In the past few years, we’ve witnessed many serious threats to American democracy. Some that loom large include: the January 6 Capitol riot, President Trump’s “perfect phone call” to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (“I just want to find 11,780 votes”), and here in Arizona, the election “audit” performed by conspiracy-theorists and Trump loyalists (the Cyber Ninjas).
But not every criticism of election administration is a threat to democracy. Nor is every legal challenge. Nor is every proposed legislation seeking to change how elections are administered.
If we label everything as a threat to democracy, we will undermine the credibility of our public comments, we will impede attempts at election reform, we will exasperate good-faith actors who simply have different policy priorities, and we will cause outrage fatigue (similar to the “sympathy fatigue” described in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land).
Unfortunately, many on the political left have done exactly this in recent years. Whether because it fits their immediate political goals or fundraising needs, politicians, activist groups, and nonprofits on the political left have used the term “threat to democracy” constantly over the past few years. I’ve closely witnessed at least two instances – Georgia’s Senate Bill 202 (2021) and Arizona’s Senate Bill 1485 (2021) – that have wrongly been characterized by these actors as grave threats to democracy. These statements have a negative long-term impact on our ability to protect American democracy.
Georgia Senate Bill 202
In the wake of the November 2020 election, Georgia’s legislature introduced “The Election Integrity Act.” Once passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor, the bill changed the type of identification needed for mail voting, it limited the number of ballot-drop-boxes for early ballots, and it prohibited the distribution of food or water within the no-electioneering zone outside a voting location. The new law also expanded the number of early voting days to include at least one Saturday and possibly two Sundays.
The bill caused a firestorm. Elected Democrats in Georgia branded the bill “Jim Crow 2.0” – evoking one of the ugliest points of American history. President Biden called the proposed law “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” Major League Baseball removed its 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta as a result of the law, and major companies such as Delta, Coca-Cola, and JP Morgan protested that the law would cause democratic backsliding.
I don’t know if I agree with Senate Bill 202. In fact, I don’t agree with some of the changes. But almost all components of the legislation are ideas that are regularly discussed at election administration policy conferences. They are not outlandish. They are not the equivalent of storming the Capitol to thwart the transfer of power to the lawfully elected President of the United States. They are not the equivalent of extreme physical violence to deter black people from voting.
And the characterization is wrong in terms of where it left Georgia in the national voting landscape and the effect it had on Georgia elections. Even after the bill became law, Georgia has more permissive voting laws that many states, including states like Illinois that are thought to be left-leaning states. As for the alleged decreased turnout – especially among racial minorities – that many on the left promised would happen as a result of the new law, Georgians actually voted in record numbers in the 2022 elections.
Arizona Senate Bill 1485
In the past three years, Arizona has introduced more bills related to election administration that any other state. One new law, signed by Governor Doug Ducey in 2021, changed the state’s “Permanent Early Voting List” (PEVL) to the “Active Early Voting List” (AEVL). If you were an Arizona registered voter on the PEVL, you would automatically receive a ballot-by-mail for every election for which you are eligible. The change to AEVL meant that if you didn’t participate by early ballot for four years, you would be removed from the list. You could still vote, you just wouldn’t automatically be sent a mail ballot for the election.
This proposed change prompted commentary similar to Georgia. Business groups mobilized against the bill, activists evoked “Jim Crow 2.0,” and, ultimately, left-leaning groups sued in federal court to argue that the law was unconstitutional (Mi Familia Vota v. Fontes, CV-21-01423-PHX-DWL).
I was recently deposed in this case. As I said in my deposition, the law has been overblown by both the right and the left. The benefits of the bill are likely to be small (the biggest benefit will likely be the reduction in some unused postage). But the harm of the bill (preventing voters from voting) is speculative, fails to consider multiple mitigating factors, and ignores that even after the new law, Arizona’s election laws remain some of the most voter-friendly in the country.
Very real threats to democracy exist. Maybe more so now than at any recent time in our country’s history. But not everything is a threat to democracy. Not everything is “Jim Crow 2.0.” And while the use of these terms might help some on the political left fundraise or mobilize followers, the more common the use of these terms, and the more often the danger is exaggerated, the more we cloud the very real threats to democracy that we face.
That is why I objected to these cries of outrage with respect to Georgia Senate Bill 202 and Arizona Senate Bill 1485, and it’s why I think academics, including one we’ve read for class, are acting irresponsibly when they adopt these terms for the promotion of their papers (e.g. Bentele, Keith G., and Erin E. O’Brien. 2013. “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Perspectives on Politics 11 (4): 1088-1116).
Help democracy. Don’t cry wolf unless there’s a wolf.
Stephen Richer is the elected Maricopa County Recorder, responsible for recording, voter registration, and early voting in the second largest voting jurisdiction in the United States. He was awarded “Arizonan of the Year, 2021” by The Arizona Republic and “Republican Politician of the Year, 2021” by The Phoenix New Times. He received his M.A. and J.D. from The University of Chicago, his B.A. from Tulane University, and he is a PhD student at Arizona State University.