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The Real Danger in 2024
Voting rights legislation is admirable. But to protect the integrity of elections, we must first ensure partisans can’t overrule the results.
A year has now passed since the January 6 Capitol assault failed to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as president of the United States. Donald Trump’s political machine has spent that time busily planning to recapture power in 2024. Much attention has been given to the industrious Republican-led rollback of voting rights in many states. Far less notice has been given to the more insidious ploys to seize control of the certification process itself and thereby de-legitimize the election. Both will affect the outcome in 2024, but the latter presents a potentially fatal blow to our electoral system. While the future of democracy may well be at stake, we are not focusing enough attention on this very real danger.
The recent laws making it harder for Americans to vote are troubling. In 2021, approximately 19 states enacted measures including criminalizing providing food or water to those waiting in line to vote; preventing election officials from encouraging voting by mail; disallowing people from returning ballots from disabled or convalescent voters; and complicating non-native speakers’ access to electoral information. These laws are largely appearing in swing states like Iowa, Florida, and Georgia. The conventional logic is that these measures will erect barriers for minorities and low-income families to vote. The Democratic Party has identified a danger here, and is concerned about the Republican Party’s self-interested efforts to restrict voting.
At the same time, resistance at the state level has been ineffective, while Democrats at the federal level have shouldered support into legislation like the Freedom to Vote Act. This legislation would require early voting, support mail voting, make Election Day a national holiday, and weaken voter ID requirements, all of which would make voting easier.
But while such legislation may seem justified, hurling so much energy into this strategy is questionable. The Freedom to Vote Act is incredibly unlikely to pass given the tenuous hold that Democrats have over the Senate, and even if codified into law, it would be subject to an endless series of court challenges ultimately decided by a Supreme Court that favors state decision-making over federal mandates.
At best, this attention may be a waste of time. At worst, it could distract the public from a far more serious danger: Trump and his Republican allies’ systematic dismantling of the electoral process itself.
The core of this strategy rests in allegations that the 2020 election was stolen. The seeds of the deception have long been planted in our political soil: During a debate with Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2016, Trump famously refused to adhere to the results of the contest, glibly stating, “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Proposed mechanisms for widespread fraud include allegations that Dominion Voting Systems deleted or swapped over 2.7 million votes; that votes in six states were incorrectly tabulated; and that ballots were hidden from election auditors. These claims have been amplified by Trumpist surrogates in the media like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, as well as outlets like NewsMax and OAN. 147 Republican congresspeople voted to overturn the election results.
Their lies have been broadly rebuffed. Over 60 cases challenging the legitimacy of the election, often decided by judges appointed by Trump himself, have dismissed claims of widespread voter fraud. Even Trump lawyer Sidney Powell has admitted that “no reasonable person” should consider their claims truthful.
While Democrats focus on questions of voter suppression, deliberate efforts to undermine the integrity of American democracy continue unabated. Anti-Trump politicians within the GOP are being steadily forced from office and silenced. The disinformation campaign conducted by Trump, his acolytes, conservative groups, and profit-seeking media corporations has been successful in influencing public opinion: Almost 50 million Republicans believe that Biden was not lawfully elected.
Most disturbingly, laws are being rewritten by Republican majorities in swing states that would dismantle the election certification systems that resisted enormous pressure from Trump in 2020.
In Arizona, for instance, the state legislature passed a law that forbids the Democratic Secretary of State from taking part in election lawsuits. They are also considering a bill that will allow them to revoke an election certificate by majority vote, eliminating the traditional certifier of results and giving the Republican-controlled legislature near unlimited authority to overturn the popular vote.
Republicans like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who certified Biden's victory have meanwhile been targeted by Trump’s political machine. Raffensperger faces well-funded primary opposition from a candidate who vocally believes that the election was stolen, and the legislature has dislodged him from the state’s voting board, depriving him of any real authority in future elections.
Moreover, the Georgia legislature has given itself the authority to fire local election boards, effectively allowing them to eliminate locally selected personnel in Democratic-controlled counties and replace them with party loyalists. Trump allies are easily scoring victories on local election boards that are seldom, if ever, competitive.
This isn’t taking place in just Arizona and Georgia: There is a concentrated effort across all swing states. These efforts, in conjunction with Trump’s full-throated support for aspirational governors and secretaries of state who loudly proclaim that they would never have certified the previous elections, are leading to an incredibly partisan and remarkably bold hijacking of a traditionally de-politicized certification process.
Make no mistake: Trump attempted a coup this time last year. While some have argued that his marching orders delivered to a frenzied crowd were merely hyperbolic, there can be no mistaking the pressure that Trump put on Mike Pence to simply ignore the certification process and force the election into the House of Representatives, where Trump may have prevailed. The trickle of information emerging from the January 6 Commission underscores that Trump’s approach to his loss in 2020 was not that of a politician seeking fairness and justice. They were the actions of an aspiring autocrat.
With all of this in hand, Trump will presumably enter 2024 in a stronger position than 2020. He will likely be running against an unpopular incumbent. The safeguards that certified the previous election are being dismantled and Trump loyalists are being installed in key places throughout the chain.
January 6, 2021 was not a blip on the radar. It was not an unfortunate moment in American history about which our children will learn curiously. It is, rather, a grim premonition of things to come. This is about more than the shifting balance of power in 2022 or 2024. This is about the safety and surety of democratic government.
Alexander H Cohen is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University. His latest book is Gaming the System: Nine Games to Teach American Government Through Active Learning.