Republicans who are pushing misinformation about the election are running for state office across the country. And they’ve had two years to prepare to sow chaos this week.
Former President Donald Trump, his election-denying candidates, GOP operatives, and an army of conspiracy theory-believing activists are lobbing bad-faith lawsuits, attempting voter intimidation, and gearing up for disruptive protests to take advantage of slow ballot counts in this week’s midterm elections. And the closer the election results are, the longer it will take to determine a winner in key contests. Things could get very messy.
It will take days, if not weeks, to count enough of the ballots to know which side has won many of the closest, and most closely watched, Senate and governor races. That’s totally normal, and in many states it’s how things have been for years.
But that won’t stop bad-faith candidates—especially those who are losing—from using it to claim it’s being rigged against them, demand that officials stop counting ballots in places where mail ballots are counted late, and push their supporters to protest. Multiple Trump-aligned candidates have already strongly signaled they won’t concede, no matter the outcome.
And 2020 showed exactly how much damage can be done when one side decides to attack the election process itself.
Trump drove the country into chaos by refusing to accept his loss and incited violence to try to keep himself in power. Now, it’s not just Trump and his immediate circle. The prospect of political violence has only continued to grow since the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, with the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband just the latest in a long string of attacks on officials.
“I'm very concerned about the possibility of violence in the post-election period incited by losing candidates,” David Becker, a former Justice Department voting rights attorney who heads the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told VICE News.
The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Capitol Police, and National Counterterrorism Center recently sent out a joint memo warning of a “heightened risk” of violence following the midterms.
“Following the 2022 midterm election, perceptions of election-related fraud and dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes likely will result in heightened threats of violence against a broad range of targets―such as ideological opponents and election workers,” the memo stated.
“I'm very concerned about the possibility of violence in the post-election period incited by losing candidates.”
The slow, complicated vote-counting process used in many states to process ballots could make this worse. Most states finish counting their election-day and early in-person votes before they’re done with mail ballots. That didn't have much of a partisan impact in the past, but because Democrats have embraced mail voting while Republicans have spent the last two years attacking it, those votes are likely to be heavily Democratic.
That could produce a “red mirage” in many places where Republicans’ leads will shrink after Election Day—the same effect that occurred in 2020 where Trump had an early lead in swing states only to see it erased by mail ballots.
Josh Mendelsohn was the CEO of Hawkfish, a data analytics firm that worked to defeat Trump in 2020, when he coined the term “red mirage” to warn that early returns might look much better for Trump than the final result. He said that while a decrease in people using mail voting might lessen that effect, partisan attacks on the election process have him worried.
“When folks call into question the legitimacy of elections merely because the results are not instantaneous, they sow doubt that only makes the problem worse with every progressive cycle,” he warned. “The folks who intend harm, those proverbial bad actors, I think they've already been working for months. And they've gotten only more sophisticated.”
Arizona has already emerged as a likely election-week tinderbox due to a combination of an election system that’s set up to count votes slowly and a spate of extremists who won the GOP nomination for statewide office and have pushed lies about the election.
Arizona has a number of hotly contested statewide races—for governor, senator, secretary of state, and attorney general—and all are close, according to public and private polls. The Republican nominees in the state have also uniformly refused to say they’ll accept the election results.
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has repeatedly refused to say she’ll accept a loss, recently telling CNN, “I’m going to win the election and I’m going to accept that result” when asked if she’d accept a loss. Arizona GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters has long predicted that the election would be rigged against him. And GOP secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem, a QAnon promoter with ties to the Oath Keepers militia and the most extreme of the statewide nominees, has led the charge to sow doubt about the process long before the election.
Arizona has for decades relied heavily on mail votes, which take longer to count because they have to be verified to make sure they’re legitimate before they can be scanned. Close Arizona elections have typically taken days if not weeks to be called—Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s 2018 victory wasn’t called for a week, and it took more than a month to determine that Republican Rep. Martha McSally had won her close race in 2014.
Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which includes Phoenix and most of the state’s population, said the county would likely need until Friday of election week to count all of its votes.
“Unfortunately, because of the way Arizona law is written, we're not going to be in a position to declare unofficial results on election night,” he told reporters on Thursday.
But just because it’s standard procedure doesn’t mean bad-faith actors won’t attack the system.
As Trump lost the state in 2020, armed protesters gathered at vote-counting sites. The state’s Republicans then led a farcical “audit” of the election results that took months after President Joe Biden’s win had been certified and revealed no evidence of widespread voting fraud. And this election has already seen some tense voting situations: Armed vigilantes wearing body armor had been monitoring Maricopa County’s ballot drop box sites, encouraged to do so by both Lake and Finchem. A judge finally said they couldn’t be armed and couldn’t approach voters, but that came after weeks of early voting had already concluded.
Pennsylvania is another hot spot where voting experts are braced for trouble.
The state is one of three key Rust Belt battlegrounds, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans in their state legislatures have adamantly refused to speed up the mail vote-counting process.
In Pennsylvania, Republican state legislators blocked legislation to give counties permission to prepare mail ballots for counting as they receive them, forcing them to go through the tedious process of verifying each ballot is legitimate starting on Election Day and slowing the process.
That means that the counties with the most mail ballots to count could take days to do so—with Democratic-heavy Philadelphia at the top of the list, making it a prime target for election deniers.
“Pre-processing is just a universally accepted best practice. But those three states refuse to give those tools to our election officials,” said Becker. “They're creating a circumstance, those legislatures, which are going to lead to longer periods of time for counts, which is going to lead to potential uncertainty, potential chaos, and potential violence.”
Trump and his team have been planning to dispute election results for months—and have reportedly focused in particular on Pennsylvania, where they see opportunity in the likelihood that Philadelphia will take a while to count its votes to stir up trouble.
And the Pennsylvania Supreme Court injected even more chaos into the process last week when it deadlocked on a decision about counting mail ballots if people forget to write the date on the outside of the envelope when they mail in their ballot. Those ballots won’t be counted for now, though additional lawsuits are all but guaranteed in close races.
…and everywhere else
There are plenty of other states where slow vote counts and bad-faith actors could combine for chaos as well.
Nevada has shifted to a system in recent years that’s made it much easier to vote by mail—and could slow the process down. Clark County, home of Las Vegas and most of the state’s Democratic voters, often takes longer than the rest of the state to tabulate the vote. The man who led Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in the state in 2020, Adam Laxalt, is now the Republicans’ nominee for Senate in a race that could determine control of the chamber—and the GOP nominee for secretary of state is Jim Marchant, a QAnon devotee who has pushed even wilder claims and has long signaled he’ll say the election was rigged if he loses.
Wisconsin, which features key races for governor and Senate, also doesn’t let counties pre-process ballots because Republican lawmakers refused to allow it.
That’s true in much of Michigan, too, though the county that includes Detroit can pre-process ballots ahead of time, which should speed things up. Michigan Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters on Thursday that she expected nearly all of the state’s ballots to be counted within 24 hours of polls closing Tuesday night.
Plenty of other states could see long vote counts as well, but not because they’re places where Trump has focused his ire.
California, which heavily relies on mail votes, regularly takes weeks to count all of its ballots, and House race results in competitive contests there often aren’t known until close to Thanksgiving.
New York’s byzantine election system often causes vote-count delays, which could mean daylong waits to know who wins a surprisingly close contest between Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin in the state’s gubernatorial race, and it could take weeks to determine the results of all of the half-dozen competitive House races in the state.
Alaska’s massive size and remote villages mean some ballots are literally brought in by boat before they can be counted; combine that with the state’s new ranked-choice voting, and it could be weeks before we know whether Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola has defeated Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, or whether Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has beaten Trump-backed election denier Kelly Tshibaka. Maine also has ranked-choice voting, which could slow up counts there.
On the plus side
There are a few factors that make things better than in 2020.
First, because midterm elections are never as high-turnout as presidential elections, there will simply be fewer votes to count. Second, voters are a lot less likely to feel compelled by the COVID pandemic to stay home, and as a result more are opting to cast their ballots in person rather than absentee. Since in-person ballots can be counted much faster and easier, that will speed up the process. Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told reporters Thursday that while more than a quarter of voters opted to vote by mail in 2020 in his state, early-vote patterns suggest that number to be down back to its historical norm of 6 to 7 percent of total votes.
And this time around, election officials are much less likely to be caught by surprise by violent bad-faith actors. Multiple election officials said that they’ve coordinated with local and federal law enforcement to make sure vote-counting sites are secure. The Justice Department will send out election monitors to voting sites as well, as it quietly has done in past elections.
“We are more prepared in ’22 than we were in 2020 on all fronts, and part of that is our increased connection and collaboration with law enforcement at every level,” Michigan Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters on Thursday.
But election-deniers are more prepared too. Across the country and notably in Michigan, conspiracy theorists have flooded local election offices to volunteer as poll workers. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been pushing his followers for months to get involved in the actual structure of local elections. And there’s been significant online chatter from fringe militia groups and far right-wing activists about how they may plan to disrupt the vote-casting and vote-counting process in multiple states.
This may not transpire if Republicans win these races comfortably—, but this would put them in positions of power and make the risk of bigger disaster in 2024 even more likely.
“There are two possibilities: Election deniers win or election deniers lose,” Becker told VICE News. “If they win, there’s one set of problems, and if they lose, there’s another set of problems. They are not going to accept defeat.”