A record number of opponents of fair elections are being recruited to run for office, administer elections, and mount election challenges.
Though they may salute the flag and speak patriotically, many Republican candidates, poll workers, and attorneys this year are making clear they are less loyal to the Constitution and the institutions of our democracy than to Donald Trump and the lies he and Republican leaders have spread about voter fraud and the stolen 2020 election. At this point, the quest to prevent Republican victory at the polls has ceased being a partisan mission and become instead a constitutional imperative.
This anti-democracy strain now dominating the GOP is an outgrowth of decades in which the party’s initial desire to loosen progressives’ grip on the nation’s political power shifted to an intensifying focus on winning and holding that power at all costs. Now, as it continues to pursue policies that ignore the popular will of the American people, it is attempting a legal coup. Led by Trump and fueled by more than 250 candidates for federal and state office, party adherents are united by their support for – or failure to denounce – Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen, the GOP’s long-disproven claim of rampant voter fraud, the January 6 attempted insurrection, intimidation of election officials, and new Republican-written laws that make the counting and certification of election results more subject to partisan power plays. All are positions that do much more than undermine trust in the electoral process – they threaten the very existence and legitimacy of our democracy.
Hundreds, if not thousands, more such candidates are running for down-ballot positions (such as county clerk) that have power to influence how elections are run. And legions of other true believers in the persistent exaggeration about voter fraud and Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election are being recruited to serve as partisan-trained poll workers and election attorneys. While it’s very difficult to rig an election in our system, the anti-democracy forces in such positions can throw an election into chaos and potentially prevent the certification of election winners.
Meanwhile, at least eight Republican-run states – including three of the most significant battlegrounds, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona – have enacted laws since Trump’s 2020 loss that reduce the independence of election overseers, and this year legislators in 33 states have proposed 229 new election laws that would “allow state legislatures to politicize, criminalize, or interfere with elections”. Some of these states have already passed laws that threaten election administrators and other election workers with penalties: In Arizona, officials who fail to require voters to prove their citizenship prior to casting each ballot face possible jail time; in Iowa, anyone who collects absentee ballots from home-bound voters could spend up to a year in prison; and in Florida, officials who leave a drop box unattended could be fined up to $25,000.
At the same time, threats of violence and intimidation are driving dedicated local election officials to consider leaving their jobs. Coupled with the belief among 67% of Republicans that only their candidate can win a legitimate election in 2024, it becomes clear that the nation is in the midst of a constitutional crisis unlike any it has confronted.
This new insurgency is not going unchallenged. Several groups have organized to meet these new threats head on. From recruiting candidates for the Democratic ticket who oppose anti-democracy Republicans to providing legal support to election workers who are intimidated by the new laws or threatened with violence, pro-democracy groups and citizens are stepping up to defend the nation’s commitment to our experiment in democracy.
The Army of Candidates and Election Saboteurs
Ballotpedia reports that, as of May 27, Trump had endorsed 189 fellow Republicans running for governor, the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, state executive branch offices, state legislatures, and local office. In addition to their anti-democracy positions and allegiance to Trump and a party that has ignored if not repudiated democratic norms for the past decade, some also openly support white supremacy and elements of replacement theory, a racist view of American democracy that gained the spotlight as a motivating force behind the May 2022 mass shooting in Buffalo, NY.
The number of people Trump has endorsed is not the sole measure of the anti-democracy forces set to converge on the polls this fall. States United Democracy Center, formed in 2020 as the Voter Protection Program, estimates that an additional 63 election deniers – those who assert that Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 election – are running for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state in an effort to “replace the refs” – the very officials who administer elections. That would put the number of anti-democracy candidates at 250, at a minimum.
Looking to local candidates and to the many volunteer positions in polling centers, Republicans are actively recruiting anti-democracy adherents to run for office or sign up to work the polls, either to sign in voters as they come to vote or to monitor their actions. Steve Bannon – a principal advisor in the Trump White House who was later pardoned by Trump before facing trial for voter fraud – began using his “War Room” podcast to recruit candidates and poll workers soon after January 6. And the Republican National Committee and Cleta Mitchell, who was instrumental in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, have been recruiting poll watchers and workers and training them on “election integrity”. According to the New York Times, the RNC has so far recruited 5,000 poll watchers and nearly 12,000 poll workers. Such activity by the RNC had been prohibited for 35 years by a consent decree that expired in 2017.
While these candidates and volunteers call themselves Republicans, by their support of election-related lies and distortions, they have lost credibility as spokespeople for the sort of principled conservatism that dominated the party for more than three decades. Though there are still some in the party who prioritize the rule of law and adherence to democratic norms – like those that once governed Supreme Court nominations – over the pursuit of partisan power, voters should be wary of anyone who openly supports repeatedly disproven claims of election cheating or who evades direct answers to questions about Trump’s authoritarian push, who really won the 2020 election, or the violence of January 6.
To be sure, some of the 250-plus anti-democracy adherents seeking office in 2022 are competing against each other in Republican primaries, so this number is sure to decline. The primary season still has several months to go before we’ll know exactly how many from this camp will be on the ballot in the general election. Early returns, however, suggest the number could be substantial. As of May 27, for example, 92 candidates endorsed by Trump had won their primaries and only nine had lost.
Raising the Alarm
The news media has been sounding the alarm about a looming and frighteningly legal coup for more than a year but the message has been diffuse, inconsistent, and incomplete.
In December 2021, The Atlantic concluded Trump’s second attempted coup (after January 6) had already begun, while two months earlier, Salon said Trump’s slow coup was already a “runaway train”. It noted with appropriate concern how legislatures were making control of election results more partisan, but it incorrectly suggested that gerrymandering was a growing part of the GOP strategy to influence election outcomes. In fact, Republican gerrymandering may have reached its zenith a decade ago, leading to an estimated 16 to 17 seat advantage in the House of Representatives by 2017.
Also in October, CNN offered six reasons to take the slow-moving coup seriously and The Hill said journalists need to do a better job than comedians in covering the slow coup. Both referenced an October 8 segment by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show, “Real Time”, in which he detailed evidence of the GOP’s slow-moving coup, with Trump as its leader. That segment went viral and sparked a great deal of conversation and belated coverage of the “slow coup” in the media.
On June 1, 2022, Politico reported on secretly recorded Republican National Committee training sessions that revealed “a multi-pronged strategy to target and potentially overturn votes in Democratic precincts”, including identification of partisan district attorneys who could potentially block vote counts in precincts under their jurisdiction.
And just days later, Democracy Docket published a detailed summary of the diverse mechanisms being pursued by Republicans to sabotage upcoming elections. In addition to citing the New York Times’ report on the recruiting efforts of Cleta Mitchell and the Republican National Committee and the revelations reported by Politico, Democracy Docket spotlighted the development of legal teams ready to challenge a losing 2022 vote in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
One characteristic shared by these reports is a lack of historical perspective. As a result, they all focus on Trump as the source of the trouble we’re in rather than the words uttered by Ronald Reagan early in his 1981 inaugural address: “Government is the problem.”
At that time, the conservative GOP had built alliances with southern Democrats who had left the party over their opposition to civil rights for Black people, the Christian Right who desired to impose on the nation their views on when personhood is conferred to an unborn child, and a business community that had embraced a profit-at-all-costs worldview that opposed government regulation in general and environmental regulation in particular. Together they elected Reagan as president and the so-called Reagan Revolution began.
Within a decade, Newt Gingrich was head of GOPAC and leading the charge with lies, distortions, and baseless accusations to vilify Democrats and undermine the legitimacy of the elections that often put them in power. White supremacists ran for office, the Federalist Society began grooming judges and formulating their legal arguments to oppose abortion, and Republicans started denying that climate change was real. The “culture war” – what now looks like a peacetime euphemism – was underway. Modifying the laws around elections and replacing election personnel to ensure their party doesn’t lose key elections is a logical culmination of such a war.
By the time Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans were well on their way to “fixing” the problem Reagan had identified: The federal government’s power to address the issues that concern most Americans – voting as a right, not a privilege (favored by 57% of Americans), climate change (66% support action), gun violence (69% favor specific restrictions), the choice to be pregnant (61% believe abortion should be legal) – had been mostly neutralized.
The current efforts to thwart fair elections, built on the lies of voter fraud and rigged elections, are not just about Trump’s authoritarian thirst for power. They are an opportunity for Republicans – even those who were appalled by the violence of January 6 – to lock in their “fix” and force minority rule on the nation for a long time.
Defeating the Legal Insurgency
A cottage industry of pro-democracy groups has evolved over the last two decades to combat weaknesses in the electoral system that had been exploited by both major parties over the years but which had become increasingly embraced by the Republican Party as the means for retaining political power. These groups have made it their mission, among other things, to institute redistricting commissions to limit partisan gerrymandering; establish rank choice voting to encourage voters to cast ballots for the candidates they favor most, not the ones they fear least; and limit the influence of money on elections.
Two relatively new organizations are directly addressing specific Republican tactics that make this an unprecedented insurgency. These organizations aim to halt, or at least limit the impacts of the army of Republican candidates, poll workers, and attorneys.
Since 2017, Run for Something has recruited candidates to run for state and local office, often in districts where Democratic presidential candidates do well while at the same time Republicans run unopposed. Organized to fill a recruiting vacuum in the Democratic Party, Run for Something says it has helped elect more than 600 people. It counts among its 56 partners Emily’s List, MoveOn, Voter Protection Partners, and several organizations related to the Democratic Party. Run for Something understands the nuts and bolts of running a state or local campaign, and offers its recruits training, strategic planning, message development, resource targeting, and when needed, manpower.
In April, the group announced “Clerk Work”, a three-year campaign to raise $80 million to recruit and support 5,000 candidates. Building on its prior experience, the campaign is targeting states where election administrators are elected rather than appointed. In 26 states, the elected secretary of state or lieutenant governor serves as the top election administrator. And in 22 states, elected county-level administrators typically hold elections at the local level. In other states, election oversight often belongs to election boards or commissions whose members are appointed by the governor or state legislature.
Another group, the Election Official Legal Defense Network, offers pro bono legal support to election officials who feel threatened by new state laws that subject them to criminal penalties for errors or lapses in judgment – or who receive intimidating messages and personal threats of violence. Founded in 2021 by election security expert David Becker, long-time Republican attorney Ben Ginsberg, and former counsel in the Obama White House Bob Bauer, the organization was created in response to the unprecedented level of threats and intimidation that are making it difficult for long-time election workers – both senior officials and paid and volunteer staff – to remain in their positions. The group’s website makes it easy for election officials to lodge a concern, and for attorneys to sign on to help.
RepresentUS, a more established organization focused on fighting political corruption and authoritarianism at the grassroots, is organizing “Election Protection Teams” in key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to educate and engage voters and recruit poll workers. The teams will also seek to increase pressure on legislators to support fair elections through letter writing and call-in campaigns as well as by joining rallies in state capitals. Since 2014, RepresentUS says it has helped get 159 anti-corruption acts and resolutions passed by city and state governments.
What can you do?
Not an attorney who can help out at Election Official Legal Defense Network? In addition to RepresentUS’ effort to recruit poll workers, the US Election Assistance Commission has a tool to help you sign up to be a poll worker in your community. Other pro-democracy groups like MoveOn, Rock the Vote, and the League of Women Voters are looking for people to register voters and get out the vote.
Pick the voting rights organization that you support and make a contribution. Run for Something, the Election Official Legal Defense Network, and RepresentUS are also looking for funding.
Author: George Linzer
Contributing Editor: David Hawkings
Published on June 7, 2022
Feature image: Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels
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