The real risk to America’s democracy
HAVING CAMPAIGN For the presidency with promises to rejuvenate democracy around the world, Joe Biden is in a fight to defend it at home. In June, 200 prominent American democracy scholars signed a letter warning that changes in the law would “turn multiple states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.” Another longtime student of American democracy, Republican Senate chairman Mitch McConnell, said in January that if an election were overturned by factual loser claims, “our democracy would get caught in a death spiral.” But that is exactly what his party makes possible.
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For the Democrats, the threat to elections is who can vote. They criticize changes in identification laws, postal voting, and so on, which they call “the new Jim Crow.” While there is no excuse for curtailing things like the Sunday election, which is popular with African American churches, their fears are exaggerated. Under old Jim Crow, only 2% of African Americans were registered as voters in some southern states. Political scientists, on the other hand, are unsure whether today’s programs will have any effect on voter turnout at all.
Instead, the real threat comes after the votes have been cast. In Arizona, for example, lawmakers want to restrict election officers’ independence; a state official passed a law allowing lawmakers to overturn the results of a presidential election and then launched a campaign of his own to monitor the elections. In Georgia, the state legislature can now replace the leadership of the district electoral committee. Texas is considering legislation to make it easier for election officials to prosecute. Across the country, officials who administer elections in Republican-run states have been attacked for upholding election results. Many are at risk of being replaced.
These may seem like distant, bureaucratic changes. In fact, they increase the likelihood of a contested choice that the courts cannot resolve. They are weakening America’s electoral system in a way that will outlast the hysteria over the 2020 outcome.
The inspiration behind this is Donald Trump, who continues to take every chance to insist that the election has been stolen. While it’s hard to say how seriously to take him, Mr Trump is already running campaign rallies for 2024 (to win the White House for the third year in a row, of course).
Claiming to win while actually losing may seem like a joke. But most Republican voters take it literally. Two out of three believe that Mr Biden did not win the November election, and just under half believe that the result should have been overturned. This puts Trump skeptics into a well-known dilemma among the Republican elite. Caught between their main constituents and loyalty to the Constitution, most have come to the conclusion that unless the Capitol is under siege, it is best to just keep silent.
Yet Mr Trump’s threats and the threat to the Constitution operate on different time scales. Mr Trump may or may not run again. In contrast, the changes to the electoral machinery made by Republican lawmakers in the states will be available to a candidate from either party starting in 2024 and beyond. To understand why this is so worrying, consider three resilient mechanisms built into American elections.
The first is the principle that the loser admits. Mr Trump gave up on that in 2020. The second is the integrity of local election officials, regardless of their partisan loyalty. Although they were under great pressure to do something else over the past year, they stood firm. As a reward, they have been stripped of their powers or new crimes created to intimidate them. Many Republican officials who confirmed the election results were reprimanded by their local party committees and received death threats. Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, stood out in 2020 for his willingness to stand up against Mr Trump when he was asked directly to “find” the votes needed to overturn the results. The Georgian legislature responded by removing some of its powers.
That leaves the third fail-safe one – the dishes. These too did well under stress and would probably do the same next time. But transferring the primary responsibility for the legitimacy of elections in election to election to the judiciary runs the risk of overloading and ultimately breaking it. How long would it be before a Supreme Court decision was ignored?
It was customary in parts of the right to catastrophize democracy in America: remember the Flight 93 Election in 2016 when patriots were asked to storm the cockpit to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency? It has since spread to the left and center as well. Talk of an endangered democracy arouses the specter of a country under an autocrat as it was abandoned on July 4, 1776. The greater danger is that the chaos will normalize after the 2020 elections. By the latest standards, 2020 wasn’t that close. Imagine competition so tight that no national consensus could decide who is ahead. America would, to quote Mr McConnell again, be on “a poisonous path in which only the winners of an election actually accept the result”.
My party, right or wrong
The elites of the Republican Party are in a bind that they have created themselves. Under pressure from Mr. Trump and his allies, state legislatures are making changes that will weaken American democracy. The solution is for leaders to uphold the norm that election administrators are above the party. However, they have given in to the lie of a stolen election so much that confirmation of the fraud has become an essential requirement for carrying out the next vote.
The silent non-Trump faction of the Republican Party can hope all of this will pass and exaggerate those who are sounding the alarm about democracy. They may believe that as long as they stay on good terms with their base, they can play a bigger role in protecting America. Yet that logic has proven flawed since Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2016. Meanwhile, the composition of her party changes around her. It would be safer for the Constitution and more in line with the flag-waving spirit of July 4th for Republicans to speak out now, before it gets even harder to speak out. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print version under the heading “The Real Risk to America’s Democracy”