America is a fundamentally Christian nation whose founding documents were divinely inspired, and which is supposed to be governed accordingly, whether or not its leader is especially pious.

That’s different from the type of conservative evangelical politics that were ascendant on this country 20 or 30 years ago, and it is extremely distinguished in Stop the Steal. I believe it does inform the eagerness behind the idea in Trump’s false claims, nevertheless it also helps explain the fervent support for the efforts to overturn the election even amongst individuals who may not likely buy these things.

Viewfinder

On Politics commonly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Cheriss May told us about capturing the image above:

When presidents return to the White House late at night or early within the morning, it’s often quiet and uneventful.

But President Biden’s arrival home from his trip to the Middle East was a bit different.

As he got back within the early hours of Sunday, I focused on him inside Marine One and noticed that he was illuminated by a bluish glow contained in the aircraft as he spoke to the pilot and gave him a thumbs-up.

It jogged my memory of the 1985 martial-arts movie “The Last Dragon,” when Taimak gets “the glow,” which provides him an additional burst of energy. At that moment, I knew it wouldn’t be the standard early-morning presidential arrival.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.

— Blake

Is there anything you think that we’re missing? Anything you need to see more of? We’d love to listen to from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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