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Soon after the 2020 election, legitimate electors signed certificates showing Joe Biden won. On the same day, Republicans signed additional certificates falsely declaring Trump the winner in their states and sent the documents on to the National Archives.
A watchdog group filed a public records request to obtain the phony GOP certificates, and the records were posted online in March 2021.
Multiple state and federal officials are investigating the phony electoral certificates. The Jan. 6 committee recently subpoenaed some of the people who signed them.
Several weeks after the 2020 election, groups of electors gathered in state Capitols to sign certificates affirming which candidate won their state — a routine step in the process of a president taking office.
But on the same day — Dec. 14, 2020 — something unusual happened: In several battleground states where Joe Biden had defeated President Donald Trump, representatives of the losing side decided that they, too, would gather as purported electors to sign certificates falsely attesting to a Trump win and submit them for approval by Congress.
Months later, American Oversight, a watchdog group that seeks to hold Trump accountable through public records requests, published the phony certificates calling them "part of the failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election."
This was no small caper by a few disappointed Trump loyalists.
The fake electoral certificates were signed by Republican state lawmakers and party officials in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico, states accounting for a combined 84 electoral votes. And like the violent insurrectionists who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 with knives, bats and other weapons, the fake electors sought to overturn a democratic election through extralegal means. They did so in a coordinated effort, mostly out in the open, and through official channels.
"This is like the mother of all heist movies," said Jeffrey Mandell, president of the Wisconsin democracy group Law Forward, which asked state and local officials in early 2021 to investigate the certificate signed by 10 people in his state. "It was an attempt by 10 people to disregard the votes of 3.3 million of their neighbors and decide they know best and disregard the will of the voters so they get to hijack Wisconsin’s participation in choosing the next president."
Like the rioters, they failed. But their efforts are drawing renewed attention after a Justice Department official told CNN that the agency is investigating the fake certificates. So are state prosecutors and the Jan. 6 committee in Congress.
Here’s a look at what we know about the fake certificates, how they came about, who signed them and what happens next.
Every four years, when voters cast ballots in a presidential election they are choosing between slates of electors pledged to one of the candidates, in this case either for Biden or Trump. (The process is outlined in the U.S. Constitution.) Electors are chosen by political parties in each state before the election. If, say, Biden, wins a particular state, his slate of electors gather weeks after Election Day to sign a certificate reflecting their votes for Biden. The certificates are forwarded to Congress.
Most of the fake certificates were put forward as if they were real ones. They have a header that says "certificate of the votes of the 2020 electors," and the signers refer to themselves as "being duly elected and qualified electors." The certificates say they gathered to vote for Trump and are signed by anywhere from five to 20 people, depending on the number of electoral votes assigned to the state.
The certificates in Pennsylvania and New Mexico hedged by tweaking the language suggesting that they would be the electors if it was later determined they were the electors — for instance, through a final court order.
The documents state that they were sent to the National Archives and state officials including governors or secretaries of states.
"It was not freelancing. It was a coordinated effort," said Norman Eisen, who was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Donald Trump impeachment and co-authored a report for Brookings about Trump’s effort to overturn the results in Georgia. "These appear to be false documents that were submitted to the federal government. They were handed in to the National Archives as the genuine articles are supposed to be."
The real electoral certificates which were accepted by Congress are on the website of the National Archives.
The Trump certificates were signed by well-known Republicans including elected officials and party leaders.
In Arizona, the signers included Dr. Kelli Ward, state Republican Party chair, and her husband, Dr. Michael Ward. It was also signed by James Lamon, who is running for U.S. Senate, and state Rep. Jake Hoffman.
When asked by a reporter why he signed the document, Hoffman said, "In unprecedented times, unprecedented actions occur," and that due to litigation over the election results, he "felt it appropriate to provide Congress and the vice president with dueling options."
In Georgia, fake-certificate signers include state Sen. Burt Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, and David Shafer, state party chair.
In Michigan, the state GOP co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, was one of the fake electors. Others who signed the Michigan certificate include Amy Facchinello, a Grand Blanc board of education member, and Shelby Township Clerk Stanley Grot.
Wisconsin signers included Andrew Hitt, a lawyer and GOP party chairman at the time, and Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Bob Spindell. Signers in Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Mexico included party officials. In New Mexico, one of the signers, businessman Jewll Powdrell, told the Las Cruces Sun News that he had "no regrets" about signing the certificate.
"Now that the election is over, why are we talking about it?" he asked the reporter, laughing. "How can you undermine an election that had already been done?"
Investigators are likely looking at what role Trump's campaign or his lawyers played in the fake electoral certificates. What we know so far comes from news reports and a memo from a Trump ally that shows their scheme to try to pressure Vice President Mike Pence — who oversaw the electoral vote certification as president of the Senate — to recognize an alternate slate of electors from some states.
John Eastman, a Trump-allied lawyer, wrote a memo explaining a "Jan. 6 scenario" based on the submission of seven dual slates of electors to Pence. Eastman proposed that Pence announce that he had multiple slates of electors and due to ongoing disputes in seven states, no electors from those could be valid. That would have tipped the election to Trump.
The Trump campaign didn’t hide this strategy. Stephen Miller, a Trump campaign official, said on Fox News Dec. 14, 2020, that "as we speak today an alternate slate of electors in the contested states is going to vote and we are going to send those results up to Congress. This will ensure that all of our legal remedies remain open."
The Arizona Republic published an investigation in November showing efforts by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his advisers to get state Republicans to replace the state’s 11 electors. Giuliani failed to get Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers to pursue such a path, but ultimately other Republicans signed certificates.
Meshawn Maddock, one of the Michigan signers, said at a conservative event in January that the Trump campaign was behind the GOP electoral slates, according to audio obtained by CNN.
"We fought to seat the electors," she is heard saying. "The Trump campaign asked us to do that. I'm under a lot of scrutiny for that today."
Pence refused to go along with the plan to overturn the results. On Jan. 6, the day the electoral votes were being certified in Congress, he issued a statement saying that under the Constitution he did not have "unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not."
As Pence accepted the results from each state — a process interrupted by the riot — he repeatedly described them as what "the Parliamentarian has advised me is the only certificate of vote from that State that purports to be a return from the state."
The Trump elector certificates were not created in secret. Republicans held public events or issued statements or social media posts proudly declaring that they were casting electoral votes for Trump, even though they had no authority to do so.
In Arizona, Ward, the GOP state chair, posted a YouTube video in December 2020 stating that "the true electors for the presidency" met the day before and voted for Trump and transmitted those results to entities in D.C. for consideration by Congress.
"We believe that we are the electors for the legally cast votes here in Arizona," she said.
At the Wisconsin Capitol where Republicans gathered, party chairman Hitt said that they were there "to preserve our role in the electoral process while the final outcome is still pending in the courts."
Nevada Republicans held a press conference to cast their votes for Trump, while in Michigan a group tried to enter the state Capitol, declaring themselves to be the legitimate electors.
Mandell of Law Forward said that after seeing the news coverage he contacted American Oversight to ask if the group could obtain copies of the fake certificates. On Feb. 15, 2021 — President’s Day — Mandell sent a letter to the Milwaukee district attorney asking for an investigation and also filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
American Oversight submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Archives seeking the unpublished certificates of electoral votes and published the documents on its website on March 2, 2021.
Federal and state officials, including the Justice Department, have indicated that they are investigating the fake electoral certificates.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told CNN Jan. 25, "We've received those referrals. Our prosecutors are looking at those and I can't say anything more on ongoing investigations."
Days later, the Jan. 6 committee announced subpoenas for two Trump electors in each of the seven states.
"We believe the individuals we have subpoenaed today have information about how these so-called alternate electors met and who was behind that scheme," wrote U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the committee.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, said she handed federal prosecutors the results of a yearlong investigation into the Republicans who signed the certificates in her state. Nessel hasn’t ruled out state charges, but described it as a "conspiracy that occurred between multiple states." New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, said he is referring the false certificates to federal law enforcement.
In Georgia, Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis’ special grand jury is reviewing Trump’s efforts to overturn results, including his phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes to swing the election to him. It’s likely that the grand jury will also look at the fake certificate signed by Georgia Republicans.
Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal wrote a letter to Mandell saying the state justice department or federal prosecutors are best suited to handle the matter.
Legal experts say that those involved in the phony certificates could face an array of state or federal charges such as mail fraud, forgery or obstruction.
Among the key unanswered questions is what role Trump himself played, Eisen said.
"Did he direct the false certificates to be submitted or did he wink at it? Was he informed about it?" Eisen said. "If he was aware, if he was briefed by Mr Guiliani that this was happening and authorized it, then that implicates him in the potential federal crimes."
RELATED: All of our fact-checks about Jan. 6
RELATED: Look who’s not talking: Key figures who aren’t cooperating with Jan. 6 investigators
Washington Post, As electoral college formalizes Biden’s win, Trump backers hold their own vote, Dec. 14, 2020
Right Side Broadcasting Network, Nevada GOP announcement on 2020 election, Dec. 14, 2020
Fox News, Stephen Miller, Dec. 14, 2020
Politico, Letter from Jenna Ellis to Trump, Dec. 31, 2020
Congressional Record, House of Representatives, Jan. 6, 2021
CNN, Read: Vice President Mike Pence's statement breaking with Trump on Electoral College vote count, Jan. 6, 2021
Detroit Free Press, Activist who organized buses to DC about to take Mich. GOP role, Jan. 7, 2021
American Oversight, American Oversight obtains seven phony certificates of pro-Trump electors, March 2, 2021
Brookings, Fulton County, Georgia’s Trump Investigation, Oct. 4, 2021
Arizona Republic, Democracy in Doubt, Nov. 18, 2021
Jeffrey Mandell, We must hold Wisconsin’s fraudulent electors accountable, Jan. 6, 2022
American Oversight, Fake electoral certificates obtained by American Oversight draw renewed scrutiny, Jan. 12, 2022
12 News Reporter Brahm Resnik, Tweet, Jan. 12, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Officials yet to act on false GOP filing; Group accused of fraud over paperwork giving Trump state electoral win, Jan. 13, 2022
Arizona Republic, Arizona's Trump supporters refuse to detail creation of an alternate slate of electors, Jan. 13, 2022
Arizona Republic, No details on false electoral document; Trump backers refuse to explain alternate plan, Jan. 14, 2022
Albuquerque Journal, AG reviewing NM’s fake presidential electors, Jan. 14, 2022
Georgia Public Radio, Will false Trump electors’ attempt to hijack the Georgia vote be punished? Jan. 18, 2022
Las Cruces Sun News, New Mexico Republican who signed bogus electoral certificate says he has 'no regrets whatsoever' Jan. 18, 2022
Detroit Free Press, Nessel: Fake GOP electors committed crimes, hopes feds prosecute 'conspiracy' Jan. 18, 2022
CNN, Trump campaign officials, led by Rudy Giuliani, oversaw fake electors plot in 7 states, Jan. 20, 2022
Washington Post, As Giuliani coordinated plan for Trump electoral votes in states Biden won, some electors balked, Jan. 20, 2022
Michigan Free Press, Michigan GOP co-chair says Trump campaign directed fake electors, per CNN audio, Jan. 20, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee County seeks to pass off case over fake electors to state AG, Jan. 21, 2022
New York Times, Jan. 6 Panel and State Officials Seek Answers on Fake Trump Electors, Jan. 21, 2022
CNN, Exclusive: Federal prosecutors looking at 2020 fake elector certifications, deputy attorney general tells CNN, Jan. 26, 2022
Jan. 6 select committee, Select committee subpoenas ‘alternate electors’ from seven states, Jan. 28, 2022
National Archives, 2020 electoral college results
Telephone interview, Norman Eisen, special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Donald Trump impeachment and previously served as President Barack Obama’s ethics czar and senior fellow at Brookings Institution, Jan. 27, 2022
Telephone interview, Jeff Mandell, partner at Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, and President and Lead Counsel of Law Forward, Jan. 27, 2022
Telephone interview, Clark Pettig, spokesperson for American Oversight, Jan. 28, 2022