In 1980, because I was an idealistic conservative eager to do my bit for democracy, I volunteered for my local Republican party. Unfortunately, I lived in Manhattan, where Republicans were scarcer on the ground than armadillos. But maybe it wasn’t so unfortunate after all, because I learned a thing or two about the mechanics of elections. The party asked me to be a poll watcher on election day. Along with designees from the other parties (New York had four: Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, and Liberals), we observed as people came to cast their votes. When polls closed, election officials asked us to gather around as they opened the backs of the machines one by one and tallied the votes. We could all see what was happening, and we all gave our assent that the totals were correct.
It was a glimpse into the ordinary yet extraordinary system we’ve devised over decades and centuries to ensure that elections are performed honestly and securely. Each state has developed its own procedures, but they’re all broadly similar. The results of each polling location are delivered to the precinct and then on to the canvassing board. Election administrators are observed by partisans of both parties. Often, the results are counted more than once. In 2020, more than 90 percent of ballots had paper trails. Perhaps part of the reason our elections were perceived as fair is that so many ordinary Americans, like me, had the experience of seeing the process for themselves.
Our voting systems in America have not always been perfect—the most glaring flaw being the disenfranchisement of many African Americans until the mid-20th century—but we corrected that and over time and in most places, we’ve conducted free and fair elections every two years. We’ve voted during wars and depressions and even in the midst of a civil war. With rare exceptions, we’ve accepted the outcomes as fair. Losers have conceded and phoned the winners to wish them well. Addressing their own crowds, defeated candidates hushed those of their supporters who booed the winner’s name and affirmed their obedience to the voters’ will. Most of us enjoyed the luxury of not even sparing a thought for who was counting the votes. We trusted that the system was reliable. Heck, we went abroad to teach others how to conduct free and fair elections.
Building a voting system that relies on community volunteers, nonpartisan administrators, and ingrained trust is an accomplishment. But what takes generations to build can be destroyed in short order. And what we’ve witnessed since the closing months of 2020, when Donald Trump first began to cast doubt on mail-in ballots, is the deliberate sabotage of trust in our elections. The spasm of violence on January 6th was the most visible evidence of the damage, but the undermining has accelerated.
Across the country, candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election are seeking office in order to prepare the ground for the next election contest. Pardoned Trump ally Steve Bannon is encouraging MAGAites to run for local posts with authority to count votes. Bannon uses his popular podcast to tout “taking over the Republican party through the precinct committee strategy.. . . It’s about winning elections with the right people—MAGA people. We will have our people in at every level.”
At least 23 candidates who deny the outcome of the 2020 election are running for secretary of state in 19 states. Among those are battleground states that Biden won narrowly: Michigan, Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona. Trump has endorsed candidates in Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan, the only time in history that a former president has bestirred himself over races so far down the ballot. “We’re seeing a dangerous trend of election deniers lining up to fill election administration positions across the country,” Joanna Lydgate, chief executive of States United Action, told the Guardian. Lydgate’s group also tallies 53 election deniers seeking governorships in 25 states, and 13 election deniers running for attorney general in 13 states.
Additionally, death threats and intimidation from MAGA extremists have caused one in five election administrators to say they will leave their posts before 2024. The most common explanation is that too many politicians were attacking “a system that they know is fair and honest” and that the job was too stressful. A February survey of 596 local election officials found that they spanned the political spectrum pretty evenly—26 percent identified as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans, and 44 percent as independents. A majority said they were worried about attempts to interfere with their work in future elections.
While MAGA types are beavering away, attempting to stack election boards and other posts with election-denying zealots, what are other Americans doing? The clock is ticking.
Democrats are likely to have a tough election in November—not that widespread Republican victories will cause election deniers to reconsider their belief that the 2020 race was stolen. But while Democrats are likely to lose seats in the House and Senate, local elections may not be so lopsided, particularly if the craziness of some of these candidates is highlighted. Kristina Karomo, for example, the Trump-endorsed secretary of state candidate in Michigan, claims that she personally witnessed fraudulent vote counting in 2020, that Trump won her state (Biden won it by 154,000 votes), and that left-wing anarchists attacked the Capitol on January 6.
Some Republicans, it should not be forgotten, continue to uphold the integrity of elections. Famed GOP election lawyer Ben Ginsberg, for example, has created a bipartisan group of lawyers who will defend election workers from harassment or fines in states that have criminalized honest mistakes. And a handful of honest Republicans saved the country from a potentially disastrous constitutional crisis in 2020. As Philip Rotner noted, “Substitute Rudy Giuliani—or Sidney Powell or Jim Jordan or any other Trump cultist—for just five people who held state or federal office at the time of the 2020 election and think about what might have happened.”
If past is prologue, Democrats will probably pour money into unwinnable races over the next few months. Remember Amy McGrath? She was supposed to dethrone Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Democratic donors gave her $88 million. Remember Jamie Harrison? He was going to defeat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Donors shoveled $130 million his way. Harrison lost by a 10-point margin. McGrath lost by nearly 20 points. The list goes on. Beto O’Rourke anyone? (Republicans do this too. Just look at the money wasted in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district.)
This year, donors are spending millions in an attempt to unseat the execrable Marjorie Taylor Greene. Sigh. Trump won Greene’s district with 75 percent of the vote. This. Won’t. Work.
Democrats, independents, and sane Republicans should focus instead on the critical local contests that will determine who counts the votes in 2024. Those unsexy races for local positions and administrative posts like secretaries of state could make the difference in 2024 between an election and a coup.