Following the 2020 election, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have pushed for restrictive voting measures and other changes to the electoral process. Proponents of these changes appeal to claims of widespread electoral fraud and the need for “election integrity.” In reality, these bills represent a partisan push to eliminate political competition. Arizona serves as a useful example of this antidemocratic trend.
Claiming that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, Donald Trump and his allies undertook an effort to reverse the results, culminating in the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol. In the year following this failed attempt, Republican lawmakers in states such as Arizona have seized on the false narrative that the election was stolen and have sought to eliminate the chance of electoral defeat.
To this end, the Arizona legislature recently introduced a multitude of election-related bills that lean heavily into conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Senate Bill 1008 would widen the margin that would trigger an automatic recount from 0.1% to 0.5%. Joe Biden won the state by a margin of 0.3% in 2020. Other bills would require inspections of election equipment, images of ballots to be published after an election, and special paper to be used for ballots. One conspiracy theory suggested that ballots were flown into Arizona from China, presumably pre-filled with votes for Democrats, prompting a search for bamboo fibers in some of the ballots cast in Maricopa County. Another bill would prohibit cities or school districts from conducting a mail-in ballot election. Still others would ban automatic voter registration and require voters to verify voter ID cards with two different methods including signatures, security codes, or fingerprints. Trump has previously suggested that high levels of voting would result in Republicans losing elections. In a more aggressive turn, House Bill 2596 would eliminate nearly all absentee and early voting, mandate a hand count of all ballots, and, most significantly, allow the state legislature to reject election results. If overturned, any qualified elector could request that a new election be held. One of the co-sponsors of the bill, State Representative Mark Finchem, was present at the Capitol on January 6th and is running for secretary of state. If elected, he would oversee elections in Arizona.
While the United States may not be likely to experience complete authoritarian reversion in which most democratic institutions are rapidly lost, Arizona’s proposed election bills show that the threat of democratic backsliding is worth considering. In their article, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg describe a particular type of democratic backsliding: constitutional retrogression. This concept details a more subtle and incremental erosion of the pillars of democracy—a democratic electoral system, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law . The situation in Arizona provides an example of how two of the pathways to constitutional retrogression—degrading the public sphere and elimination of political competition—can be operationalized. Relying on baseless stories of election fraud and the distortion of information, Arizona Republicans have attempted to pass legislation to minimize the possibility of alternating power with Democrats.
The election-related bills in Arizona seek to use legal channels to eliminate political competition in two ways. First, they seek to disadvantage Democrats in elections. Second, they seek to create opportunities to overturn election results in the event that their preferred candidate does not win. Restrictions on voting such as increased identification requirements, bans on automatic registration, and limits on mail-in, absentee, and early voting accomplish the first goal. Limits to voters’ access to the ballot have been thought to advantage Republicans over Democrats. To accomplish the second goal, Arizona Republicans have sought to create openings to change electoral outcomes after ballots are counted by increasing the margin for an automatic recount and creating a procedure for rejecting election results outright.
To justify these bills, legislators have spread unfounded claims about election fraud coupled with legislation purported to eliminate it. While some of the bills introduced in Arizona might seem benign individually, taken together, they seek to cast doubt upon the integrity of current election procedures. In this way, the distortion of information about elections is harmful to democracy both because it provides the basis for the elimination of political competition and because it directly undermines voters’ ability to make informed political choices.
Shortly after it was introduced, the Arizona House Speaker, a Republican, effectively blocked House Bill 2596 by assigning it to all 12 House committees for consideration before a vote. Although this bill seems to be defeated, for now, it shows the willingness of many Republican lawmakers to ensure that their preferred candidate cannot lose. It also provides evidence for Huq and Ginsburg’s suggestion that without strong institutional defenses, it could be up to individual politicians to keep American democracy on the guardrails.
 Huq, A., & Ginsburg, T. (2018). How to lose a constitutional democracy. UCLA L. Rev., 65, 78.