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11 December 2021

The four-pronged attack on American democracy

Republicans are changing the rules to make sure their defeat in November 2020 can't happen again.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

Donald Trump, however, will not say this. He has spent the year since he lost insisting that he won. His supporters believe the same. According to an NBC News poll from November, 38 per cent of respondents did not believe that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected, and half of Republicans did not believe their ballots would be counted accurately the next time they went to vote.

“There are always some sour grapes from the losing party after the election,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But this has gone to a new level of disbelief.”

Just as troubling are the other steps that Trump and his supporters have taken in the past year to undermine American democracy, both for his own benefit and that of the Republicans aligned to him. They are not only refusing to accept reality but are trying to change the reality of how people vote in the future.

“There really has not been anything like this in modern American history,” Burden said.

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Official intimidation

Over the past year, election officials in various places across the country have been threatened. A study conducted by Benenson Strategy Group found that a third of election officials expressed concern about facing harassment in the course of doing their job, and 17 per cent had already been threatened.

The For the People Act, a voting rights bill passed by the House of Representatives, does contain some protections for election officials – but the bill is stalled in the Senate. Unless moderate Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin agree to abolish the filibuster, it will not pass, since Republicans will not support it.

Replacing the officials

Meanwhile, to the extent that election officials cannot be scared away, Trump and his allies are working to replace them with people who are more amenable to tipping the scales in his favour. Michigan Republicans have appointed to election canvassing boards individuals who appear more sympathetic to Trump’s claims. Similarly minded individuals won elections to become voting judges and inspectors in Pennsylvania. These were two of the states that carried Biden over the top to win the Electoral College in 2020.

[See also: Liberal democracy is still under threat]

Trump is not sitting by and passively watching this happen. He is endorsing people who will do what, in 2020, Republican officials in certain key states didn’t: say that he won. In late November, he endorsed two individuals who supported his audit of the election in the state of Arizona, where he falsely claimed he won, for seats in the state senate.

“We’re taking action,” Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s White House chief strategist, said last month, “and that action is we’re taking over school boards, we’re taking over the Republican Party through the precinct committee strategy. We’re taking over all the elections. Suck on this.”

[See also: Why Donald Trump was the ultimate anarchist]

Warp the system

Not content to replace a key figure here or there, Republicans are reworking the electoral system more generally to make it friendlier to them. Over a dozen state legislatures have passed laws that will make it more difficult for people to vote. In Michigan, Republican officials are preparing to better organise their volunteers’ presence watching polls, and their challenges to elections through the courts. We know this because they said it out loud.

There is also gerrymandering, the process of redrawing electoral districts to hand one side a majority. This week, Biden’s Justice Department sued Texas for the redistricting plan that the state legislature came up with this autumn, arguing that the electoral map was gerrymandered in a way that discriminated against minority voters. But the lawsuit could take years to resolve; even if it is successful, it is unlikely to have an impact before the midterms next November.

Keep the faith

The single most effective thing to right American democracy’s ship, Barry Burden said, would be for elected officials, and in particular Republicans, to tell Trump supporters that there is no great conspiracy against them.

“What they need to hear is Republican leaders say that the election was valid and carried off properly and they should move on,” he said.

He is not optimistic that will happen. “Trump continues to play such a massive role on the Republican side of the aisle,” he said. He puts out statements that are duly shared on the social media platforms from which he himself has been banned. He issues endorsements. He is launching a media company. “A lot of Republican officials appear to be afraid of him.”

And so they conduct audits of states where Biden and Democrats won, in the name of “election integrity”, and make it more difficult for people to vote, claiming that they are trying to restore confidence in the voting process.

The irony is that, in doing so, they aren’t quashing a conspiracy, they’re creating one: a verifiable conspiracy against American democracy itself.

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