HARRISBURG, PENN.— If you believe the warnings, the future of American democracy will be decided in November’s midterm elections.
Ballots in most parts of the U.S. will feature Republican candidates who spread Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
There are hopefuls for every level of office: congress, governor, attorney general, and members of state legislatures. They span the spectrum from extreme conspiracy theorists to those who have openly raised doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.
It’s estimated 60 per cent of American voters will see at least one Republican election denier on their local ballot on Nov. 8. The winners of some of those races will ultimately control how future elections are conducted, and how results are certified — including the next presidential election in 2024.
“It’s extremely unfortunate for so many reasons,” says Adam Lawrence, a professor of political science at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He points out that there should be no doubt that Joe Biden won the last election.
“In 2020 there were 65 election lawsuits that (Trump) and his team litigated in court,” he says. “They lost 64.”
Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy. It’s where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed by the Founding Fathers.
It’s also the state where observers worry free and fair elections may be in their dying days.
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The Republican candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, was in the crowd at the capitol building on Jan. 6, and helped bus dozens of people to Washington for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that day. If Mastriano is elected he will get to appoint the Secretary of State, giving him control of how the 2024 presidential election is run in this vital swing state.
“Guess who gets to oversee elections?” brags Mastriano in a campaign video, “I do!”
In Pennsylvania, a majority of the Republican candidates for congress are also so-called election deniers.
One of them is incumbent congressman Scott Perry. Perry is believed to be a central figure in Trump’s plot to overturn the election on Jan. 6, and recently had his phone seized by the FBI.
Shamaine Daniels is the Democrat running against Perry in Pennsylvania’s 10th district. She points out her opponent, like many of the deniers, was elected at the same time as President Joe Biden, when elections for multiple offices were on the same ballot.
“They deny the result of the Biden election,” she says, “but they don’t deny the results of their own election. Their election denial is very specific.”
Despite the hypocrisy, the lack of evidence, and the losses in the courts, many republicans have embraced election denialism as the price of securing a coveted endorsement from Trump.
In Arizona, Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has vowed to “take a sledgehammer” to electronic voting machines.
In Michigan, Trump-endorsed nominee for Secretary of State, Kristina Karamo has called elections in her state “chaotic and unsecure” and vowed to “make them honest again.”
“If we can’t trust the vote there really are no winners,” says Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and co-chair of the pro-Trump CPAC organization.
Gerow insists there’s nothing wrong with candidates raising questions about election integrity, but claims the subject is no longer top of mind for Republican candidates.
“Most voters are not focused on what may or may not have happened on Jan. 6, they’re looking forward,” Gerow says. “People are really worried about inflation.”
Elections, election reform and democracy consistently rank low in polls of the most important problem facing the U.S., but many of the Republican candidates continue to give the issue top billing in their platforms, speeches and ads.
That alone has a potentially destabilizing effect on democracy.
Like Trump, there’s a risk that election-denying candidates will simply claim an election they legitimately lost was stolen.
A good number of their voters will likely believe it.
“Rank and file voters are ready to move on,” Lawrence says. “That doesn’t mean election denialism isn’t an accepted truism in their minds.”
Yet there is also a risk the election-doubting strategy may backfire on Republican candidates — if not now, then in the future.
If voters become convinced that elections are rigged, and are told their vote is meaningless, they may see little incentive to turn out and actually cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.