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Opinion: What 2020's pro-Trump phony electors means for 2024

Robert AlexanderRobert Alexander
I have spent 20 years studying these little known figures, warning about the potential hijinks they could cause. Yet even I have been surprised by what has been uncovered in the wake of the 2020 election. It has become clear that then-President Donald Trump wanted then-Vice President Mike Pence to use extraconstitutional powers to manipulate the tabulation of electoral votes to secure a second term despite his defeat in the election.
One component of this scheme was to send phony electors to cast ballots in closely contested states that were carried by President Joe Biden. At the time, Trump adviser Stephen Miller stated: “An alternate slate of electors in the contested states is going to vote and we’re going to send those results up to Congress.”
Upon hearing Miller’s remarks, I wrote that those votes amounted to “pretend votes” and would not be counted in Congress due to the existence of the Electoral Count Act of 1887 (ECA). The act came into existence nearly a decade after the disputed election of 1876 — and was meant to provide a means to avoid constitutional crises where multiple elector slates from the same state are sent to be counted before Congress. Among other things, the ECA requires that if Congress receives two electoral slates, it should count the slate carrying the state’s executive’s signature as the rightful slate.
Since all the states in question in 2020 were certified as Biden electoral votes by their respective state executives, I considered those “alternative” votes to be purely performative, not intended to be substantive. I was wrong. It had not occurred to me that the Trump team could try to jettison the ECA and rely on Pence to unilaterally accept or reject which slates of electors were legitimate.
An image provided by the National Archives to Robert Alexander as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. An image provided by the National Archives to Robert Alexander as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
After all, that would be akin to a self-coup. Apart from the traditional vision of a coup requiring a military takeover of the government, self-coups occur when governments depart from typical norms of democracy by altering election laws, calling into question election results or seeking to suspend their constitutions in order to stay in power.
I have long been curious as to who actually participated in this plot, so I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request from National Archives. I received copies of slates of these phony electors from seven states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Given the extraconstitutional nature of the scheme, I expected that most would be Trump partisans on the political fringe. Instead, most were elected party officials, political officeholders and other key figures in state Republican politics.
The return addresses on the certificates included the Arizona Republican Party, the Georgia Republican Party, the Republican Party of New Mexico, the Nevada Republican Party. Michigan’s came from Kathy Berden, who included the title, “Chair of the Michigan Republican Electoral College.” Pennsylvania’s was sent in by Bill Bachenberg, who referred to himself as the “Chairperson, Electoral College of Pennsylvania.” Wisconsin’s simply stated, “Chairperson of the Electoral College of Wisconsin.” When asked by The Detroit News about why she chose to participate in this scheme, Berden said, “I can’t comment on anything like that. That was a long time ago.” CNN reached out to Bachenberg for comment, but has not received a response.
It is notable that at least a few high-profile would-be electors chose not to participate in the scheme — former US Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land being the most prominent among them. In total, of 84 people across seven states, 15 chose not to participate in this effort.
Still, that a majority were apparently willing to participate in such a dubious plot suggests that undemocratic efforts have been sanctioned by party regulars and will likely persist if gone unchecked.
Of course, these alternate slates weren’t without some glaring problems. The ECA stipulates that electoral votes should be certified by each state — accompanied with a signature by each state’s executive and delivered under each state’s seal. None of these alternate slates of electoral votes had a signature by a governor or a secretary of state, nor did they contain an official state seal.
An image provided by the National Archives to Robert Alexander as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. An image provided by the National Archives to Robert Alexander as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
The alternate Michigan electors in this scheme were turned away from entering the statehouse, which is where electors are required to assemble to cast their ballots by Michigan state law. In addition to falsely claiming they were the “duly elected” Michigan electors, the certificate that they submitted to Pence and the National Archives indicated that they signed it inside the statehouse (which they didn’t).
Much of the conversation around “alternate electors” now centers on the work of one of Trump’s lawyers, John Eastman, and his legal memo for how to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A key part of the memo had Pence introducing alternative slates of Republican electors in seven states that Trump did not win. In spite of the ECA, Eastman argued that Pence could unilaterally determine which of the two electoral slates should be counted — or potentially discard the votes from those seven states, claim that no candidate reached a majority of electoral votes and leave the selection of the president to the House of Representatives. Contrary to what he wrote in his memo, Eastman told the National Review last October that, “anybody who thinks that that’s a viable strategy is crazy.”
Ultimately, Pence did not carry out the plan offered by Eastman and championed by Trump. In handling the dueling slate of electors, he thankfully deferred to the ECA to guide his actions. Indeed, in spite of the noise created by the Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election results, every state certified its election results, courts dismissed more than 50 election-related lawsuits and federal officials found no evidence of widespread fraud, concluding that the election was the “most secure election in American history.”
However, given how far rogue electors in seven states went to undermine the election, it is clear further investigation and reforms are needed. First, the American people must learn who exactly was responsible for coordinating the effort to undo the 2020 elections. Identifying who organized the effort is a critical step toward accountability — both politically and legally. This underscores the important work of the January 6 committee.
Second, the country does not have the luxury of waiting a decade to reform the ECA. Changes can include raising the standard to object to electoral votes, which is now set at only one senator and one House member, to a majority in both houses. Clarifying and limiting the vice president’s role in the joint session is another solution that should be considered. Notably, a House committee is currently considering reform.
What’s clear is that lawmakers must act now to prevent a similar occurrence in the 2024 election. There appears to be bipartisan momentum to do so, and the legitimacy of our presidential electoral system depends on it.
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