Trump campaign grills election officials about veracity of mail-in voting

In an effort that local officials and experts describe as far more extensive than anything launched in previous elections, the Trump campaign is pushing for particulars on everything from ballot storage to volunteer vetting, through personal outreach as well as in writing, election officials tell CNN.

In at least two key states, Wisconsin and Georgia, local officials have received questionnaires from Trump’s team asking things like how ballots will be verified, how staffers will be deployed and even what the envelopes housing ballots will look like, according to multiple sources and documents.

More than 1,800 municipal clerks in Wisconsin received a document in recent weeks that state officials said looked at first glance like a public records request, but that was actually a document from the Trump Victory team seeking data, according to Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

And in Georgia, county officials received a 59-question document from the President’s reelection team that probed how that state’s mail-in system will be structured at every level. One question on the list, obtained by CNN, even asked if there’s a way to tell if a ballot was sent by a Democrat or Republican.

The Wisconsin questionnaire, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, raises questions about whether remote voting processes are trustworthy. Among other things, the campaign asks for information on how officials will prevent voters from voting twice — once by mail and once in person — as Trump has encouraged his supporters to do in an effort to test the system.

“What steps are taken to make certain that a voter who votes by mail is unable to also vote in-person?” the document says.

During a North Carolina telerally last week, Trump encouraged supporters to vote by mail and then again in person to ensure that their vote is counted, noting their paper ballots were likely to be discarded if they also voted at the polls.

“So send it in. And then see and then vote and let’s see what happens. You’re now assured, though, that your very precious and important vote has been counted,” Trump said.

Experts are sounding alarms ahead of November, warning that the unprecedented circumstances mandated by Covid-19 could lead to days or weeks of contested results and ugly legal battles that drag the country through an exhausting transition of power. Trump has spent weeks exploiting that possibility — claiming without evidence that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud.

His campaign’s push to collect detailed information about everything from ballot storage to volunteer vetting in Wisconsin and beyond has shed light on how the President’s reelection team is preparing for the high likelihood of litigation in key states — and is hunting for potential evidence needed to back up Trump’s frequent claims of a rigged system when the time comes.

The act of courting election clerks itself is common, experts and election workers say. It helps ensure that in the event of a problem in a key state or county, campaign staff are not scrambling to find a local point of contact amid the chaos of election night.

But the types of questions and aggressiveness of the outreach is new, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonpartisan group.

“It’s when you start treating those meetings like a deposition for a lawsuit that’s going to come three months later, that eyebrows start raising,” Becker said.

Magney in Wisconsin said the Trump team made clear the questions “came from headquarters” and were part of a broader strategic effort from the campaign. He said the effort is more aggressive than what he has seen in past elections and that he had already received calls from the Wisconsin Republican Party and from a Trump campaign official as the Trump team works to learn the finer details of the election rules in a crucial state.

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“They’re trying to gather up as much information as they can about how the system works in anticipation of a possible recount. They’re trying to get their info to put in files. Trying to build relationships — they have the name so that clerk also knows them,” he said. “So, if there’s a problem close to Election Day they’re not calling them for the first time.”

Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his team has not yet sought the level of detail from county clerks in Wisconsin that the Trump campaign has pursued since July, Magney said.

A Biden campaign official said the former vice president’s team has also deployed resources in swing states with the goal of forging relationships in local election offices.

“We’ve made a major early investment in putting voter protection staff on the ground in battleground states, in part so that they can build relationships with state and local elections officials to ensure voting runs smoothly and that no one is denied access to the ballot box,” said Biden campaign spokesman Mike Gwin.

Bracing for chaos

Outreach from campaigns to local election aides is nothing new; one former election official in Arizona described dinner invitations from the campaigns. Becker said election clerks expected to be peppered with questions from the campaigns.

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“It is entirely normal for campaigns to touch base with election offices, particularly in battleground states, to find out what their rules and procedures and timelines are,” Becker said. “It might be a phone call, it might be an in-person meeting, which of course, we’re doing less now. …What is unusual is when the questions start getting into kind of anticipating and setting up potential litigation later.”

A Republican National Committee lawyer told CNN the outreach to local election officials is heavily concentrated in battleground states and defended the practice as normal.

“If you get a response from an official that indicates they are not following the law and that needs to be followed up on — and there’s going to be county officials that aren’t following the law, whether intentional or not,” said Justin Riemer, the chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. “Potentially they’re not adhering to some kind of protocol, whether it’s for provisional voting, or chain of custody for election materials, or other things that are really important for the integrity of the process, so it’s important information for us to have.”

The questionnaire sent by the Wisconsin GOP to clerks in that state asks detailed questions about aspects of the system like where paper ballots will be stored before processing, who has access to them and how those volunteers are selected.

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The 34 questions also include several about what happens in the event of a recount — including where and how ballots that have already been counted are stored in case they need to be counted again, and how quickly they will be processed in that scenario.

“Once an envelope and ballot are processed, what is the storage and security process?” reads one question from the document. “In the event of a recount, when are mail-in ballots counted?” reads another.

Clerks in Wisconsin were asked where people can turn in their mail-in ballots prior to Election Day, and what security measures are in place to log and protect those ballots at places like a dropbox.

The questionnaire Georgia election officials received probes for even more detail.

Clerks were asked about postage for mail-in ballots, what vendors will be printing the forms and how long the campaign has to challenge anything about the ballot design — from the font used to the spelling.

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“During the primary are there any markings on the envelope to differentiate between Democrat and Republican ballots?” the questionnaire says. “Is the return postage paid by the county (or other election entity)? Can a third party legally provide postage?”

Thea McDonald, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, cited problems with expanded mail-in voting that occurred in several presidential primaries this year as one reason why the team is gathering so much information from important counties.

“As part of the Trump campaign’s efforts to ensure a free and fair election, we have asked county clerks for information so that we can gain a detailed understanding of absentee voting processes — and the similarities and differences that may exist in different jurisdictions. Given that more than 500,000 mail ballots were tossed out in this year’s primaries, we must look into these critical issues ahead of November. When did transparency become a bad thing?” McDonald said in a statement to CNN.

Regarding the estimated 500,000 rejected ballots, NPR and The Washington Post reported that most ballots were rejected because voters forgot to sign the paperwork or because ballots didn’t arrive on time — not because of fraud.

Deploying poll watchers

Both campaigns are expected to deploy poll watchers and lawyers to various sites on Election Day to lay the groundwork for any potential litigation that may follow.

Through the numerous lawsuits the Trump campaign and RNC have filed, sources said the party is amassing a deep bench of local lawyers who can give Republicans the ability to file state-level lawsuits quickly and skillfully.

Multiple election officials told CNN the role of poll watchers is to document details of what they see on the ground as voters are casting ballots — writing down everything from problems with individual machines on site to whether there were enough paper ballots available for everyone who showed up — in case the campaign decides to challenge results and needs evidence to back that up.

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One source said campaign-affiliated lawyers are more likely to be placed in “central command centers” to oversee the more technical aspects of counting the ballots — such as whether the previously-established chain of custody has been followed for batches of ballots or whether signature verification procedures are being followed.

All of the information collected could become crucial if a lawsuit follows a close result.

“There’s always an uptick in voting litigation in an election year, but with Covid, that phenomenon has really been put on steroids,” Riemer told CNN. “We’ve never seen anything like what we have right now with legal challenges.”

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