US Attorney General William Barr has authorised federal prosecutors across the country to pursue “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities before the presidential election is certified, despite little evidence of fraud.
Mr Barr’s action comes days after Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump and raises the prospect that Mr Trump will use the Justice Department to try to challenge the outcome.
It gives prosecutors the ability to go around long-standing Justice Department policy that normally would prohibit such overt actions before the election is formally certified.
Mr Trump has not conceded the election and is instead claiming without evidence that there has been a widespread, multi-state conspiracy by Democrats to skew the vote tally in Mr Biden’s favour.
Mr Biden holds a significant lead in multiple battleground states and there has been no indication of enough improperly counted or illegally cast votes that would shift the outcome.
In fact, election officials from both political parties have publicly stated the election went well, despite minor issues typical in elections, including voting machines breaking and ballots that were miscast and lost.
In a memo to US attorneys, obtained by The Associated Press, Mr Barr wrote that investigations “may be conducted if there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State”.
States have until December 8 to resolve election disputes, including recounts and court contests over the results. Members of the Electoral College meet on December 14 to finalise the outcome.
Meanwhile, US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said Mr Trump is “100% within his rights” to question election results and consider legal options after his defeat.
The senior Republican’s first public comments since the result was declared came as the president’s allies on Capitol Hill have been reluctant to congratulate Mr Biden or push Mr Trump to accept the outcome.
Mr McConnell said the process would play out and “reach its conclusion”.
“Our institutions are actually built for this,” Mr McConnell said as he opened the Senate. “We have the system in place to consider concerns and President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Republicans’ refusal to stand by the election results is “extremely dangerous, extremely poisonous to our democracy”.
He said election lawsuits can be valid but they must be based on evidence and facts.
“Joe Biden won the election fair and square,” Mr Schumer said.
While some Republican state officials invoked the Trump mantra that only “legal votes” should be counted, others emerged to counter the campaign narrative and urge voters, and perhaps the president, to support the results.
“The process has not failed our country in more than 200 years, and it is not going to fail our country this year,” said Republican senator Susan Collins, who won her re-election bid in Maine and has congratulated Mr Biden on his victory.
Across the country, Republicans have complained about problems with the signatures, secrecy envelopes and postal marks on ballots, the inability of their poll watchers to scrutinise them and the extensions granted for mail-in ballots to arrive.
However, judges largely rejected the Republican challenges as the campaign sought to interrupt the vote count as it leaned toward Mr Biden.