HAVING COUNTRYSIDE For the presidency on a promise to rejuvenate democracy around the world, Joe Biden finds himself in a battle to defend it at home. In June, 200 prominent American democracy scholars signed a letter warning that changes in state laws “transform several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.” Another longtime student of American democracy, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, said in January that if an election could be overturned by blunt allegations on the losing side, “our democracy would spiral into disrepair. death ”. Yet that is exactly what his party is facilitating.
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For Democrats, the threat of an election is who can vote. They denounce changes to laws on identification, postal ballots, etc., which they call “the new Jim Crow”. While there is no excuse for restricting things like the Sunday vote, which is popular with African American churches, their fears are overblown. Under former Jim Crow, only 2% of African Americans were registered to vote in some southern states. In contrast, political scientists are uncertain whether today’s projects will affect turnout.
Instead, the real threat comes after the votes have been cast. In Arizona, for example, the legislature wants to limit the independence of the Chief Electoral Officer; a state official introduced a law allowing the legislature to overturn the results of a presidential election, then began campaigning to oversee the elections herself. In Georgia, the state legislature can now replace the leadership of county election commissions. Texas is considering a bill that makes it easier to prosecute election officials. Across the country, officials who administer elections in Republican-ruled states have come under attack for upholding election results. Many are in danger of being replaced.
These changes may seem distant and bureaucratic. In fact, they increase the chances of a contested election that the courts cannot resolve. They are weakening the US electoral system in a way that will survive the hysteria over the 2020 outcome.
The inspiration behind this is Donald Trump, who continues to use his every chance to insist that the election was stolen. While it’s unclear how seriously to take him, Mr. Trump is already organizing campaign rallies for 2024 (to win the White House for the third time in a row, naturally).
Pretending to win while losing can seem like a joke. Yet most Republican voters take it literally. Two in three believe Mr Biden did not win the November election and just under half believe the result should have been overturned. This leaves Trump skeptics among the Republican elite in a familiar dilemma. Caught between their primary voters and their loyalty to the constitution, most have concluded that, unless Capitol is under siege, the best course of action is simply to remain silent.
Yet Mr. Trump’s threats and the threat to the constitution operate on different time scales. Mr. Trump may or may not stand again. In contrast, changes made to the state’s electoral machinery by Republican lawmakers will be in place in 2024 and beyond for a candidate from either party to exploit them. To understand why this is so troubling, consider three built-in security mechanisms built into the U.S. election.
The first is the principle that the loser concedes. Mr. Trump dropped it in 2020. The second is the integrity of local election officials, regardless of their partisan stripes. Despite strong pressure to do otherwise last year, they have stood firm. As a reward, their powers have been removed or new crimes created which can be used to intimidate them. Many Republican officials who certified the election results were censored by their party’s local committees and also received death threats. Brad Raffensperger, Republican Secretary of State for Georgia, distinguished himself in 2020 for his willingness to stand up to Mr. Trump when he was directly asked to “find” the votes necessary to overturn the results. The Georgia state legislature responded by removing some of its authority.
That leaves the third element of security: the courts. These too worked well under stress, and they probably would next time. However, giving the main responsibility for the legitimacy of elections to the judiciary in successive elections risks overburdening and ultimately breaking it. How long will it take before a Supreme Court decision is ignored?
Catastrophicism about democracy in America has been common in parts of the right: remember the “election of flight 93” in 2016, which called on the Patriots to storm the cockpit to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency? It has since spread to the left and to the center as well. Talking about a democracy in peril raises the specter of a country under an autocrat of the renunciation type of July 4, 1776. The greatest risk is that the chaos following the 2020 elections will become normal. By recent standards, 2020 was not that close. Imagine a competition so close that no national consensus could determine who was ahead. America would be, to quote Mr. McConnell again, on “a poisoned road where only the winners of an election really accept the result.”
My party, good or bad
The elites of the Republican Party are at an impasse on their own initiative. Under pressure from Mr. Trump and his allies, state legislatures are making changes that will weaken American democracy. The solution is for leaders to maintain the standard that election administrators are above the party. However, they indulged in the lie of a stolen election to such an extent that asserting the fraud became an essential qualification for administering the next vote.
The silent, non-Trump faction of the Republican Party can hope that this will all fall apart and those who sound the alarm bells on democracy are exaggerating. They may believe they can play a bigger role in saving America as long as they stay on good terms with their base. Yet this logic has proven to be flawed since Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2016. Meanwhile, the makeup of their party is evolving around them. It would be safer for the constitution, and more in line with the spirit of the July 4 flag, for Republicans to speak out now before speaking out becomes even more difficult. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The Real Risk to American Democracy”