Efforts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election are still underway, almost a full year after the election. Politicians in Republican states have now taken to subpoenaing voter information or voting machines to conduct “forensic investigations” of the results. This is a sign of weakening democracy and American citizens should pay close attention.
On Wednesday, September 15th, Pennsylvania Senate Republicans subpoenaed personal information about voters including driver’s license information, the last four digits of social security numbers, any residential changes, along with other data (NBC News, 2021). Citizens may be confused as to why this information has been requested, almost a full year after the 2020 presidential election took place. However, Pennsylvania is not a unique case; it joins Texas, Wisconsin, and Arizona in undertaking uncredible “forensic” election audits (US News, 2021). Republicans in Wisconsin have even gone as far as to request the machines used for voting in certain precincts as well, all to perpetuate the “Big Lie:” that Trump secretly won the election in 2020 and that there has been a conspiracy to cover it up (AP News, 2021).
News stories such as these are easy to dismiss as nothing more than desperate attempts by Trump supporters to hang on to power. But growing distrust of electoral results highlights a very telling and terrifying truth about where American democracy is headed.
In How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt propose a list of warning signs for authoritarian leaders and democratic decline, including “rejection of democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents.” Although several of these can be applied to former President Trump or his network of political allies, the “rejection of democratic rules of the game” is especially pertinent. In this sense, “rules of the game” applies to attempting to undermine the legitimacy of elections.
Trump’s favorite claim, (even when he ran in 2016), was that if he were to lose, it would be proof that the election was rigged. Before election day in 2020, Trump attempted to stir up doubt surrounding the validity of voting by mail. This was especially dangerous in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, since it was unsafe for the majority of the population to vote in person. In the subpoena authorized in Pennsylvania, form of voting (in person or by mail) was also requested for each voter.
The next step in the carefully calculated plan for defeat was the audit of elections that Trump and Trump-supporting officials carried out. Out of the sixty-two election lawsuits that his team put forth, sixty-one cases were defeated (USA Today, 2021). The final case did not help overturn election results either, requiring Pennsylvania voters to provide ID after the election. Trump’s plan to use the courts as a backup failed, but we still see remnants of desperate attempts ten months later.
What does this mean going forward? Likely, these motions being carried out by state Republicans will be dismissed in much of the same way the earlier court cases were. However, the seeds of doubt will still be planted in the minds of Trump supporters and non-supporters alike. In post-Trump America, the “truth” can become whatever is said the loudest and most often, regardless of political associations.
Declining trust in elections or election integrity is a clear sign of an eroding democracy. Elections cannot remain free and fair with constant meddling from people in power. These next few election cycles will be especially important for returning to election integrity. Stirring up doubt in election results gives a dangerous opening for authoritarians to stay in power legally. Fighting autocracy starts in the ballot box.
How Democracies Die highlights a way to combat these efforts; other Republicans must unequivocally condemn these tactics, dispute the “Big Lie”, and encourage trust in electoral proceedings, “even if that means temporarily joining forces with bitter rivals” (Ziblatt and Levitsky, 2019). After all, politicians should be protecting citizens and democracy, not fighting for power.
Cummings, W., Garrison, J., & Sergent, J. (2021, January 6). USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/elections/2021/01/06/trumps-failed-efforts-overturn-election-numbers/4130307001/
Levy, M., & Associated Press. (2021, September 15). U.S. News. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/pennsylvania/articles/2021-09-15/gop-lawmakers-prepare-subpoenas-in-quest-for-election-fraud
Richmond, T. (https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-elections-wisconsin-election-2020-subpoenas-3952211bd482a785d3a8fbe9cc4d7c86, August 6). AP News. Retrieved 2021
Smith, A. (2021, September 15). NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/pennsylvania-republicans-issue-broad-subpoenas-voter-info-probe-last-fall-n1279275
Ura, A. (2021, September 28). The Texas Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/28/texas-audits-2020-elections/