World·Analysis

For U.S. election officials certifying results, Trump's refusal to concede has chilling consequences

While some may dismiss the futile attempts by Donald Trump and his lawyers to overturn the result of the U.S. presidential election, out in state capitals, officials are worried for their own safety and the fate of U.S. democracy as they face death threats, intimidation tactics and harassment.

Some may dismiss futile antics, but election officials in several states are worried

Two weeks after the U.S. presidential election was called for Joe Biden, U.S. President Donald Trump, pictured in the White House briefing room Friday, has still refused to concede and continues to challenge the ballot counts in several states. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

A disturbing pattern is rippling through American swing states as election officials report different versions of the same disconcerting story: intimidation and, in some cases, death threats over their role in the counting of ballots in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

One prominent election official in a key state where U.S. President Donald Trump is contesting the results told CBC News, on condition of confidentiality, that police are now making regular rounds past the family home after the official received multiple threats over the election results.

Others report similar concerns.

Their stories highlight the more sinister consequences of Trump's effort to undo the U.S. election result, which has drawn mockery for embarrassing errors in legal filings and the strange news conferences of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Most significantly, they're reminders that the democratic ideals of free elections and peaceful transfers of power rest on the actions of individuals.

In state capitals, officials are coming under political pressure. Trump supporters, including some militia members, rallied in Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg, on Nov. 7 after Biden was declared the winner of the state. (Leah Mills/Reuters)

Republican state legislators under pressure

The burden is abnormally heavy this year as Trump badgers state officials to overturn the result, and a number of his supporters have taken to issuing threats.

"I was prepared for these threats of violence and vitriol," Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said in a statement.

Hobbs is a Democrat who reported threats of violence against her and her family and has had protesters at her home.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, seen here in 2019, is among the state officials to come under threat. She says it won't deter her from her work. (Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press)

"I have been a social worker for many years and can anticipate this reaction when certain people feel powerless and angry," she said in the statement.

"Their continued intimidation tactics will not prevent me from performing the duties I swore an oath to do. Our democracy is tested constantly. It continues to prevail, and it will not falter under my watch."

Trump supporters have demanded that Republicans who control state legislatures use their powers to try to overturn some of the state-level results.

They're threatening to unseat Republicans with primary challenges if they acknowledge Joe Biden's win in the Nov. 3 election. At a recent Trump rally in Washington, D.C., the rhetoric got even hotter, with Trump defender and former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka calling on fellow supporters to put the "fear of God" into Republicans who certify the election for Biden.

Many online comments have simply mocked Trump's legal fight, beset by court losses, errors in its legal filings and occasional gaffes by Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's lawyers, who was ridiculed this week after what appeared to be hair dye leaked down his face at a press conference. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump's words have consequences

Trump's strategy is widely assumed to be doomed, because there is no obvious legal footing on which to challenge results, and also because of the political complexity of pulling off the same gambit in the minimum three states it would take to undo the election result.

Nonetheless, Trump hosted an arm-twisting session on Friday at the White House for top lawmakers in Michigan, a state he lost by 150,000 votes where Republicans control the legislature.

"What Donald Trump says has real-life implications," said Rai LaNier, a community activist in Detroit with Michigan Liberation, a criminal-justice reform group that worked to get out the vote in this election.

Trump supporters rally at the Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 14. Republican lawmakers from the state were called to the White House on Friday as part of Trump's effort to get state legislators to overturn election results. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

She said her group has received menacing messages, and some members have had personal details posted online.

"People are constantly getting threats." 

New court filings from that same state this week contained harrowing allegations that speak to the already overheated state of Michigan's politics. 

The 14 men accused in a kidnapping plot against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were accused in new court allegations of discussing plans to either attack the state Capitol and execute public officials or to burn down the legislature with lawmakers inside.

In Wisconsin, the chair of the state elections commission pleaded for the media to stop covering Trump's allegations of election fraud as a serious issue — and to start treating them as unfounded lunacy with potentially dangerous consequences for American democracy.

WATCH | Trump meets with Michigan lawmakers:

Donald Trump attempts to get Michigan’s election results thrown out

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'We got hundreds and hundreds of calls'

In an interview with CBC News, Ann Jacobs, chair of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said her team is coming under unrelenting pressure.

"Our staff has received threats," said Jacobs, a Democrat, who temporarily leads the bipartisan commission. "They have received death threats. They have had tremendous abuse heaped upon them.

"It's kind of scary."

Recount observers check ballots during a hand recount of presidential votes at the Wisconsin Center on Friday in Milwaukee. The recount of the presidential election in Wisconsin's two most heavily Democratic counties began Friday, with Trump's campaign seeking to discard tens of thousands of absentee ballots that it alleged should not have been counted. (Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press)

She said her email inbox was filled with abuse. She got a message on social media that mentioned her children and her house in response to a report by the hoax-peddling One America News Network mentioning Trump's complaints about the election process in Wisconsin.

Her office was also deluged with calls after a radio station aired an unfounded accusation that her agency had stockpiled ballots in the basement.

That unfounded charge was undermined by two not-insignificant flaws: The office had no ballots at all, and it doesn't have a basement. 

"We got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of calls," Jacobs said. 

"That sort of nonsense creates this atmosphere of insanity and basically shuts down a government entity for a while, which is crazy. We're there to help voters and help clerks and make everything work, and we can't because somebody thinks we're hiding ballots in a non-existent basement." 

In Pennsylvania, the Republican city commissioner of Philadelphia, Al Schmidt, who is administering the election there, said he's getting death threats, too.

Philadelphia election official Al Schmidt, right, a Republican, says he's gotten threats and that the reaction to the election is 'deranged.' (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

"From the inside looking out, it all feels very deranged," he told 60 Minutes

"[We're getting] calls to our offices reminding us that this is what the Second Amendment is for. People like us.... For counting votes — in a democracy." 

'You should face a firing squad'

In Georgia, the top election official, a Republican, has come under attack from numerous members of his party for saying the election was fair.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said, as a Republican, he's disappointed in the election result but that he's doing his job — which includes debunking baseless claims.

He told a regional Fox affiliate that what's most troubling is having threats arrive on his wife's cellphone.

The station, Fox 5, obtained some of those messages and printed a few, such as: "You better not botch this recount. Your life depends on it," and, "Your husband deserves to face a firing squad," and,"The Raffenspergers should be put on trial for treason and face execution."

None of these events changes the actual election outcome: that Trump's presidency will be over in nine weeks, and Biden will assume the office on Jan. 20.

That much was underscored Friday afternoon when, despite pressure from Trump, Georgia officials certified their results after completing an audit of close to five million ballots and declared Biden the winner by close to 13,000 votes.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has received threats while coming under criticism from his own party. Still, he certified the election results in his state on Friday, confirming Biden as the winner. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

Observers raise fears over threats to democratic process

Biden is on track to defeat Trump by roughly six million votes and by a clear margin of 73 votes in the electoral college. 

But a number of political observers have expressed alarm. They have voiced with increasing bluntness a fear previously only alluded to, or mentioned as a hypothetical and remote possibility: that American democracy could be in danger.

Pollsterselection forecasters and former government officials are sounding unusually loud sirens.

One longtime senior official in the U.S. intelligence community who worked in the Trump White House was asked in an interview what she would say if these events were happening in another country and she were briefing the president.

"If it were a purported democracy, I think we would say that democracy is teetering on the edge," Sue Gordon told NPR. 

"If I were briefing the president on this, at this moment in time ... and I happened to be in the Oval [Office], I would say, 'Stop it.'"

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She said this debacle will make the United States weaker at home and abroad. Trump is within his right to investigate allegations of fraud, she said, but not to tear down faith in the U.S. republic.

"Stop doing our adversaries' bidding," Gordon said, arguing that Trump's actions are achieving the goals of countries that have long sought to weaken Americans' faith in their own system: "Our adversaries can now sit back." 

Joshua Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who researches and teaches election law, told The Associated Press that he's alarmed some Republicans can't fathom the possibility that they legitimately lost this election.

"We depend on democratic norms, including that the losers graciously accept defeat," he said. "That seems to be breaking down."

Colin McCullough holds a sign at a Trump rally in front of city hall in Dallas on Nov. 14, echoing one of Trump's talking points: that the Democrats 'stole' the Nov. 3 election by allowing mail-in and other absentee ballots to be counted. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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