ATLANTA (AP) — The conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines that erupted during the 2020 presidential contest flared this week in a remote New Mexico county in what could be just a preview of the kind of chaos election experts fear is coming in the fall midterms and in 2024.
The governing commission in Otero County refused to certify the local results of the state’s June 7 primary because of the equipment, in what was seen as another instance of how the falsehoods spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies have infected elections and threaten the democratic process.
“We are in scary territory,” said Jennifer Morrell, a former election official in Colorado and Utah who now advises federal, state and local officials. “If this can happen here, where next? It’s like a cancer, a virus. It’s metastasizing and growing.”
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 election, which Trump lost to Joe Biden. But that hasn’t stopped the false claims, particularly those about Dominion machines.
“I have huge concerns with these voting machines,” Otero County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said Monday as she and her two fellow commissioners — all Republicans — voted unanimously. “When I certify stuff that I don’t know is right, I feel like I’m being dishonest because in my heart I don’t know if it is right.”
The commissioners in the conservative, pro-Trump county could point to no actual problems with the Dominion equipment.
New Mexico’s secretary of state asked the state Supreme Court to step in and order the county to certify the votes, and the high court did so on Wednesday. That would ensure that the nearly 7,400 ballots that were cast in Otero County are recorded as legal votes. The deadline for county certification is Friday.
In the weeks and months following the election, various Trump allies claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election.
On Monday, the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol presented testimony that Trump was told repeatedly that his claims of a stolen election and rigged voting systems were false and dangerous. That included pushback from his inner circle to the claims about Dominion voting systems, which are used by jurisdictions in 27 states.
Former Attorney General William Barr, in a videotaped interview with House investigators, said he spoke with Trump about the “idiotic claims” surrounding Dominion.
Barr said he found them to be “among the most disturbing allegations” because they were “made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people.” He added that the claims were doing a “grave disservice to the country.”
Trump ignored that, and his allies persisted in attacking Dominion. According to the House panel, the day after Barr spoke with Trump, the president released a video in which he claimed without proof that “with the turn of a dial or the change of a chip, you can press a button for Trump and the vote goes to Biden.”
Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against various Trump associates and conservative media organizations, including Fox News.
The company said in a statement Wednesday that the action by the Otero County commissioners was “yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public’s faith in elections.”
Otero County, with a population of about 67,000, went for Trump by nearly 62% in 2020. One of the commissioners is Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin, who was convicted of entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — during the Jan. 6 uprising.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said the commissioners were violating the law and their oaths of office in refusing to certify the vote. She said that there is a process to deal with any problems that arise with an election but that the commissioners did not specify any.
“Unfortunately, when one county decides to act completely outside the law, it gives credence to others who may want to do the same thing,” she said. “We have the potential to see this spread and have a domino effect.”
Numerous procedures are in place, including pre- and post-testing of voting equipment and post-election audits that ensure machines are working properly. In New Mexico, voters mark their paper ballots by hand. The ballots are then fed into a scanner to tally the results.
Vulnerabilities do exist, as with any technology, but election officials work to identify and fix them. A recent advisory issued by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency highlighted certain vulnerabilities discovered in Dominion voting systems and provided recommendations to election officials.
But those pushing false claims about voting systems want more than just paper ballots cast by hand — they also want ballots to be counted entirely by hand. Experts say this is unreliable, time-consuming, labor-intensive and entirely unnecessary given the various safeguards.
Among the most prominent advocates for this is Jim Marchant, a former state lawmaker who on Tuesday was selected as the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada. Marchant is among a group of “America First” candidates seeking to oversee elections while denying the outcome of the last one.
Election experts say the Otero County case is a warning of what could happen if candidates who repeat electoral falsehoods and misinformation gain responsibility for overseeing voting.
“This is just a taste of what we could see in the future, as election deniers are running for positions with control over elections all over the country,” said David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who leads the Center for Election Innovation and Research.