The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Less appetite — and opportunity — to serve as fake Trump electors in 2024

Amid a growing number of criminal investigations into the 2020 election, some who once cast electoral college votes for the former president say they would not do it again

Former president Donald Trump walks out to speak at a campaign rally at Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah, Fla., on Nov. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
12 min

Republican Party activist Ken Carroll thought he was doing the right thing when he agreed to cast an electoral college vote for Donald Trump at the Georgia Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020.

But he wouldn’t do it again.

“Knowing what I know now? No,” Carroll said. “But hindsight provides a wealth of knowledge we don’t have at the time of an event.”

Carroll was one of 84 Republican presidential electors who convened to cast votes for Trump in 2020 across seven states where Joe Biden had been declared the certified winner. And he is among the electors in six of those states who have become embroiled in criminal investigations of their actions — saddled with legal bills and in some cases facing criminal charges. Carroll says he never again wants to be involved with a criminal investigation.

In the past few months, 25 of those 84 electors have been charged with felonies, such as forgery, false statements and filing false documents. Ten more have agreed as part of a lawsuit settlement to not serve as electors in any election in which Trump is on the ballot. And 13 others in Georgia have been labeled “unindicted co-conspirators.”

The publicity surrounding those investigations, and the specter of tarnished reputations and heavy legal costs, are likely to discourage future Trump electors — should the former president secure the GOP nomination next year — from casting votes for him in a state where Biden is again declared the winner, many Republicans said.

While the fake elector scheme was novel in 2020, with many pro-Trump electors claiming they didn’t fully understand how their votes would be used, those who engage in similar activities in the future could find it harder to claim they didn’t know they could be held criminally liable. Another discouraging force: a new federal law that tightened the rules surrounding the counting of electoral college votes every four years.

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“I think the message being sent on a state-by-state basis, without necessarily any coordination and without the overarching reach of a federal prosecution is: Don’t mess around with the integrity of state election proceedings,” said Carol Lam, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California who was appointed by George W. Bush. Lam has experience with the interplay between parallel state and federal probes.

But it won’t be hard to find electors to serve, these people said — positions typically filled at state convention elections in the spring and summer of presidential years. With the Iowa caucuses looming and the nomination not yet secured, it’s not an issue the Trump campaign is focused on yet, according to one individual close to the organization who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

“The party will find no shortage of volunteers for the job, but with the precedent now set by the district attorney, electors of both parties might get a little nervous if it’s once again a razor-thin margin, which is quite possible,” said Brian Robinson, an Atlanta-based GOP consultant, referring to pending election-interference charges against Trump and 14 others, including three of Trump’s 2020 electors, in Fulton County, Ga.

Robinson disapproves of the criminalization of the electors’ behavior in Atlanta, where “they were told it was a legal maneuver, and when that didn’t work in court — as things work in our country — they all dropped it.” And he thinks it would be “absurd” if the investigations have a chilling effect on activists’ willingness to participate in the process.

Six states have launched investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn Biden’s 2020 win: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. The Justice Department has as well.

Although several investigations launched almost immediately after the 2020 election, the first charges against electors didn’t land until this summer. Some state prosecutors for a time deferred to the U.S. Department of Justice but grew frustrated that charges had not been filed after more than two years and acted on their own. Others said the investigations simply took a long time.

In July, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) announced charges of forgery and other felonies against the state’s 16 Republican electors from 2020. Nessel agreed to drop the charges against one of the electors in exchange for his cooperation. The other 15 have pleaded not guilty, with preliminary hearings for nine of them scheduled for this week.

In August, Atlanta-area District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) announced a sweeping indictment of Trump and 18 others, including three of the 16 GOP electors who gathered at the state Capitol — just down the hall from the Democratic electors whose votes were ultimately counted by the Jan. 6, 2021, joint session of Congress after the violence of that day finally subsided. Four of the defendants have accepted plea deals, including Kenneth Chesebro, an architect of the plot to use fake electors. A trial date has not been set.

The charged electors face multiple felony counts in the case, including racketeering, forgery, impersonating a public officer and making false statements. Carroll was granted immunity by Willis’s office, has been cooperating with the probe and is considered an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

“I didn’t know anything other than we were still trying to get to the bottom of who actually won the state of Georgia, and that seemed to be the way forward with that,” he said.

More charges could soon come in Arizona, where Attorney General Kris Mayes (D) took office in January and launched an investigation that her Republican predecessor refused to do.

The investigation has picked up speed over the summer and through the fall, when members of a well-staffed prosecutorial team met with witnesses to learn about their knowledge about the strategy.

As part of the team’s interviews about the alternate elector strategy, Arizona investigators have also spent hours interviewing people about efforts by Trump and his allies to delay canvassing of the election results. One interview lasted hours and about five people from the attorney general’s team attended, a level of attention that conveys the seriousness of the probe, according to someone familiar with the session who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it.

Chesebro recently met with investigators in Nevada and is scheduled to meet on Monday with Arizona prosecutors. His Arizona attorney, Rhonda Neff, declined to comment. A spokesperson for the office declined to comment.

Two people familiar with the Arizona investigation said they expect the evidence-gathering phase to stretch into the new year before deciding whether to pursue charges.

The final state to launch an investigation is Wisconsin, according to two sources familiar with the probe, who said the state attorney general’s office has interviewed Chesebro as a possible witness. One individual with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a pending investigation said Wisconsin authorities are casting a “wide net.” But he added “the focus would be more on the locals.”

CNN first reported the Wisconsin investigation.

Chesebro’s value to prosecutors stems in part from his plea deal in the Georgia case, in which he agreed to lesser charges in exchange for truthful testimony. In a nearly three-hour proffer interview for Georgia prosecutors in October, Chesebro described a previously unreported White House meeting during which he briefed Trump on election challenges in Arizona and summarized a memo in which he offered advice on assembling alternate slates of electors in key battlegrounds to cast ballots for Trump despite Biden’s victories in those states.

Chesebro’s recollection could provide evidence that Trump was aware of the elector plan.

He also disclosed for the first time that he played a role transporting documents signed by Wisconsin Trump electors to Capitol Hill as part of a Trump campaign plan to present Vice President Mike Pence with competing slates of electors.

Officials in the seventh Biden-won state where Trump electors met, Pennsylvania, have said that charges are unlikely there because of the contingency language electors included in the certificates they sent to Washington: that they should be considered only if “we are recognized as the duly elected and qualified electors” from Pennsylvania.

Electors in New Mexico included similar contingency language in their paperwork. Nonetheless, an investigation by Attorney General Raúl Torrez (D) is ongoing, a spokesperson for his office said.

Statutes of limitation in the states where the elector strategy unfolded are partly dictating the timing of some indictments. In Nevada, the ability to charge the electors with certain crimes would have expired on Dec. 14, three years after the electors gathered.

Separately, in Wisconsin, the Trump electors agreed in a legal settlement on Wednesday to revoke the false paperwork they filed with the National Archives and other institutions, acknowledge Joe Biden had won the state and promise not to engage in similar behavior in the future. The settlement was reached in a lawsuit filed by two of Wisconsin’s Biden electors who argued the Republicans had defrauded voters.

The Biden electors are continuing their lawsuit against Chesebro and attorney Jim Troupis, who led Trump’s unsuccessful recount efforts in Wisconsin.

Under the agreement, the 10 Republicans who met as electors in 2020 cannot serve as electors in 2024 or any time Trump is on the ballot. Andrew Hitt, one of the GOP electors and the former chairman of the state Republican Party, said with a bellowing laugh Friday that he would not serve as an elector in 2024 even if he could.

“How do you convey laughter in a newspaper article?” he said when asked about serving as an elector again. “No, I will not be serving as an elector again.”

Hitt, who has been cooperating with federal special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation since May 2022, said Trump won’t have any problem finding people who will serve as electors next year if he wins the party’s nomination.

“There will be activists who will do it, no doubt about it. They’re not going to have a hard time because they still have people who will do anything for the guy,” said Hitt, who opposes Trump’s 2024 run.

Rohn Bishop, a former chairman of the Fond du Lac County Republican Party, said plenty of Wisconsin Republicans would be happy to serve as electors next year — but he expects they will convene only if the Republican nominee wins the popular vote in the battleground state.

“If he loses the state narrowly next time, they’re not going to make the same mistake and do an alternate slate of electors,” said Bishop, who is now the mayor of Waupun, Wis.

Even in 2020, some among the original slates of electors balked at the scheme to send their votes for Trump to Washington. Among the seven states’ 84 electors, 15 refused to join the Dec. 14, 2020, meetings, and they were replaced by alternates in a mad scramble executed by state party officials, overseen by the Trump campaign — and documented extensively in emails and texts surfaced by the U.S. House committee that last year examined the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Another force will make it harder for electors to do what Trump’s slates did in 2020: The Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022, bipartisan legislation intended to prevent the chaos surrounding the events of the last presidential election.

Among other provisions, the new law empowers a state executive, typically the governor, to determine which slate of electors — Republican or Democratic — will be counted during the joint session of Congress. No other entity or individual is given the power to do so, and Congress is required to accept that determination, absent a court ruling.

The law also raises the threshold to lodge an objection during the joint session to at least one-fifth of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and makes it harder for state legislatures to disregard the results of the popular vote when determining which candidates’ electors are valid.

“It would be exceedingly difficult for there to be competing, valid slates [of electors],” said David Becker, a former Justice Department lawyer and the executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. “A slate must be signed by the executive (defined as the governor in almost every case) and have the state seal affixed. If a new one comes in after the original one, but before the electors meet, the new one expressly supersedes the previous one.”

He added: “Hard to imagine a scenario where there are different slates, both signed by the governor and having the official seal, where one doesn’t supersede the other.”