Michigan’s attorney general filed forgery and other felony charges Tuesday against 16 Republican activists who signed papers after the 2020 election falsely indicating they were the duly appointed presidential electors for the state.
The case filed by Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, represents the first criminal charges related to efforts by allies of former President Donald Trump to designate alternate slates of electors. The scheme would ultimately become the basis for Trump’s last-ditch bid to remain in power, an effort to create a contest or crisis when Congress met to tally up the Electoral College votes and certify Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump used the existence of those “competing” slates of electors to pressure his vice president, Mike Pence, to block Biden’s election.
Some would-be electors and their allies have said the alternate slates were part of a contingency plan intended to buttress other legal moves by Trump to challenge the 2020 election results. However, those legal challenges famously fizzled in court, leaving those who signed the documents and others who organized the efforts facing investigation and potential legal jeopardy.
In a statement Thursday, Nessel dismissed the notion that the self-styled electors were part of a legitimate legal challenge to the 2020 election.
“This plan — to reject the will of the voters and undermine democracy — was fraudulent and legally baseless,” Nessel declared.
“The evidence will demonstrate there was no legal authority for the false electors to purport to act as ‘duly elected presidential electors’ and execute the false electoral documents,” the attorney general added. “Every serious challenge to the election had been denied, dismissed, or otherwise rejected by the time the false electors convened. There was no legitimate legal avenue or plausible use of such a document or an alternative slate of electors.”
The news comes as Trump has revealed he’s been informed he’s a target of special counsel Jack Smith’s sprawling investigation into his effort to subvert the 2020 election — a multipart scheme that included assembling false slates of electors in seven states won by Joe Biden. Smith has not indicated what charges he’s considering for Trump or any of his allies, but he has eyed aspects of the false elector scheme.
More than 1,000 people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 have been charged for joining the mob that halted Congress’ certification of the 2020 election. But the charges brought by Nessel are the first Jan. 6-related charges against any top Republican Party figures who played roles in Trump’s effort.
The self-described electors charged Thursday include Kathy Berden, a longtime ally of national GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel, who has publicly cited Berden as being unfairly targeted by the Jan. 6 select committee. Berden was at the center of the RNC’s bid to define Jan. 6 as “legitimate political discourse” early last year.
They also include Meshawn Maddock, the former co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Maddock told POLITICO in November 2020 that she was conferring with constitutional lawyers about options would-be Trump electors had despite his loss in the state.
“What I might want to do can be completely different from what we are legally capable of doing,” Maddock said in an email at the time.
Nessel’s office hit the group hard in terms of charges, with each defendant facing one count of conspiracy to commit forgery, two counts of forgery, one count of conspiracy to commit uttering and publishing, one count of uttering and publishing, one count of conspiracy to commit election law forgery and two counts of election forgery.
Each offense in the criminal complaint is a felony, with the maximum punishment ranging from five years in prison on some charges to 14 years on others.
While no individuals beyond the signers of the slate were charged Thursday with organizing the false-elector effort, Nessel said the investigation is ongoing. “Our department has not ruled out potential charges against additional defendants,” she said.
Republicans have long compared the GOP effort to a similar one undertaken by Democrats in Hawaii in 1960, when Richard Nixon was declared the winner in the state by a margin of just a few hundred votes. A recount was underway — with John F. Kennedy gaining ground — when the state’s presidential electors were due to meet. That day, while the certified Republican electors were meeting, Democrats convened and signed certificates declaring themselves the legitimate presidential electors for Hawaii.
Days later, the recount affirmed that Kennedy had, in fact, won Hawaii. And when Congress met to count electoral votes on Jan. 6, 1961, Nixon — presiding over the session — agreed to count Hawaii’s electoral votes for Kennedy.
Unlike Hawaii in 1960, there were no recounts underway in the states challenged by Trump and no evidence of significant fraud that might alter the outcome. Nessel rejected the comparison.
“There was no pretense of a necessary ‘back-up’ slate or document. There was no constitutional crisis looming,” she said in a video accompanying her announcement.
The charging documents also hint at the larger coordination that Smith may be eyeing as he nears federal charging decisions related to Trump’s bid to subvert the 2020 election. Smith’s investigators have been probing the false elector slates assembled in a variety of states Trump lost.
In a text exchange cited in Nessel’s indictment, Berden indicated that the 16 false GOP electors from Michigan “were all asked to keep silent as to not draw attention to what other states were doing similar to ours!”
“Was she not told to keep [quiet] at the meeting,” fellow alternate elector John Haggard asked her.
“Yes, we all were,” Berden responded.