WASHINGTON — Republicans in Tuesday's California gubernatorial recall election are already laying the groundwork to argue the election was stolen — even before a single ballot is reported or a victor declared, an increasingly common tactic in conservative circles.
Republican Larry Elder appealed on Monday to his supporters to use an online form to report fraud, which claimed it had "detected fraud" in the "results" of the California recall election "resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor."
The only problem: On Monday when the link was live on Elder's campaign site, the election hadn't even happened yet. No results had been released. And Elder was still campaigning to replace Newsom as governor.
“Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor,” the site reads. "The primary analytical tool used was Benford’s Law and can be readily reproduced."
The site added on Monday afternoon a disclaimer saying it was "Paid For By Larry Elder Ballot Measure Committee Recall Newsom Committee," with major funding from Elder's gubernatorial campaign.
The most recent polls show Newsom is likely to survive the attempt to remove him from office in Tuesday’s recall election. Elder and other Republicans have already started chalking up a potential loss to baseless allegations of voter fraud, following the script written by former President Donald Trump.
“This is really becoming the standard GOP playbook,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank who studies democracy. “This is democracy 101. If you don't have elections that are accepted and decisive, then you don't really have a democracy, because the alternative is violence or authoritarianism.”
There has been no evidence of voter fraud in California.
Elder's website asks voters to submit affidavits of evidence they witnessed of voter fraud, targeting those who would support him after Election Day. It was first reported on by the Sacramento Bee.
The site was registered anonymously in August. Hours after NBC News contacted the Elder campaign Monday afternoon about the site, the disclaimer about his campaign having funded the site was added.
"We should all be concerned about election integrity and we all want every proper vote to be counted. We've provided a link to an outside website that is providing an avenue for voters to document irregularities they encounter in this election," Elder spokesperson Ying Ma said in an email sent after the publication of this story.
"With that said, we believe that Larry will win on Election Day, and that whatever shenanigans there are will not stand in the way of him becoming the next governor and rescuing California from the disaster that is Gavin Newsom," she added.
California has a long history of voting by mail, but decided to send every registered voter in the state a ballot for the first time in this race, which has stoked bogus rumors about the ballots and their designs.
In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Elder repeatedly refused to say whether or not he would accept the results of Tuesday’s election.
“Let's all work together to find out whether or not the election tomorrow is a fair election,” he repeated several times when pressed.
Concerns about voter fraud have simmered for decades among conservatives. But after Trump made his lies about the 2020 election a focus of the GOP, other candidates appear to be trying to exploit the conservative base's predisposition to believe in a massive conspiracy among Democrats, the media and election officials to throw elections — even in races that are not particularly close or where Republican officials are in charge.
A recent NBC News poll found that 60 percent of Republicans living in blue states are not confident that their state can administer elections fairly. And 59 percent of Republicans say believing that Trump won the 2020 election is an important part of being a Republican, according to a new CNN poll, even though, of course, Trump lost.
“No one should be surprised by the vote fraud claims, that is the holy grail in the GOP right now,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican strategist who has worked in California. He was the executive director of the Michigan GOP until he was forced out of the job for saying the 2020 election wasn't stolen but that Trump "blew it."
It hasn't just been Republicans. In New York's Democratic primary for mayor this year, Eric Adams, who ultimately prevailed, tried to lay the groundwork during the campaign to claim voter fraud.
In California, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans nearly 2-1, and Elder only has the support of around a quarter of the electorate. So it would not be particularly surprising if a Democratic governor survives an attempt to remove him from office.
But most California Republicans think Newsom will be recalled, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies poll.
And so, in the first big statewide election since 2020, Republicans opinion leaders are already making preparations to cry foul if things don’t turn out the way they hope, setting a precedent that could be followed by others in the future.
“Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?” Trump said in a statement Monday.
“They’re going to cheat, we know that,” Elder said last week in Santa Barbara.
Elder, the controversial talk radio host who is leading a field of 46 candidates vying to replace Newsom, tells supporters concerned about fraud to go on his website to report “anything suspicious.”
Elder's campaign homepage under the title "stop fraud" links to the website, StopCAFraud.com. The site solicits donations for him and asks supporters to sign a petition “demanding a special session of the California legislature to investigate and ameliorate the twisted results of this 2021 Recall Election.”
The site seems to presuppose the outcome of the race, claiming fraud has already been detected in the election and that Newsom won — even though Election Day is not until Tuesday.
The page suggests voters may turn to the “ammo box” if they can’t trust the ballot box.
“They say that in America, there are four boxes of liberty. The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, and the ammo box,” the website reads, pledging to bring legal cases. “Will we now have to fight the California jury box, in the hope that the final box — the one most akin to Pandora’s — remains closed?”
Elder, a lawyer with an Ivy League degree, initially denied Trump's baseless voter fraud allegations — but reversed course after backlash from conservatives.
“I do believe that Joe Biden won the election fairly and squarely,” Elder told the Sacramento Bee editorial board in August.
Since then, Elder has repeatedly claimed the 2020 election was rife with "shenanigans" and warned “they’re going to try that in this election right here,” as he said on Fox News Sunday earlier this month.
Those evidence-free claims have been echoed by conservative commentators like Fox News’ Tomi Lahren, who said on the conservative cable network, “The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud.”
Neither Trump nor Elder have presented any evidence of fraud and election officials in California say there is none.