MADISON, Wis. – The push by Republicans to conduct partisan ballot reviews similar to the one that unfolded last year in Arizona has spread beyond the battleground states where former President Donald Trump disputed his loss, an effort that has had mixed legislative success but has sown doubts about whether future elections can be trusted.
While most of the bills are unlikely to become law, the debates and public hearings in GOP-controlled state legislative chambers have added fuel to the false claims that widespread fraud cost Trump reelection in 2020.
“They’re really tearing down democracy, and they don’t think they are," said Scott McDonell, the election clerk in Dane County, Wisconsin, home to the state capital.
In Arizona, the contract went to a Florida-based firm with no previous experience in election audits but with a CEO who had expressed support for conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 presidential results. In Wisconsin, the Republican leader of the state Assembly appointed a retired state Supreme Court justice who declared the election stolen even before he began his review.
Similar efforts are being pursued by Republicans in the presidential battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, also won by Biden.
More than a dozen bills have been introduced this year in seven other states proposing similar reviews of elections and election results, including in states Trump won such as Florida, Missouri and Tennessee, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks such efforts. That comes after legislation was introduced in eight states last year to review the 2020 results and 12 states considered bills to perform new review processes for future elections.
“It’s really not clear to me that there’s any realistic, legitimate audit that can be done that will satisfy some of the folks who are calling for this,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, a Democrat and member of the Assembly’s elections committee. “If I thought there was some additional check we could do that would give voters more confidence, we’d do it.”
Forty-four states already conduct some type of postelection audit or take other steps — outlined in state law or through administrative procedures — to verify the accuracy of vote tallies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The six states with no such requirements are Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Dakota.
Those states likely have some kind of canvassing process where election officials certify the results, but there is no check on the voting equipment itself, said Jennifer Morrell, a former elections clerk in Colorado and Utah who now advises state and local election officials.
Bills calling for partisan election reviews have found little success, which is due partly to Republican lawmakers who have criticized the 2020 conspiracy theories and defended their state’s elections.
In South Dakota, the Republican-controlled House last month passed a measure to require in-depth reviews of ballots and voting equipment in close presidential elections. Several House Republicans had attended a conference held by MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell in Sioux Falls last year during which he attempted to prove that voting equipment had been hacked, and the lawmakers echoed those claims during debate.
The bill was later rejected by Republicans in the state Senate who pointed out that it was prompted by baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was subject to widespread fraud. Trump won the state by a wide margin.
“Uncertainty comes because we have these extremists across America who with the social media can get a forum, and they are raising questions only for the purpose of creating uncertainty about our elections,” said Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck. “Regular, normal people don’t have those fears at all. They trust those little old ladies that you see when you go to vote here for the first time.”
In Virginia, Democrats who control the state Senate defeated a Republican measure that would have required “forensic audits” of an election if certain elected officials or elections officials requested one, or if a group of residents petitioned for one. It also would have initiated a review of the 2020 general election in Virginia.
The bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Amanda Chase, a prominent promoter of conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election who attended the rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the Capitol insurrection. Chase said during a contentious committee hearing that she filed the measure after hearing concerns from constituents who tried to vote and were told a ballot had already been cast in their name.
Members of the public were given an opportunity to weigh in, and several speakers in favor of the bill attacked the committee’s Democrats.
“I consider it treason to not support this bill,” one woman said. Another warned the committee that there would be “eternal consequences” for “your souls” if they didn’t “legislate fairly.”
Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin, the committee chairman, said he was offended by the statements.
“We’re doing our jobs and we’re trying to assess each bill fairly,” he said. Ebbin also told the Republican sponsor of the bill that “when public officials sow distrust in elections” it furthers unfounded concerns about widespread problems.
The measure was defeated on a party-line vote, with every Republican on the committee voting in support of it.
In Arizona, Republicans behind that state's flawed election review introduced a bill to require an exhaustive review following every election. The measure hit a snag earlier this month when two Republicans voted against it. That left it short of majority support, though it could be revived in the coming months.
In Pennsylvania, where Senate Republicans are mounting a partisan investigation into the 2020 election lost by Trump, Republicans have pressed legislation to expand the state’s postelection reviews. One bill was vetoed last summer by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, while others are pending in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
While some states are pushing to enact Arizona-style reviews, others are moving in the other direction.
In Maine, a pending Democratic bill would instill safeguards to protect ballots and voting machines from tampering while also keeping ballots out of the hands of partisans. A similar bill is making its way through Colorado’s Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said the bill there was “a safeguard against election subversion and will help prevent problems other states like Arizona have had where the integrity of ballots and equipment has been compromised.”
Colorado’s Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold issued a rule last summer banning Arizona-style “sham” third-party reviews. The secretary of state’s office after each election conducts its own risk-limiting audit, a rigorous type of audit that relies on statistical methods to validate the results.
While there have been steps to improve official, postelection audits, that work has largely gone unnoticed, said Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s democracy program.
“Unfortunately, it’s been kind of drowned out by some of this negative legislation,” she said.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and AP statehouse reporters from across the country contributed to this report.