In 1980, because I was an idealistic conservative eager to do my part for democracy, I volunteered for my local Republican party as a poll watcher. As the polls closed, election officials asked us to assemble as they opened the backs of the machines one by one and counted the votes.
We could all see what was going on and we all confirmed that the totals were correct.
It was a glimpse into the ordinary yet extraordinary system we have devised over decades and centuries to ensure that elections are conducted honestly and safely. Each state has developed its own procedures, but they are all broadly similar.
The results of each polling station are delivered to the enclosure, then to the canvassing office. Election administrators are watched by supporters of both parties and results are often counted more than once.
Our voting systems have not always been perfect – the most glaring flaw being the disenfranchisement of many African Americans until the mid-twentieth century – but we have corrected that. Over time and in most places we have held free and fair elections every two years.
Today, this stability is threatened.
Across the country, candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 elections are seeking to get elected to prepare the ground for the next elections. Pardoned Trump ally Steve Bannon encourages MAGA members to run for local office with the power to count votes. Bannon uses his popular podcast to tout “the Republican Party’s takeover through precinct committee strategy… It’s about winning elections with the right people — the MAGA people.” We will have our people at all levels.
At least 23 candidates who deny the 2020 election result are running for secretary of state in 19 states. Among those are battleground states that Joe Biden narrowly won: Michigan, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona. Trump has endorsed candidates in Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, the only time in history a former president has wavered over races so far down the ballot.
“We are seeing a dangerous trend of Holocaust deniers lining up to fill election administration positions across the country,” Joanna Lydgate, chief executive of the United States United Democracy Center, told The Guardian. The United States also has 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 prompted one in five election administrators to say they would leave office before 2024. The most common explanation is that too many politicians were attacking “a system that they know fair and honest” and that the job was too stressful. A February survey of 596 local election officials found they spanned the political spectrum: 26% identified as Democrats, 30% as Republicans and 44% as independents. A majority said they were worried about attempts to interfere with their work in future elections.
As the MAGA types wander off, trying to pile election boards and other positions with election-denying zealots, what are other Americans doing? The clock is turning.
Democrats are likely to have a tough election in November — not that sweeping Republican victories will cause Holocaust deniers to reconsider their belief that the 2020 race was stolen. But while Democrats stand to lose seats in the House and Senate, local elections might not be so lopsided, especially if the folly of some candidates is exposed.
Kristina Karamo, for example, the Trump-endorsed candidate for secretary of state from Michigan, claims she personally witnessed a fraudulent vote count in 2020, which Trump won in her state (Biden said so). won by 154,000 votes) and that left-wing anarchists attacked the Capitol on January 6.
Some Republicans, it should not be forgotten, continue to defend electoral integrity; a handful of honest Republicans saved the country from a potentially disastrous constitutional crisis in 2020.
If the past is prologue, Democrats will likely pour money into unwinnable races. Do you remember Amy McGrath? She was supposed to dethrone Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Democratic donors gave him $88 million. Do you remember Jaime Harrison? He was going to beat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Donors have shoveled in $130 million on its way. Harrison lost by 10 points. McGrath lost almost 20 points. The list continues. Beto O’Rourke, anyone? (Republicans do it too. Just look at the money wasted in the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez district.)
This year, donors are spending millions to overthrow the infamous Marjorie Taylor Greene. Sigh. Trump won Greene’s district with 75% of the vote. This. Won’t. Work.
Democrats, Independents and sane Republicans should instead focus on critical local contests that will determine who will count the votes in 2024. These unsexy races for local offices and administrative positions like Secretaries of State could do the difference in 2024 between an election and a coup.
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Mona Charen is political editor of The Bulwark and host of the ‘Beg to Differ’ podcast