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Is this America’s last real election?

Donald Trump’s election denial was once an egregious aberration. It’s now a widespread Republican strategy.

By Emily Tamkin

Until last year Kari Lake was a television anchor for a local Fox news station in Phoenix. She is now one of the stars of the American political right. Lake, 53, has cemented her stardom in the Republican party by falsely insisting that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election, and that if she had been governor of Arizona at the time she would not have signed off on her state’s votes for Democrats. Many find her rhetoric extremely concerning. Because the US elects the president not by popular vote but via the electoral college system, state officials need to certify the results for them to be legitimised and counted.

Lake is now running for governor of Arizona in the 8 November midterm elections and insists that if she wins she will certify Arizona’s votes in the next presidential election in 2024; by that time, she says, her state will have “honest elections”. What does that mean coming from a woman who pushes baseless accusations of election fraud?

Trump has given his full support to Lake. A documentary released on 25 October by the right-wing media personality Tucker Carlson about Blake Masters, the Republican Senate candidate for Arizona, shows Trump calling Masters and urging him to speak out more about how the election was stolen. “Look at Kari,” the former president says over the phone. “If they say, ‘How is your family?’, she says, ‘The election was rigged and stolen.’ ”

There are other aspects of Lake’s campaign that some might find concerning, from her stance against abortion to her threats against “woke education”. There’s the fact that she appeared to liken herself and her followers to Christ (“You can call us extremists,” she said at an event this autumn. “You can call us domestic terrorists. You know who else was called a lot of names his whole life? Jesus.”) But her stance on elections suggests that she isn’t only fighting for different policies, but to reshape the very process through which policymakers come into power. Elections, in her worldview, are free and fair when Republicans win. According to the American political analysis website FiveThirtyEight, Lake is polling three percentage points ahead of her opponent, Katie Hobbs, who was Arizona’s state secretary in 2020 and consequently helped to certify Biden’s victory.

[See also: Why the US midterm elections matter]

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Lake is hardly the only Republican candidate to push lies about the legitimacy of American elections. She’s not even the only candidate in the state of Arizona: Mark Finchem, the Republican candidate running to be Arizona’s secretary of state, has tried to essentially reverse the state’s 2020 election results by falsely claiming the votes in three counties were compromised. Finchem was also at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 when a mob stormed the building to try to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. According to a fundraising email he sent out last year, he is campaigning to “make sure that Arizona is the Red State it REALLY is!”

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Elsewhere, Jim Marchant and Kristina Karamo are the Republican candidates for secretary of state in, respectively, Nevada and Michigan – both of which are swing states in which either a Democrat or Republican could win. They too have disputed the results of the 2020 presidential election. If elected they would play a part in overseeing elections in their states: they would have a say in voter registration, early voting rules, how votes are counted. And perhaps, if that isn’t enough to stop Democrats from winning, they’ll simply do what they’re doing now: claim that Republicans won anyway. They’ll have the backing of powerful state offices behind that claim. Across the US, the majority of Republican candidates who claim Trump won in 2020 are expected to win their races.

It is difficult to overstate what is at play here: Biden was able to assume office following his victory in 2020 in no small part because officials in certain key states, including Arizona and Michigan, did not bend when faced with Trump’s bullying and lies, even when he demanded, for example, that the secretary of state in Georgia “find” more votes for him. Officials who worked on elections in 2020 protected not just the result of the election but the very concept of an election itself. When Trump’s pressure on officials didn’t yield the result he wanted, his supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop the votes from being certified.

Yet that didn’t stop Biden from assuming office either. Now, rather than simply contesting the results of the match, candidates are running to change the game itself.

Denying fair elections goes well beyond Trump. What was once an egregious aberration by the former president has become a widespread Republican strategy. We should expect whoever is the party’s candidate in the presidential election in 2024 to embrace it. It is, after all, an effective one: 40 per cent of Republican voters say they don’t believe Biden legitimately won in 2020. Already the party is laying the groundwork for denying the outcomes of these midterm elections too: six Republican candidates refused to commit to accepting the results of their races when asked by the New York Times.

And that’s if they lose. If they win, the question isn’t just whether they’ll accept the results of future elections. It’s whether the US will continue to have elections – that is, legitimate elections that are more than a pageant for one party – at all.  

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