Republicans now are carrying out a multi-pronged, guerilla war on American democracy. They seem to be convinced that, at least in national elections, they can no longer persuade a majority of voters to support their candidates or policies. As the United States moves toward becoming a majority-minority nation, Republicans are not fighting to assemble a broad-based, governing coalition. Instead they seem determined to become what Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin has called a “white supremacist caucus.” They are dedicated to defending the power and prerogatives of rural, white, male citizens.
Their strategy plays out in many ways, all of them designed to discredit democratic institutions or to shape the rules of the game in order to limit the franchise.
Republicans have largely fallen in line with former President Trump’s big lie about the 2020 presidential election, blocked federal efforts to ensure ballot access, and, with the support of conservative Supreme Court Justices, crippled the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the state level, they have enacted new, restrictive measures that will make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots in future elections.
But perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous part of the Republican war on democracy is their effort to reshape who counts the votes and how they get counted. They have done this by discrediting and intimidating officials who acted as guardrails against the big lie. They are also trying to change the rules governing the voting and vote-counting process to tilt them in their favor.
Republican-dominated state legislatures are inserting themselves into the vote-counting process in ways that signal a determination to guarantee that elections come out in favor of their party. The ongoing, scandalous audit of the November vote in Maricopa County, Arizona, is but one example of the lengths to which they will go.
As they have on others issues, Republicans have skillfully and deceptively branded their campaign against democracy.
They are again trying to convince people that black is white, up is down, and that the only way to save democracy is by making sure that only the “right” people are able to vote and have their votes counted. In the wake of the 2020 election, their constant refrain was that only every “legal vote” should be counted.
Now they claim that their democracy-killing efforts are the only way to protect the “integrity of the ballot.”
To reinforce the message, the Republican National Committee has created a Committee on Election Integrity “dedicated to restoring election transparency and ensuring voters have confidence in future election processes.”
As RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel explained, “Election integrity is one of the most critical issues we face as a Party and as a country. What we saw this past election—states undoing important safeguards, bypassing the proper legislative processes, and changing election laws in the eleventh hour – was deeply troubling and brought chaos and uncertainty to our sacred democratic processes…. The RNC will play a crucial role in restoring confidence in our elections, promoting election integrity, and recommending best practices to ensure that future elections are free, fair, and transparent.”
This explanation seems to be working with Republican voters. A poll from last February found that 76% of Republicans believed there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
And surveys now register sharp partisan divides in attitudes toward voting rules. A Pew poll done in March found that 85% of Democrats think that everything possible should be done to make it easier for people to vote. In contrast, only 28% of Republicans agree. 61% of Republicans say that making it easier for people to vote will make elections “less secure.” Only 16% of Democrats share this view.
Race also matters when it comes to views about voting rules. 84% of Blacks favor making it easier for people to vote as opposed to 51% of whites.
In 2020, many Republican officials, some well-known but many not well-known at all, had a different understanding of election integrity and stood up to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. From former Vice President Mike Pence, to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to members of local and state boards of election, they loyally adhered to the rule of law rather than showing rabid partisans.
Typical was Kansas Secretary of State who announced right after the election that, “Kansas did not experience any widespread, systematic issues with voter fraud, intimidation, irregularities or voting problems,
Since November, those officials have been vilified and pilloried for their steadfastness. Many have been directly targeted by the former president.
The Boston Globe reports that those officials have been the subjects of harassment, death threats, and political reprisals. Some have been quietly purged from their posts.
That treatment is designed to make sure that in 2024, officials with similar responsibilities will be less zealous about doing their jobs and telling the truth about vote counts. The hope is that they will think twice before resisting appeals to “stop the steal.”
Beyond personal attacks, Republicans are making legislative changes designed to alter the vote-counting process in future elections or to make voting and vote counting subject to more partisan interference.
According to a recent report by Protect Democracy, Republican lawmakers this year have introduced at least 148 bills in 36 states that could lead to the partisan manipulation of election results.
To offer one example, Georgia, Montana, and Iowa have granted greater power to poll watchers who work for candidates or political parties, enabling them to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters. This risks turning the simple act of casting a ballot into a partisan contest and encouraging discriminatory or disruptive challenges. The Iowa law makes it a criminal offense for an election official to obstruct a watcher’s activities.
Georgia’s new election law also strips the Secretary of State of decision-making power on the state election board and allows the legislature to select the board chair and handpick officials who could vote on that board. The law lets the state board remove local election officials and appoint their replacements.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called a special legislative session to consider a bill that would, among other, things limit local control of elections.
In a statement accompanying its report, Project Democracy noted that many of these bills “would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis.”
University of California, Irvine Law Professor Richard Hasen rightly has warned that “Combating efforts that can undermine the fair administration of elections and vote counting is especially tricky. Unlike issues of voter suppression, which are easy to explain to the public…, the risks of unfair election administration are inchoate. They may materialize or they may not, depending on how close an election is and whether Mr. Trump himself or another person running for office is willing to break democratic norms and insist on an unfair vote count.”
Learning the wrong lessons from their defeat in the last presidential election, Republicans are carefully planting minefields for use if future elections do not come out their way. So far they are encountering little effective resistance.
The Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin once reportedly said, “I regard it as completely unimportant who in the party will vote and how, but it is extremely important who will count the votes and how.”
Sadly, this is another area in which Trump’s Republican party is taking its cues from Russia.