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Officials Fear A New Normal As Republicans Make Baseless California Fraud Claims

Former President Donald Trump, seen here Saturday, has made unfounded claims about fraud affecting the California gubernatorial recall election.
Rebecca Blackwell
Former President Donald Trump, seen here Saturday, has made unfounded claims about fraud affecting the California gubernatorial recall election.

Updated September 14, 2021 at 6:26 AM ET

For years leading up to the 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump was clear: If he lost, it would be because of voter fraud.

Ahead of California's recall election Tuesday, for which ballots were mailed to all 22 million registered voters in the state, he made a similar baseless declaration.

"Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn't rigged?" Trump said in a statement Monday. "Millions and millions of Mail-In Ballots will make this just another giant Election Scam, no different, but less blatant, than the 2020 Presidential Election Scam!"

A Republican hasn't won a statewide race in California since 2006, and recent polling shows Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom favored to beat the recall and keep his office.

Still, Republicans are already setting the stage to blame a loss on voter fraud, and not on a declining base of support in a state that President Biden won by 5 million votes last year.

"There are all sort of reasons the 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans," the leading GOP replacement candidate, Larry Elder, said this month. "And my fear is they're going to try that in this election in the recall."

Elder's campaign even set up a website where concerned voters can report suspicious election activity.

It's a tactic that experts said is leading to threats against election workers, but also one they now expect to continue moving forward.

"I'm just kind of hanging on for '22 and '24, because I don't think this is going anywhere anytime soon," said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters in California's Orange County and a Republican.

There has never been evidence to support the claim that widespread fraud affected the results of the 2020 election, but a wide majority of Republican voters still believe that they were. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for instance, found that 66% of GOP voters said last year's election was stolen.

That conspiracy theory is taking a toll on voting officials, who now have to administer the country's elections while also being subject to death threats and intense pressure.

One recent survey found that a third of election administrators nationwide felt unsafe while doing their jobs during the last election cycle.

Kelley said members of his staff have been followed and videotaped while picking up ballots from drop boxes in recent weeks.

"I've been doing this almost 18 years, and I would say the end of '19 leading into '20 and then all the way up to today has been the most stressful period of my career," Kelley said.

Up until now, the fraud claims have been mostly isolated to national campaigns and the occasional statewide race.

But Jamie Shew, who oversees elections in Douglas County, Kan., said he worries the tactic could trickle down to local races, where margins are often extremely thin.

"Even in [2016 and 2018] candidates were going to 'there was fraud' rather than it was a bad campaign," Shew said. But "2020 took it to a whole new level. And I don't think that's going to go away."

In Douglas County last year, for instance, a County Commission race was decided by just three votes. Both candidates running accepted the results after a hand recount, but Shew said he worries next time, they might not be so lucky.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.