Across the country, sixty percent of Americans will have an election denier on their ballot. At least 16 states will have a candidate running for secretary of state (or positions that appoint the secretary of state) that has at least questioned the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Many of these candidates across the country promise to not only reject the results of the upcoming midterms if they aren’t in favor of Republicans, but they also vow to control the way elections are run and ensure the “America First” movement does not lose at the ballot box.
This is a prime example of democratic backsliding, and offers evidence of a few specific theories. The first relates to political leadership, which focuses on the personnel aspects of the deterioration of democracy. The second is political culture, which looks at widespread beliefs and how they cause certain actions among the general public. The third and final aspect involves the institutions themselves. The first two, in turn, affect the third, and how it does and does not uphold the democratic norm.
How Did We Get Here
Election denialism and attempts to undermine elections are not new phenomena in the United States, especially among members of the Republican Party. Since at least the 1960s, American conservatives have aggressively accused liberals of padding vote totals and stealing elections.
Conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation often cite old examples of incidents like the Tammany Hall political machine stuffing ballots in 1844 to support their theories. More recently, the presidential administration of George W. Bush ran a five-year probe into voter fraud in major cities, accusing Democrats of padding votes in swing states. That probe resulted in little evidence. These examples, and others in the past, pale in comparison to what is happening today, where one of the two major political parties has taken an anti-democratic position with a stated goal to seize control of the election process and overthrow democratic elections when they believe the results are fraudulent–with or without any proof.
Where We’re At
In May of 2021, Jim Marchant, the GOP candidate for Nevada’s Secretary of State, founded the America First Secretary of State Coalition. The group’s stated goal is to “Promote and establish messaging that Secretary of State elections all across the country are a priority and are currently our most important elections because they are predominantly responsible for the election process in each state”.
Marchant supports the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy, which claimed the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, including Marchant’s own bid for Congress the same year. He has also stated the group is working to fix the issues he believes allowed the election to be stolen.
What Are Republicans Doing and Why it Matters
Republicans nationwide are engaged in several initiatives which could have severe consequences. First, they’re breeding a political culture of election denialism and are quickly crafting a conservative base that rejects the election of Joe Biden and the legitimacy and integrity of our election systems. Several polls over the last year have shown more than 70 percent of Republicans do not believe President Biden was legitimately elected.
When both elites (i.e. those with political power) and a portion of the general public share a lack of confidence in the electoral system, democratic decay can set in. This has pushed many to run for office with the sole purpose of overthrowing and/or altering election systems. It has also pushed the Republican base to more consistently choose election deniers as their nominees in races at all levels of government.
The second issue at play involves political leadership. When those who are threats to democracy hold positions of power, they can negatively impact and influence institutions to remove key elements of democracy. While there are obviously structural constrictions that may prevent bad actors from making dramatic changes to systems, the challenge becomes protecting those areas which are more fluid. For example, many experts believe the Constitution is rather weak when it comes to protecting state-run elections. University of Chicago legal scholars Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg believe it provides very few protections against attempts to move backward. In this case, if someone elected to a governorship or even the presidency cares very little about the rules outlined in the Constitution and has a substantial political backing, they can practically do what they want.
On the state and local levels, Secretaries of State and election officials wield tremendous power. They implement election laws, help decide when people can vote, and even oversee the cleaning up of voter registration rolls. The framework they work within is often vague. This means that numerous people have a lot of leeway to make decisions as they please, change rules, and influence election outcomes. A state’s Secretary of State, for example, can purge voters from the registration rolls for small mistakes in their registration or even for voter inactivity. They can remove players from the game – in this case, voters in free and fair elections – and bolster the influence of their base in elections on every level of government.
The final area that matters as it relates to sliding backward involves the actual institutions. We have a culture where millions of citizens do not believe the system is legitimate. It has become routine to put up nominees who hope to alter, or even scrap completely, the very institutions they’re elected to protect in order to satisfy anti-democratic interests. This culture, combined with already existing leaders who shout these ideas through figurative and literal megaphones, poses serious threats. If these individuals who appear on the ballot this year, as well as in coming years, end up winning their races, we should expect to see serious alterations to the system.
Most likely, they will enforce strict voting laws intended to diminish the political power of their opponents. They will actively work to overturn election results that don’t fit their worldview. And, they will continue to bolster the judiciary at every level to appoint or elect supporters who will uphold their actions. By doing so, election deniers intend to remove their opposition, replace the referees and rule enforcers, and essentially ensure that they will win.
There is a serious threat on the ballot this November, but it will not stop if it loses at the polls. And it will not ease up if it wins. This movement is growing, and those involved plan to overrun the election systems wherever they can. The country is faced with a serious decision as to whether voters will reject this agenda or accept it. We are being tested. How much do we genuinely value democracy?