Before November, election officials prepared for the possibility that Republicans who embraced former President Donald Trump's lies about voter fraud would challenge the verdict of voters by refusing to certify the midterm results.
Three weeks after the end of voting, such challenges are playing out in just two states, Arizona and Pennsylvania, where Democrats won the marquee races for governor and Senate.
Legal experts predict the bids are doomed because local governmental agencies typically don't have the option to vote against certifying the results of their elections. But experts also say the delays are a signal that the United States must brace itself for similar disruptions in the next presidential contest.
“It is one of the few places where election deniers have a lever of power,” Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said of the local political authorities responsible for certifying election results in most states. “It’s a good test run for 2024, showing state courts they’re going to have to step in.”
For now, the certification delay in a smattering of rural counties in just two states reflects the limited ability of election conspiracy theorists to disrupt the midterms. One rural Arizona county has drawn court challenges after its refusal to certify, but a second one that was flirting with blocking certification backed off amid legal threats.
In Pennsylvania, a handful of the state's 67 counties have delayed certificationbecause of recounts demanded by local conspiracy theorists in scattered precincts. But in most states, certification has gone smoothly.
“Before Election Day, I thought Republicans would exploit the certification process to undermine election results,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who has sued to compel the lone Arizona county to certify.
That there's only one county delaying so far in that important battleground state, where Republican candidates who denied Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential race ran unsuccessfully for governor and secretary of state, is “good news, and a bit of a surprise,” Elias said.
In Wisconsin, where Trump pressured Republican lawmakers to decertify the 2020 results, the chair of the state elections commission certified the results of the midterm election during a quick meeting Wednesday without fanfare. Minnesota, where the failed Republican secretary of state candidate had cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, the state canvassing board certified this year's results without drama on Tuesday.
The smooth outcome in most of the country is a reflection of the diminished opportunities election conspiracy theorists have to control elections after a number of their candidates were routed in statewide elections for positions overseeing voting. They're largely left with a footprint in conservative, rural counties. Still, that's enough to cause headaches for having the election results certified on a statewide basis, raising concerns about how rural counties might respond after the next presidential election.
The movement that embraces Trump's lies about voting hoped it would have many more levers after November. Candidates who backed Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election ran for top posts with power over state voting — including secretary of state, which in most states is the top election position — in five of the six swing states that were key to Trump's 2020 loss. They lost every race in each of those states.
Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs defeated Trump-backed Republican Kari Lake in the race for Arizona governor, flipping it out of the GOP category, and a Democrat also won the race to replace Hobbs. A Democrat defeated an election conspiracy theorist running for Nevada secretary of state, shifting another swing-state election office from the GOP.
On the local level, the picture is blurrier.
There are more than 10,000 local election offices in the country that follow guidelines set by secretaries of state or other agencies that their states designate as the top election authorities. That's where conspiracy theorists won at least some new offices and still have the power to disrupt proceedings.
During the June primary in New Mexico, rural Otero County refused to certifythe results of its election, preventing the state from making the winners official until the state Supreme Court ordered it to act. That set a template that election lawyers feared would be vastly replicated in the weeks after the midterms. But this time, even Otero County certified its winners without a delay.
In Michigan, where a GOP slate of election conspiracy theorists was defeated in statewide races, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, Kristina Karamo, implored the state's bipartisan board of canvassers not to certify the election during a hearing this week. Karamo insisted there had been widespread fraud, even though she lost her race against Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson by more than 13 percentage points.
Tony Daunt, the Republican chair of the certification board, responded by blasting candidates who “feed into this nonsense” by making “claims that fire everybody up because it’s a short-term gain for them, and that’s dangerous to our system.” The board unanimously certified the election.
In Pennsylvania, the most prominent certification hiccup has come in Luzerne County, north of Philadelphia, which voted for Trump by 14 percentage points in 2020. County commissioners delayed certifying the election on Monday after one Democrat abstained from voting following an Election Day fiasco in which the election office ran out of ballots.
But the Democrat, Daniel Schramm, later told reporters he would vote to certify on Wednesday, after having time to confirm that the foul-up didn't disenfranchise any voters. Certification is being delayed in a few other counties after local Republican committees and voters requested recounts.
In Arizona, the two Republicans on Cochise County's three-member county commission blew past Monday's certification deadline, saying they needed more information on the certification of vote tabulators, even though there have been no problems with voting or ballot counting in their county.
The secretary of state's office has sued, saying that it must certify the state's elections by Dec. 8.
“The only legal effect this has is to disenfranchise all their voters,” said David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation.
The efforts to delay certification are dangerous even if they're doomed to fail, Becker and others said. They continue to sow discontent and distrust of voting and democracy.
David Levine, a former election official who is a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, noted that conspiracy theories about elections have reached such a fever pitch in Arizona that Bill Gates, the Republican chair of the county commission in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. has been given additional security by the local sheriff.
“When you give legitimacy to baseless accusations about the election process, there is a concern that more of that will occur," Levine said.
Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, certified its election results on Monday, after dozens of attendees demanded the board not do it. Some complained about printer malfunctions in the county, the state's most populous, that led to confusion and long lines on Election Day — even though Maricopa officials said everyone had a chance to vote and that all legal ballots were counted.
In other counties, activists also spoke out against certification, though unsuccessfully. In Yavapai County, north of Phoenix, a woman who gave her name as Nancy Littlefield, wearing a hoodie patterned on the American flag, made clear that part of her objections were because she simply didn't like the outcome of the election.
She urged Yavapai board members not to certify the vote because “I moved from California so I could be free and live my life and have my voice heard.”