Less than two months out from the 2022 midterm balloting, the national commentariat remains fixated on how the balance of power between the two major parties will shift, and how the ensuing convulsions will play out over the balance of Joe Biden’s term in office. But a far more ominous power shift has already taken place at the outset of this year’s election cycle. As FiveThirtyEight reports, election-denying candidates—i.e., Republican officials who claim without any evidence that the 2020 presidential election was rigged—are on the ballot for 60 percent of the American electorate. The site forecasts that in the House alone, 118 full-on election deniers, together with eight more equivocal “election doubters” are on track to take office next year.
The site also reports that two gubernatorial candidates poised to win are election deniers, while four more are doubters; a handful of other hardcore deniers in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona can’t be ruled out of the running, either. Seven deniers are on the ballot in state attorney general and secretary of state races as well—elections that FiveThirtyEight doesn’t handicap. Some states—such as traditional swing bastions Florida and Pennsylvania—have their governors appoint secretaries of state, which brings the potential denier count up to 11 in this cycle.
It’s safe to say that no significant swath of major candidates for office have denied the legitimacy of the American electoral system since the height of militant Confederate sentiment in the antebellum South. And it’s not just the breadth of election-denying dogma on the right that’s so worrisome; it’s the down-ballot reach of the denialist field. This critical mass of election deniers bears testimony to the success of former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon’s “precinct by precinct” strategy to consolidate grassroots power within the GOP—and to lay the groundwork to sow dissent over the outcome of a Republican-averse 2024 presidential result.
The surge of statewide officials professing election denialism is particularly distressing, since secretaries of state—and, in a few states, attorneys general—are charged with certifying presidential election results. Attorneys general also, of course, enforce election law—or, as is all too often the case, stand aside as the right to vote is cracked, stacked, and packed into oblivion. It would take no great flight of the imagination to summon a scenario in which a few statewide election officials throw the 2024 presidential ballot Trumpward (or DeSantisward, as the case may be), with a MAGA army of denialist activists, rioters, and poll workers holding the line.
“January 6 was really a dress rehearsal for what we’ll see in two years if these election deniers who are on the ballot all over the country, from governor to secretary of state to state legislatures, continue winning,” says David Daley, a senior fellow with the voting-rights group Fairvote, and author of Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy. “In many ways, the insurrectionists are in a stronger position now than they were 20 months ago.”
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That’s largely because the broader conditions of Republican ballot capture have been festering throughout the election system at least since the disastrous 2010 midterms, when the aptly named GOP initiative Operation REDMAP launched the present system of inviolate gerrymandered voting districts and diminishing ballot access for traditional liberal-leaning constituencies. The right-wing regime of voter suppression has only gained momentum and extended its reach in the dozen years since, thanks to a host of factors, including the US Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision eviscerating the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. A vast arsenal of Republican-led measures to suppress the vote at the state level came in Shelby’s wake. This strategic crackdown on ballot access, combined with the antidemocratic superstructure of the Electoral College, helped tilt the electorate far enough to the right that Trump won the presidency in defiance of the popular-vote outcome in 2016—and was emboldened to nearly bring off a coup in 2020.
The immediate challenge ahead, say advocates for fair elections and open ballot access, is in the voting booth. “We need concerted electoral efforts to beat the election deniers,” says Zachary Roth, author of The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Crash and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. “That means more things like the Liz Cheney PAC strategy, targeted at the most prominent deniers running for office, and the ones who can certify election results. But we have to recognize it’s not just going to be a 2022 problem.”
Indeed, beyond the present midterm cycle, the task of comprehensive voting rights reform is a formidable undertaking. Some commentators have hailed the recent civil suit disqualifying one New Mexico county commissioner from holding office after he’d taken part in the January 6 insurrection as an encouraging precedent. But that case invoked the insurrectionist clause of the 14th Amendment—a provision that hasn’t been enforced for more than a century and a half, largely because of the forbidding obstacles to interpreting and applying its sanctions.
More broadly, of course, the federal courts are continuing to tilt against voting rights, as they too have been subject to ideological capture from the right. This spring, the Supreme Court—whose chief justice was a diehard foe of the expansion of voting rights during his tenure as an attorney for the Reagan administration—is slated to hear Moore v. Harper, a test case for the unhinged “independent state legislature” theory of elections, which essentially gives carte blanche to state lawmakers to carry out and confirm presidential balloting in any way they see fit. If the hard-right Roberts court endorses this theory, the result will be like the Shelby decision on steroids. “This is election deniers combined with an independent legislature theory that would give deniers unfettered power free from any gubernatorial veto or legislative restraint,” says Daley. He anticipates “Cyber Ninja audits everywhere,” a reference to the ideological and discredited right-wing effort to invalidate the 2020 vote in Arizona. “They will not certify election results their side does not win, and they will attempt to kick this all into the courts once they’re contested.”
In Daley’s view, the right wing’s cross-cutting assault on ballot access has now metastasized into a far more sweeping ideological mobilization. “We have one major political party that’s entirely broken faith with the tenets of American democracy and would like to replace it with something resembling their idols in Hungary, where they’re now holding the Conservative Political Action Conference. The beauty of the Hungary system for conservatives is that you still hold elections, but elections don’t matter, because the outcome is preordained.”
On the fate of formal democracy in America for 2024 and beyond, Daley strikes a chilling Orwellian note. “I think the prospect of a 2024 election in which the winner of the popular vote is not seated due to a handful of Republican gerrymandered legislatures and extremist conservative capture of the courts is terrifying, and far more likely to happen than anyone is willing to admit or talk about right now. And we need to talk about this now, because I really don’t know what happens in that case. I don’t know what the ‘Then what?’ becomes, except that it involves flying the Hungarian flag in America for the next generation.”