The midterm elections are coming up in the United States and political tensions are rising. Donald Trump’s denial of a fair 2020 presidential election, and the consequent January 6th, 2021 insurrection, have laid the groundwork for an even greater attack on voting rights going forward. Inspired by these anti-democratic acts, four trends have emerged which will impact this year’s midterm elections.
First, the propagation of the “Big Lie” narrative has laid the foundation for Republican-oriented states to pass legislation which deliberately makes voting more difficult, specifically in urban areas with high populations of voters of color.
Secondly, the Republican party has begun shifting resources towards “Big Lie” politicians who either were among the 147 republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election and/or publicly stated that the 2020 election was fraudulent. The Party is also ramping up support for Republican politicians who are publicly implying that their own midterm election campaigns are likely to fall victim to election fraud. These candidates are finding success in Congressional races, as well as the key election-related races of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general.
The next trend in the lead up to the midterm elections is the increased scrutiny being directed towards non-partisan election officials. The alarming threats being directed towards poll workers, and tactics to replace non-partisan elections workers with partisan officials, are both on the rise.
Finally, reports have shown the U.S.’s largest corporations, many of whom declared that they would blacklist the 147 election-denying Republicans from donations, have resumed their political funding of these same politicians. In a previous report, we have detailed how and why some of the most destructive corporate polluters have financially supported voter suppression bills and politicians across the United States in order to weaken the climate change movement. The recent wave of corporate funding towards both these election-objecting politicians and other voting suppression bills can be understood as a continuation of this phenomenon.
In totality, these trends not only suggest that the U.S. is becoming more polarized on the debate between voter suppression and election security, but also that election-denying has become a mainstay in American politics. We need to recognize that these efforts threaten to undermine the integrity of the democratic process.
In order to contextualize the new wave of voter suppression across the U.S., it is imperative to understand that the voter fraud Republicans claim is rampant is not real. Instead, it is political propaganda used to rationalize voter suppression legislation and the actual rollback of democracy. Countless studies have shown that voter fraud is practically nonexistent in the U.S., with proven fraud cases never accounting for more than an inconsequential amount. Other studies have shown that it is more likely an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” The Department of Homeland Security has even described the 2020 election as, “the most secure in American history.”
Despite all evidence, however, Donald Trump has spread baseless propaganda that the presidential election was stolen. The efficacy of “The Big Lie” has been shocking. Over one-third of all Amercians, and over 65 percent of Republicans, believe that the 2020 election was stolen. This belief has laid the foundations for the voter suppression efforts which are spreading like wildfire across the country.
Georgia's New Voting Law SB 202, passed after the January 6th insurrection, implements various restrictive measures around voting, including: increased mail-in voting complexity, an earlier voting application deadline, a cap on the amount drop-boxes per county, the reduction of hours of drop-box availability from 24/7 to workday hours, a ban on the mobile voting buses used in Atlanta, and prohibitions on anyone from distributing food or water to citizens waiting in line to vote.
These new laws will strongly impact the upcoming midterm elections. For example, the number of ballot drop-boxes will be reduced across four Metro-Atlanta counties (an area where 50 percent of the voters are people of color) from 107 drop boxes in 2020 to a paltry 25 this year. This alteration will increase the travel time to a drop-box for about 1.9 million people in Georgia, a state which had a mere 12,000 vote difference between Biden and Trump in 2020.
In Alabama, newly drawn congressional maps have racially gerrymandered districts so that only one of the state’s seven districts has a Black majority. This is despite the fact that Alabama’s population is 27 percent Black. Voting Rights organizations challenged these new maps, claiming that they violated Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race.” After several opposing judicial decisions, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservative justices defended Alabama. The 6-3 decision, made along ideological lines, set the precedent for further racialized gerrymandering—one of the most effective and potent attacks on the voting rights of people of color.
New laws in Arizona prohibit same-day voter registration. Furthermore, someone who registers another person on election day for that same election will be charged with a felony. The laws also add restrictions and inconveniences to the early voting process. The most notorious new piece of legislation, however, is the proof of citizenship requirement which has been called a “textbook violation” of the National Voter Registration Act by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and is currently the focus of a DOJ lawsuit against the state. Voter I.D. laws disproportionately affect Indigenous communities where proof of citizenship and formal street addresses are less common. According to a Brennan Center for Justice study, in some states, nearly 20 percent of the indigenous populations do not possess a valid I.D., since many states do not permit Tribal I.D.’s as identification. 5.5 percent of Arizona’s population is Indigenous.
In Texas, new voting laws have had a chilling effect on early election results, as officials rejected 12.4 percent of mail-in ballots during the March primary, which was a dramatic increase over the 0.8 percent rejection rate during the 2020 election.
In the aftermath of January 6th, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other Republican legislators passed a voting bill which, “limits ballot collections and drop offs, makes voters request absentee ballots for elections rather than receiving them automatically and limits so-called line warming activities — such as food provided by groups within a radius of 150 feet from the voting location.” Florida also passed a law that restricts past felons from voting if they haven’t paid outstanding fines, contradicting the fact that in 2018 two-thirds of Foridian voters approved an amendment to allow non-violent felons to vote after they serve their sentence.
Even in democratic states like New York, suppressive voting legislation is on the rise, as the state’s “GOP is suing to stop people from being able to use fear of COVID-19 as an excuse to request a mail-in ballot.”
In other states, such as Montana, Republicans attempted to implement new voting legislation but were blocked by court judges who viewed the litany of registration restrictions, I.D. requirements, and paid ballot collection as, “unconstitutional.” Regardless of the result, it is obvious that Republican lawmakers all over the country are dedicated to implementing restrictive voting measures.
Another frightening development in the build up to this year’s midterm elections is the rise, success of Republican politicians who either voted to overturn the 2020 election (Sedition Caucus), refuse to accept that Biden legitimately won the election, or are spreading misinformation that their own upcoming elections could be fraudulent if they don’t win. Their refusal to acknowledge fair elections whilst spreading doubt is a major concern for the democratic integrity of our country.
A report by FiveThirtyEight has found that 60 percent of Americans will have an election-denier on their ballot. The report states, “Out of 552 total Republican nominees running for office, we found 200 who fully denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election. These candidates either clearly stated that the election was stolen from Trump or took legal action to overturn the results, such as voting not to certify election results or joining lawsuits that sought to overturn the election.” Furthermore, these candidates are not only running for office, but are having success. According to FiveThirtyEight’s modeling, out of the initial 200 full election deniers, 117 have a 95 percent chance of winning election.
The totalitarian control Donald Trump has over the Republican Party must not be understated. A perfect example of this phenomenon was the GOP primary race for South Carolina’s 7th District Seat between five-term Incumbent Tom Rice and Russell Fry. Tom Rice, who is extremely conservative in his own right, was one of only 10 Republican representatives who voted to impeach Donald Trump after January 6th, calling Trump’s role in the event an “inexcusable failure.” In retaliation, Trump said of Rice, “He lifted up his hand and that was the end of his political career.” Trump then backed Fry, who proceeded to win the seat.
Standing up for democracy has ended other Republicans political careers this term as Peter Meijer (R-MI), Liz Cheney (R-WY), and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) have received the same fate as Rice: Out of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, four have retired after losing party support, some calling the new Republican culture “toxic.” Out of the six others up for election, four have been supplanted by Trump-backed candidates during the Republican primaries. Election denial and the dissemination of the “Big Lie” are now requisites for Republican candidacy.
Senate candidates, such as Ted Budd in North Carolina, Blake Masters in Arizona, Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska and J.D. Vance in Ohio, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and a number of others have all denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election and/or refused to commit to accepting the 2022 results. The potential success of these candidates would further cement the acceptability of baselessly questioning elections.
The 2022 midterms also shine a spotlight on key state-level positions that are not traditionally in the public eye. In this year’s midterm elections, 27 Secretaries of State and 30 Attorneys General will be elected. These elections and campaigns, while typically not overly publicized, now draw massive national attention and donations, due to their powerful role in the state election process.
The Secretary of State is the top election official in each state overseeing the fair administration of elections and the certification of election results. The importance of integrity in this state government position was shown in 2020, when Donald Trump demanded Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find 11,780 votes”—votes which did not exist. When Raffensperger refused, the guardrails of American democracy stood strong, but that doesn’t mean they will forever. Republicans have used the Big Lie narrative to attempt and turn these administrative governmental positions into partisan officials.
In Georgia’s Secretary of State race, the GOP attempted to push Trump-backed election denier Jody Hice over Raffensperger. Fortunately, Raffensperger prevailed in the primary. In Michigan, the Republican candidate for Secretary of State is another Trump-backed denier in Kristina Karamo. Arizona’s GOP nominee is Mark Fincham, a denier who attended the January 6th riot, has been a member of a right-wing militia group, and has said that he cannot imagine a scenario where a Democrat wins Arizona in the 2024 presidential election without voter fraud. In Nevada, Republican nominee Jim Marchant has taken “Big Lie” claims even further by implying that Republican voters haven’t had their votes legitimately counted “for decades.” Audrey Trujillo is another denier who is running for New Mexico’s Secretary of State under the policy points of stopping fraudulent and corrupt elections. Even Minnesota— a state that has leaned heavily Democratic in past elections— has a very tight Secretary of State race, where Republican election denier Kim Crockett trails the Democratic candidate by just a few points in the polls. Republican nominees Wes Allen and Diego Morales, in red-dominated Alabama and Indiana, have both claimed that Biden’s victory was fraudulent. Wyoming unopposed Secretary of State candidate Chuck Gray has said the 2020 election was “clearly rigged.”
The urgency of this position in state governments is not being overlooked by either side, as total campaign fundraising has been record breaking. In the six secretary of state elections in battleground states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin, campaigns have received $16.3 million in funding which is already more than five times what was raised last cycle.
Another state-level position with key election implications is the Attorney General, which is the top lawyer in a given state—enforcing voting laws, ensuring election results, and prosecuting election-based crimes including intimidation and misconduct towards poll workers. Unfortunately, Republicans pushing “Big Lie” propaganda are seeking to hijack this post as well, as 11 election-denying Attorney General candidates are seeking election this year. These candidates include Abe Hamadeh in Arizona who claims he will, “prosecute the crimes of the rigged 2020 election” if he is elected, and stated that he would not have certified the 2020 election. In Michigan, Matthew DePerno, another denier, is currently under criminal investigation for a plot to tamper with voting machines. In Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, Texas, and South Carolina, “Big Lie” Attorney General candidates are seeking election.
Governors also play key roles in the certification of elections, and in some states they even appoint the Secretary of State. This is true in Pennsylvania, where the Republican nominee is Doug Mastriano, who attended the Capitol riot on January 6th and has said that as governor he would overhaul the state’s voting system. Arizona's Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Like, another denier, has stated that she would have refused to certify Biden’s 2020 Arizona election if she was in office, as well as said that she won’t accept the results of her own election if she loses. Wisconsin’s GOP nominee is Tim Michels who questions the 2020 election and has not said that he would certify the 2024 election. Alarmingly, right wing election deniers are also having success in both Oregon and Nevada’s gubernatorial races.
The prevalence of election-deniers and supporters of the “Big Lie” narrative have laid the foundation for the third trend which manifests in two forms: an alarming increase in threats towards election workers and an effort by the Republican party to replace election workers with partisan officials.
A recent poll of local election workers found that one in six workers have experienced threats because of their positions, with 77 percent saying that they have felt increased threats in recent years. These range from, “death threats that name officials’ young children to racist and gendered harassment” leading officials all over the U.S. to protect themselves through “steps like hiring personal security, fleeing their homes, and putting their children into counseling.” These threats have forced people to quit, as 30 percent of respondents, “know of one or more election workers who have left at least in part because of fear for their safety, increased threats, or intimidation.” In Texas for example, 30 percent of election workers have left their positions since 2020, and in “one county, the entire elections administrator’s office resigned.” In Georgia during the aftermath of the 2020 election, Donald Trump baselessly accused two election workers of operating a voter fraud scheme, which led to hundreds of threats to the workers, with some deniers “calling for their hanging.”
Another element of the pressure on election workers is a new scheme by the Republican party to replace election workers with partisan officials. In a series of recordings obtained by Politico, Michigan’s Republican National Committee Election Integrity Director, Matthew Seifried was caught training new partisan poll workers on how to challenge and audit voters, even saying, “it’s going to be an army.” Other elements of the plan included placing right-wing partisans on the Board of Canvassers which oversees and certifies the election results in Michigan. Seifreid, one of 16 state directors, stated that the GOP is planning on investing $35 million into these efforts across the country.
A fourth worrying trend is the increased corporate influence and involvement with election denying politicians and officials. After January 6th, 50 of the U.S.’s top 100 corporations pledged to sanction donations to the 147 Republican Congressmembers who voted to overturn the 2020 election. Despite this verbal commitment, 33 of these companies have quietly resumed donating to these election objectors. This situation reveals how intertwined corporate power is with the “Big Lie”. The doubt spread by these politicians serves as the validation and foundation for voter suppression laws which are on the rise across the country. The resumption of corporate donations towards these politicians signals how the “Big Lie” and voter suppression efforts are ultimately rooted in corporate interests. In order to fully grasp the connection between voter suppression and corporate profits, specifically to the profits of the polluter-industrial complex, we recommend reading our report, Voter Suppression, Climate Justice, and the Polluter-Industrial Complex: How The Corporate Assault On American Democracy And The Climate Are Connected.
Since January 6th, corporations and industry have donated over $64 million to election denying politicians (as of October 26th). Supporting the evidence found in our report, corporate polluters including Koch Industries, Valero, Boeing, and GM are among the top 10 corporate donors.
Campaign donations have also resumed, as Fortune 500 companies have donated over $27 million to the re-election campaigns of election-deniers. The success and centrality of the deniers to the new Republican party is highlighted in the fact that the Club for Growth, a “titan of conservative campaign money” has spent over $17 million on the re-election campaigns of “Big Lie” supporters.
Corporations reliant on the Republican party’s business-friendly platforms are some of the largest proponents of voter suppression. This cycle’s donations and campaign funding makes this even more evident.
The four trends presented in this article paint a disheartening picture of the state of American democracy, pointing to the reality that American democracy is beginning to crack.
In the book, “How Democracies Die,” which analyzes the degradation of democracies through understanding the fundamental elements of democratic nations, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe institutional forbearance and mutual toleration as the two required norms of democracy, serving as guardrails. Institutional forbearance refers to the idea that politicians must act with restraint over their legal power, resisting the urge to use legal technicalities to their own advantage, and instead respecting the spirit of the law. They describe mutual toleration as “the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern. We may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate. This means recognizing that our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens—that they love our country and respect the Constitution just as we do.”
Framing U.S. democracy in this context is useful. Since Trump’s presidential tenure, we have seen violations in both of these guardrails. Furthermore, the political trends noted in this article signal that there is increasingly intense pressure on these guardrails to bend towards the will of a conservative minority.
First, we have seen a complete disregard of institutional forbearance with the passage of new voter suppression legislation. Republicans have framed voter suppression laws under the guise of ‘election security’ but as shown in this article, these laws are simply used to reduce voter turnout and tip the political advantage to the Right. Republican politicians, from Mitch McConnell to Donald Trump, have admitted on countless occasions that higher voter turnout is bad for Republicans—which essentially means that the more democratic elections are, the worse it is for Republicans. While the new voting legislation is technically ‘legal’, it completely violates the spirit of the law, violating institutional forbearance.
Secondly, mutual toleration has completely vanished from both sides of the political aisle. Today, Republicans and Democrats are as polarized as ever. Studies have shown that two-thirds of Americans see the opposing party as “a serious threat to the United States and its people.” Approximately 70 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats see the other party as “immoral.” 42 percent of Americans see the opposite party as “downright evil.” Finally, around 35 percent of each party believe that violence might have to be used to advance their party’s political goals. These numbers signify that this fundamental guardrail of democracy is deteriorating. Furthermore, as noted in this article, we have even seen a lack of mutual tolerance within the Republican party, as any Republican who has criticized Trump has experienced a political downfall.
The most extreme and obvious manifestation of both these trends is Trump’s denial of a legitimate 2020 election and the subsequent January 6th Capitol riot. Since his loss in 2020, Trump has gone far beyond respecting institutional forbearance through his claim that the presidential election was rigged. Actions such as ordering a Secretary of State to “find votes”, and demanding recounts in several states prove his unwillingness to honor the democratic American tradition of respecting election results. His election denial claim also violates mutual tolerance through accusing Democrats of stealing the election.
The Capitol Riot showed just how much tension, disrespect, and distrust exists in America today. The attempt by the Right to use physical violence to overthrow an election is the greatest example of disregard of the guardrails of democracy that we have experienced in America in recent history.
Democracy scholars use a metric called the “polity index” which “measures patterns of authority demonstrated and observed in political behaviors involving interaction events between and within state and non-state entities.” The 21-point scale ranges from -10 to +10. Countries that lie between +6 and +10 are considered democracies. The U.S. has hovered between +6 and +10 since the Civil War. But after the January 6th insurrection and overthrow attempt researchers noted that the U.S. fell to +5, falling outside the democratic zone. Ultimately America’s guardrails held enough to deny Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, but this democratic teetering should scare us all.
This context frames the 2022 midterm elections as a monumental and fragile moment for American democracy. The results and response to the midterms will have reverberations not just for Americans, but the rest of the world: Was the 2020 election response an anomaly? Or was the response the first sign of a dangerous anti-democratic slide?
One thing is certain however: the symptoms of a democracy in decline—climate change, wealth inequality, racial injustices, corporate power consolidation, and all other issues—cannot be fully fixed if our trust in the institutions, processes and leaders of a democracy continue to erode. The 2022 midterms are more important than the individual issues represented: the very functioning of our democratic system is at stake.