These Republicans have united to defend the legitimacy of American elections and election officials

ATLANTA (AP) — It was Election Day last November, and one of Georgia’s top elections officials noticed reports of a voting machine problem in an eastern Pennsylvania county gaining traction online.

So Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who had defended the 2020 elections in Georgia amid a barrage of threats, posted a message to his nearly 71,000 followers on the social platform would be counted correctly.

He faced immediate criticism from one commentator over why he interfered in another state’s election, while other comments repeated false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

WATCH: How powerful conservatives advanced the ‘big lie’ that the 2020 election was fraudulent

“It’s still the right thing to do,” Sterling said at a rally the next day, emphasizing the importance of Republican officials speaking out to defend the election. “We have to be willing to say again and again: other states do it differently than we do, but they don’t cheat.”

Sterling, the chief operating officer of Georgia’s State Department, is part of an effort that began after the last presidential election and aims to bring together Republican officials willing to strengthen the country’s election systems and the people who run them. lead to defend. They want officials to reinforce the message that elections are secure and accurate, an approach they say is especially important as the country heads toward another divisive presidential contest.

The group has held rallies in several states, with more planned before the Nov. 5 election.

With six months to go before the likely rematch between Democratic President Joe Biden and former Republican President Donald Trump, concerns are high among election officials that public distrust of voting and ballot counting remains, especially among Republicans . Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee, continues to cast doubt on the last presidential election and warns his followers – without citing any evidence – that Democrats will try to cheat in the upcoming elections.

Last week, at a campaign rally in Michigan, Trump repeated his false claim that Democrats rigged the 2020 election. “But we will not allow them to manipulate the presidential election,” he said.

Only 22 percent of Republicans were very confident that votes will be accurately counted in November, a poll last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found.

READ MORE: False election claims have damaged Republican Party confidence in vote counts, AP-NORC poll finds

“It’s an obligation for Republicans to stand up to defend our system because our party – there is some culpability for where we are today,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, who is part of the group and won re-election. last year. “But it also makes strategic sense for Republicans to say, ‘Hey Republicans, you can trust this. Don’t stay home.'”

The effort, which began about 18 months ago, is coordinated by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the center-right think tank R Street Institute. The goal was to start conversations about trust in elections, especially among conservative officials, and to develop a set of principles to achieve that.

“This has never been specifically about Trump and never will be specifically about Trump,” said Matt Germer, board director of the R Street Institute and lead organizer of the effort. “It’s about democratic principles at a higher level – what does it mean to be a conservative who believes in democracy, the rule of law?”

He said the goal is to set up a structure to support election officials who could find themselves in situations like that of Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in 2020, when he supported Trump but rejected false claims that the elections were stolen. Prosecutors in Georgia have since charged Trump and others with a plot to overturn the results. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

“You can be a Republican and believe in all the Republican ideas without having to say the election was stolen,” Germer said.

A guiding principle for the group is that Republican officials should “publicly affirm the security and integrity of elections in the U.S. and avoid actively stoking doubt about elections in other jurisdictions.”

Kim Wyman, a Republican who previously served as Washington state’s top elections official, said it’s critical when officials face election questions elsewhere that they don’t avoid the question by examining election procedures in their own state. promote.

It’s okay to say you don’t know the different laws and procedures in another state, Wyman said, but she urged fellow Republicans to emphasize what states have in common: “the security measures, the controls to ensure ensure that the elections take place’. executed with integrity.”

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican who has participated in meetings organized by the group, said he believes there are certain aspects of the election that officials should feel comfortable about. But he said he would remain cautious about speaking directly about anything specific happening in another state.

“If I go beyond my domain and my role, then they don’t trust me. And if they don’t trust me, then they don’t trust the elections in Kansas, and that’s pretty important,” Schwab said in an interview. interview.

Some election officials who have questioned election procedures outside their state have a different perspective.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican who has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, said the focus should be on improving policies, such as implementing voter ID requirements across the country, and not silencing those who have questions.

“Our primary job as election officials is to build trust, and that comes from strengthening protocols, not weakening them,” he said.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who has raised questions about the way elections are conducted in other states, criticized what he called “activist lawsuits” and state officials seeking to change voting rules previously set by lawmakers.

“The things that are happening in other states that are going wrong are not the result of some secret, secret cabal conspiracy,” he said in an interview. “Those are the far-fetched things that make for great YouTube videos and whatever. But the real things that are going wrong in other states are out in the open and in full view of the public.”

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson of Utah, a Republican who is the state’s top election official and has participated in the group’s discussions, said avoiding criticism of other states and vouching for the legitimacy of election procedures for another reason Importantly, it can help combat threats and intimidation against election workers.

A recent survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that nearly 40 percent of local election officials had experienced such abuse. It has caused many to quit their jobs. Of the 29 clerks in Utah, 20 are new since 2020 and nine have never overseen an election, according to Henderson.

“It’s one thing to suggest that someone could do something better. It’s another to question their integrity and character, to accuse them of cheating, to accuse them of nefarious things that aren’t happening,” Henderson said. “It is tiring.”

Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.