SAN FRANCISCO — Former President Donald Trump’s false voter-fraud claims found new life in California’s biggest election this year.
The top Republican seeking to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in Tuesday’s recall declined before the election to say whether he could accept the results. A website affiliated with his campaign invites visitors to “sign a petition to stop the fraud of the California recall election.” And a previous version of the site — published before the election took place — blamed voter fraud for Newsom being “reinstated” as governor.
There is no evidence for these claims, which have nonetheless been amplified repeatedly this week by former President Donald Trump. But their arrival in the country’s largest blue state offered proof of their currency within the Republican Party, where some leaders have increasingly sought to undermine public confidence in Democratic victories by baselessly alleging that elections are vulnerable to manipulation.
With Newsom projected to defeat the recall, conservative radio host Larry Elder conceded the race early Wednesday morning, telling his audience to be “gracious in defeat.” But his campaign’s tactics in the lead-up to the vote — including open threats to raise doubts about the results in case of defeat — suggest the possibility of a new normal, where Republicans challenge election losses even in heavily Democratic states and without proof of serious fraud or rule-breaking.
“California’s voting system standards and testing requirements are the strongest in the nation,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, noting that the state requires voter-verified paper ballots and post-election audits.
Asked whether she’d received reports of possible irregularities, Alexander said: “I have not heard any reports of election interference other than attempts by a former president and a current leading replacement candidate to discourage people from voting by making unsubstantiated claims about California election security.”
Election administrators, voting rights advocates and then-Attorney General William Barr have said there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Yet more than 10 months after that race, Republicans in some states remain focused on auditing President Biden’s victory.
In Pennsylvania, GOP legislators plan to launch hearings as part of an investigation into the vote. In Texas, the state Senate recently passed a bill allowing party officials to request reviews of election results. And in Arizona, a report detailing the conclusions of a GOP-backed ballot review was expected as soon as this week.
There are already signs that other Republicans are adopting Trump’s approach ahead of next year’s midterms. Adam Laxalt, a Trump-endorsed Republican running to unseat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., raised concerns about election integrity and discussed the possibility of preemptive lawsuits “to try to tighten up the election” during a radio interview last month.
With no major protests or threats reported on Tuesday, the claims by Trump and Elder’s campaign did not appear to incite serious hostility toward election officials on Tuesday. County registrars interviewed by The Post said voting was uneventful.
But Elder had raised concerns about what might happen based on what he has called the “shenanigans” of 2020. Facing a GOP backlash for initially saying Biden won “fairly and squarely,” he recently backtracked, warning of possible voting irregularities and noting a team of lawyers was prepared to intervene if needed.
Before Tuesday’s vote, the radio host had declined to say if he would accept the results, repeatedly dodging the question Monday when pressed by NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff.
“I think we all ought to be looking at election integrity, no matter whether you’re a Democrat, an independent or a Republican. Let’s all make sure that the election is a fair election,” he said.
“So that is not a commitment to accept the results of the election tomorrow,” Soboroff said after a back-and-forth.
“Jacob, honestly, I answered your question. Let’s all work together. We all should have a vested interest in making sure that the election is a fair one and is one that was conducted with integrity,” Elder said.
Trump released a statement Tuesday describing the recall as “totally rigged” and calling attention to reports of some voters in Woodland Hills, Calif., being told incorrectly that they had already cast ballots. The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office reportedly blamed an equipment issue and said voters affected by the issue were offered provisional ballots before the system was fixed.
Donna Johnston, Sutter County registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said the incident had prompted questions from voters in her region.
“People are asking us if we can check if they voted before,” she said Tuesday. “When something happens in one county or in another state, typically voters are concerned and they’ll ask us.”
Johnston said she provides tours to concerned voters in her county, which backed Trump in November, to show them the security measures in place to protect their ballots.
“A lot of times, folks don’t realize that they can observe our processes and how transparent we really are in California. We have really high standards — higher I think than the rest of the states when it comes to security and transparency,” she said.
Other county clerks expressed pride in the redundant systems they had in place — and in their embrace of fair elections.
“We are confident that our system tabulates properly,” said Helen Nolan, the deputy director clerk recorder in San Luis Obispo County.
As of early afternoon, in-person voting appeared to be proceeding smoothly with no major problems and nearly half of mail ballots already returned, she said.
Still, Nolan acknowledged an “air of mistrust” over this election.
“Everyone has a reason to think and believe and feel the way that they do and all I can do is try to reassure them that their vote is being handled securely. We are nonpartisan. Our job is not to influence or sway. It’s to count. Everyone on my staff is a dedicated election professional official and takes the integrity of elections very seriously,” she said.
Prominent Democrats — as well as some Republicans — criticized the fraud warnings ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
“Even before the election is over, the GOP is already reverting to their 2020 playbook created by Donald Trump: the Big Lie. This dangerous charade is incompatible with democracy,” Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, California’s former secretary of state, tweeted Monday.
A former chair of the California Republican Party, Ron Nehring, tweeted: “Voter fraud? Where’s the evidence?”
“This pattern of whining any election we don’t win must be fraudulent is both bad politics, and bad policy,” he wrote.
Some voters still expressed reservations.
“I feel all elections should be in person,” said Ashley Tuavao, 34, outside a veterans services center in Modesto, where she cast a vote in favor of recalling Newsom. “My husband and I both filled in our ballots here and voted in person.”
Dan Sabin, 33, also voted in favor of the recall. He said that while he thought mail ballots are a “massive risk,” he trusts the election process.
“You have to trust the people that do the ballots,” Sabin said outside La Tijera K-8 Academy of Excellence, in a rapidly gentrifying part of Inglewood, Calif. “Ultimately, the people that work in there are people in the community.”
Other voters said they were not fans of Elder — or his claims that the election results would be tainted.
In Compton, Calif., where Elder was raised, lifelong resident Evelyn Lopez said she doesn’t like “what he’s standing for.”
“He’s already trying to say there’s fraud, and people haven’t even voted yet,” said Lopez, 67. “I disapprove of him. Straight out.”
Viebeck reported from San Francisco. Hamburger reported from Berkeley, Calif. The Washington Post’s Noah Smith contributed to this report from Inglewood and Compton, Calif. Other Post contributors: Guy McCarthy from Modesto, Calif., and David Weigel from Los Angeles.