Secretaries of State in Spotlight as Trump Ratchets Up Attacks to Sow Doubt


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PHILADELPHIA — They typically operate behind the scenes and far from the spotlight. But as the final count in the 2020 presidential election drags on and President Trump assaults the integrity of the results, otherwise obscure secretaries of state, election commissioners and clerks have found their every utterance meriting breaking news interruptions and all-caps cable chyrons.

With the occupant of the White House hinging on the results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, the Trump campaign has sought to ratchet up pressure on election officials, threatening legislation and trying to shape public opinion with carnival-like events. Mr. Trump himself baselessly claimed widespread fraud and that people were “trying to steal the election,” at a news conference Thursday evening. And the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., even tried to make support of the effort a litmus test of the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

“Everyone should be watching who is actually fighting this flagrant nonsense and who is sitting on the sidelines,” he wrote Thursday afternoon on Twitter. An hour later, he fumed, “The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing.”

Through it all, election administrators have continued to diligently tabulate the votes.

“Fast is great, and we appreciate fast; we more appreciate accuracy,” said Gabriel Sterling, the voting system implementation manager in Georgia, who serves under the Republican secretary of state and lists himself as a conservative in his Twitter bio. He urged patience on Thursday in news conferences — at least one of which aired on CNN — as he announced the county-by-county vote counts that slimmed Mr. Trump’s lead to a sliver.

“Accuracy is going to be the bedrock upon which people will believe the outcomes of these elections, be they on the winning side or the losing side,” Mr. Sterling said.

The thirst for electoral updates was so intense that on CNN, a live shot of the facility where vote counting was underway in critical Philadelphia appeared throughout the day.

On a downtown street corner outside that building, two prominent Trump allies — Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, and Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager — arrived for the first of three news conferences holding up a court order that permitted poll watchers for the Trump campaign to get closer to observe the ballot counting. Ms. Bondi’s remarks were mostly drowned out by protesters across the street, whose ranks included a D.J. and a full sound system, which blasted “Party” by Beyoncé.

Pennsylvania, with its 20 Electoral College votes, was the pressure campaign’s ground zero. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, read out a 2017 tweet to reporters from the Democratic secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, that said, “Using the title ‘President’ before the word ‘Trump’ really demeans the office of the presidency.” That, he said, was proof that she was a “partisan hack.”

ImageKathy Boockvar, the secretary of state of Pennsylvania, has been attacked by the Trump campaign.
Credit…Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Another top Trump adviser, Jason Miller, without providing any evidence, referred to “magical sacks of ballots that keep popping up in corrupt and crooked localities that are run by partisan Democrats.”

Ms. Boockvar said at a news conference on Thursday evening that she was unaware of any credible fraud accusations and said the tweet that Mr. Stepien had highlighted preceded her election and her oath of office.

“Partisan politics have no place in the Pennsylvania Department of State,” she said.

Her granular discussion of provisional ballots, precincts reporting and an online supplemental dashboard for mail-in ballots earned live coverage on MSNBC, Fox News and CNN.

The fight in Pennsylvania was so intense that least two groups were airing postelection TV ads, with one urging that every vote be counted and another explaining the process.

“It may take a little longer than we’re used to — even a few days,” Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, says in one of the ads. “But that’s OK, because it’s critical that your vote is counted.”

Unlike other states, Pennsylvania election officials were prevented from tabulating mail ballots in advance of Election Day by a state law the Republicans in the state Capitol blocked changing, and that has prolonged the count. But Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the bipartisan County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which includes election officials across the state, said there was no evidence of inappropriate ballots being counted.

“We are focused on integrity and security and accuracy every step of the way,” she said, adding that the Trump campaign’s comments were simply “making things more confused.”

In Georgia, a lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign claiming that absentee ballots had been mishandled by Chatham County elections officials was dismissed Thursday by a superior court judge — a blow to the first of what the Georgia Republican Party said Wednesday would be up to a dozen lawsuits targeting counties still counting votes.

In Nevada, where Mr. Biden’s narrow lead expanded slightly on Thursday, dozens of flag-waving supporters of Mr. Trump gathered at the Clark County election center in North Las Vegas Thursday morning to protest, claiming that the election was being stolen. Trucks with Trump flags circled the block, some gunning their engines and honking their horns.

Richard Grenell, a Trump adviser who served in his administration as acting director of national intelligence, held a news conference there to level accusations that “illegal votes” were being counted. Again, he provided no specific evidence.

Joe Gloria, registrar of voters in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, held a news conference of his own at the election center and said county officials had established “security at all of its entrances.”

“We are not aware of any improper ballots that are being processed,” he added.

False rumors that using a Sharpie could invalidate a ballot, which began in Arizona, reached into neighboring New Mexico, where the secretary of state, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, said people were calling her office worried that, because they had used a marker to fill out their ballot, their vote would be invalidated.

Ms. Toulouse Oliver, who is also the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said that election workers this year had faced more hostility from poll monitors than in years past.

Given the stressors of the coronavirus pandemic, false rumors and intimidating protesters or monitors, she said, she was worried that some election workers might not return for the next election and was concerned by the videos she saw, in Detroit and Phoenix and elsewhere, of people crowding around ballot-counting centers.

“Who wouldn’t be terrified under these conditions, under a mob of people?” she said.

Mr. Trump showed no sign of relenting. “STOP THE COUNT,” he tweeted. (Later, his campaign sent out another statement from the president claiming Mr. Trump would lose only if “illegal” votes were counted.)

Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

Such comments drew bipartisan rebukes.

“It reminds me of the criticism we’ve leveled at authoritarian governments who, under the guise of democracy, have tried to control and limit the counting of votes,” said former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, a Republican who served as homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush. “There is no place for it in America.”

Mr. Ridge, a chair of a voting-rights group called VoteSafe who supported Mr. Biden in 2020, denounced the Trump campaign’s “hot and unnecessary rhetoric around bogus claims.”

Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democratic leader and a member of the National Council on Election Integrity, which was behind some of the Pennsylvania ads, called the Trump campaign’s rhetoric “corrosive.”

“It is dangerous because if people question the outcome of the election they are really questioning the essence of our democratic republic,” Mr. Daschle said. Among the other board members of the group airing “count every vote” ads in Pennsylvania was Dan Coats, Mr. Trump’s first director of national intelligence.

David Philipps and Richard Fausset contributed reporting.

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