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What's at risk for Republicans as members spread lies about 2020's election?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As we talk Democratic efforts to pass legislation on voting rights, something the party says is key to making U.S. elections free and fair, we wanted to hear how some Republicans are feeling about election security. Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, said this on ABC earlier this week about the 2020 presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

MIKE ROUNDS: The election was fair, as fair as we've seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.

MARTINEZ: That assessment runs counter to many Republicans, including former President Trump, who, of course, has continued to promote baseless allegations of a stolen election, including on MORNING EDITION yesterday. Senator Mike Rounds joins us now. Senator, welcome.

ROUNDS: Good morning. Thanks for the opportunity to visit with you.

MARTINEZ: Sure. Now, you've acknowledged that a 2020 election was fair and that Joe Biden won the presidency. What do you say to your colleagues in Congress and Republicans broadly who still believe that this is a lie and that the 2020 election was stolen?

ROUNDS: You have to look at the evidence. You have to look, on a state-by-state basis, at any challenges that have been put forward. We've looked at those. In fact, we've looked at over 60 different challenges. We did that as part of the due process that - we thought we had to do our due diligence when we were looking at whether or not to certify the election on January 6 of last year. Our team, along with other teams here in the Senate, sat down. We reviewed the accusations that were made and tried to find evidence, you know, that would support them. We simply did not have that evidence presented to us.

We've looked at the different, you know, concerns that have been expressed. And if, you know, a group of attorneys or a plaintiff is going to bring an accusation, then they have to be able to share what that accusation is based on. When we looked at the basis for the accusations, we found that court after court after court simply either denied or did not agree with the accusations that were being made.

You know, part of what I think brought question into some of the elections was the fact that we were in the middle of a pandemic, and there were some broadenings or some modifications to rules or statutes that had been put in place by legislative bodies. Under the Constitution, on a state-by-state basis, the legislatures really are supposed to set up and monitor and handle the election process.

MARTINEZ: But not enough, as you noted, that it's widespread, right?

ROUNDS: That's correct. What we thought - there were some anomalies. You know, there were some items that were inconsistent with what you would normally see. But it didn't mean that we could find enough in any state that would have overturned the election results.

MARTINEZ: Now, our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with former President Trump this week - asked him to respond to what you said about it being a disadvantage for Republicans to continue obsessing over the 2020 election, and here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DONALD TRUMP: No. I think it's an advantage because otherwise they're going to do it again in '22 and '24. And Rounds is wrong on that - totally wrong.

MARTINEZ: Senator, how do you respond to that?

ROUNDS: Well, first of all, you know, I respect that the former president has looked at this stuff as well. But in this particular case, after looking at each and every one of those items, I can't simply point to a case where there has been substantiated evidence showing that there was an election that would have been overturned.

And let me just take one step beyond that. In the coming years, you have to have some sort of confidence in the states. I do. I believe that, on a state-by-state basis, these local officials really do want to do the correct thing. And they're going to make modifications. They are going to make changes within their rules. But if you look across the entire United States, you find that you have very responsible and accountable local representation that are making these decisions. They can have the debates at the local level. Each state has the ability to modify somewhat, within limits, what their voting guidelines are - how long the polls are open, how they handle drop boxes, the types of security that they expect to have. And most importantly, the vast majority of local officials really want to make sure that they do a good job on voter ID, making sure that they can go back to the American public and say, look, we know that the people that voted were the ones who had the right to vote and that it was done in a fair and consistent method, and that, at the same time, we had plenty of time for people across all aspects to be able to cast their votes.

MARTINEZ: Senator...

ROUNDS: And I - you know, but I think that comes back down to trusting local officials.

MARTINEZ: Right. You've said that the GOP needs to be louder on Trump's false election claims, that there are more Republicans like you in the Senate. How many other GOP senators feel the same way that you do?

ROUNDS: Look, I've never done a poll. But what I will tell you is...

MARTINEZ: How about a ballpark number?

ROUNDS: ...There are some very - there are very good, honest, decent individuals here on both sides of the aisle, and we really do value the integrity that we are supposed to be able to project back home. I tell my fellow Republicans that, look, at some stage of the game, the folks that are back home, they get the fact that there has been no substantiated evidence, but they want us to make it clear that we've looked at it as well and that if we don't find it, we have to have that hard conversation.

It's easy to hear conspiracy theories. But if the leadership of our party, the leadership of our country, isn't prepared to step forward and say, look, we've looked at these items and, very honestly, it - those - the accusations are unsubstantiated - there are minuscule areas where there have been anomalies, but they have not been enough to overturn the election results. And I think we just have to continue to share that. But...

MARTINEZ: When it comes to securing elections in the future, the motivation and what it looks like depends on who you're talking with, I would suppose. Do you support any efforts at the federal level to govern elections?

ROUNDS: I think we make a serious mistake if we try to take away from what the Founding Fathers wanted in the first place, which is the election process should be handled at the state level. Just as an example, if you go back home and to any one of the states and you ask them, do you want felons in your state to vote? They're probably going to tell you no. And yet at the federal level, that's being proposed in the process that's there today. If you go back home and you ask folks, do you want to have a program in which somebody's got to show an ID to vote? They're going to say, are you kidding me? Absolutely. If you got to get on an airplane, you ought to at least be able to not be afraid to say who you are when you're going to vote. You know, that's another item that's being discussed here at the federal level.

MARTINEZ: But what about something like expanding early voting or voting by mail, Senator? What about things like that? What reason would there be for Republicans to oppose voting by mail or expanding early voting?

ROUNDS: Well, I don't think you find that Republicans oppose voting by mail. In fact, in South Dakota, we've been doing that for years. We also have open voting for an extended period of time that's longer than what they were actually proposing at the congressional level. So it's not a matter of opposing it. It's simply a matter of being able to share with the American public that the vote, as it comes out, is legitimate and that you can account for the votes that are being cast.

There's a security sense - folks want to make sure that they really do believe that the elections are fair and that the ballots are being counted correctly. So, you know, from my perspective, I think that's best done at the local level. I really believe that. The Founding Fathers believed that, and I have no reason to think that they misled us.

MARTINEZ: That's Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. Senator, thank you.

ROUNDS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.