In this Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States, a great deal more is at stake than hundreds of state, local and federal offices; control of the House of Representatives and the Senate; the future of women’s reproductive rights; and the prospects for the rest of Joe Biden’s first term, which could be neutered halfway through. Above all, a fierce battle is being waged at the polls over the future of the US electoral system and the very survival of American democracy.
These are the first elections since the 2020 presidential contest, when Donald Trump nearly blew up the system with his repeated and demonstrably false accusations of voter fraud. Thanks to a handful of courageous (Republican) officials, Trump’s machinations failed in their goal, but they fomented the January 6 insurrection on the US Capitol, one of the biggest attacks on US democracy in history. Moreover, the repercussions of those untrue statements have defined US politics for the past two years. They also led to a deeply divided and suspicious nation: two-thirds of conservative voters still believe that Biden did not win the White House fair and square.
Doubt looms over these midterm elections. Their conclusion will also mark the beginning of the 2024 presidential campaign, in which, by all indications, Trump plans to run again. At his last campaign rally in Ohio on Monday, he set next Tuesday, November 15, as the date on which he will make a “big announcement”; clearly, it will be a confirmation of his intention to run in a third presidential election. Biden also seems likely to repeat the 2020 battle and stand for reelection. By that time, Trump and Biden will be 78 and 81 years old, respectively.
Suspicions of Russian intervention
In this context of skepticism, amid suspicions of Russian intervention and social media’s failure to stop disinformation both in past elections and the current one, Americans are electing dozens of officials, from governors to secretaries of state and attorneys general, who will be in charge of establishing the rules, overseeing the elections and certifying results in 2024. Many of them are deniers of past electoral results.
More than 370 Republican candidates have expressed their doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 elections. Some go even further and continue to deny that the Democrats won. The most recalcitrant among them have used their bully pulpits to publicize the documentary 2000 Mules, which they say proves fraud on the part of Biden and his supporters. The “mules” refer to citizens who – the filmmakers claim without evidence – stuffed “fake votes” into ballot boxes in Georgia, where Trump lost by 11,779 votes.
It is reasonable to think that some of Tuesday’s losers will refuse to accept the election results. For example, Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a rising star in the Republican Party’s most pro-Trump wing, has stated that she will only accept the electoral results if she wins. Polls expect her to win her election.
The midterms are the first elections to be held after the passage of a raft of legislation restricting the vote: 21 states have passed 42 electoral laws that hinder the voting rights of minorities, according to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, an expert in voter suppression cases in the United States. Of those laws, 33 have already gone into effect for Tuesday’s contest. Thus, the mere act of casting a ballot, the purest democratic gesture, has become another fierce battleground in the struggle for the future of US democracy. That battle pits those who advocate making voting more accessible against those who question the integrity of early voting and voting by mail. That is just one of the many highly polarized issues between the two blocs. The two sides do agree on one thing: according to the latest polls, 70% of Americans believe their democracy is in danger. However, they disagree about why that is the case. Republicans see the problem as stemming from Biden, mainstream media, the federal government and the mail-in voting system. For their part, Democrats believe that Trump is the greatest threat, followed by the Supreme Court – which is the most conservative it has been in eight decades – and 2020 election deniers.
International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a report that paints a gloomy picture of Tuesday’s elections. On Monday, the US Department of Justice announced that it intends to closely monitor elections in 24 states, six more than required such action in the presidential elections two years ago. All told, on Election Day, the Department of Justice will deploy observers in 64 cities and counties, where complaints have been received, from Chicago to Dallas and Detroit to Milwaukee.
The battle for Arizona
Of course, Arizona is another state on that list. It was one of the epicenters of the dispute over the 2020 results. Biden beat Donald Trump by a narrow margin there; now, all four major GOP candidates in this election are repeating the big lie that the election was stolen.
Of the many troubling signs of this electoral season, the Arizona elections may be the most worrisome. There, the campaign has featured a debate over the possibility of a new Civil War and the rhetoric of an imperiled democracy, a discourse that Biden and other Democratic leaders have deployed relentlessly. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is the state’s most populous county, several voters reported a week ago that they felt intimidated by the presence of masked men dressed in military gear at the polling place. The individuals were armed and took photos and videos of early voters casting their ballots. Meanwhile, Virginia has unveiled an Electoral Integrity Unit, an initiative of the state’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, who seems increasingly likely to run for president in 2024, and state attorney general, Jason Miyares. In one county, uniformed officers stood near the polls as an intimidating presence on early voting days. Proponents of such measures say that they are just the price to be paid for guaranteeing credible electoral results.
Among the US right, distrust of the imperfect political system has become common currency. In recent weeks, ultra-conservative organizations across the country have filed massive lawsuits to cast doubt on early voting. That strategy seeks to influence the process through chaos, spreading doubts about those who vote early (mostly Democrats, even before the pandemic altered habits) and delaying the recount, which is expected to be long and complicated.
Challenging tens of thousands of ballots also consumes resources and increases the likelihood of errors by election officials, who are forced to drop everything to deal with such complaints as they are received, as was the case in Georgia. Such chaos could pave the way for challenges to the recount. That has happened already in Texas and Michigan, as well as in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where thousands of ballots have been thrown out by a last-minute rule. In Michigan, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, Kristina Karamo, filed a lawsuit to challenge tens of thousands of early votes in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold. On Monday, a judge dismissed the lawsuit because it lacked even “the slightest evidence.”
When the contested recount begins, all eyes will be on Capitol Hill. Republicans are confident of retaking control of the House of Representatives. Five seats would be enough for them to do so, and polls give them a lead of 20 to 30 seats. For their part, Democrats would be happy to retain their slim majority in the Senate. Republican control of Congress’s lower chamber would be enough to torpedo the Democratic legislative agenda, deactivate many of their initiatives, cancel investigative commissions, such as the one inquiring into the attack on the Capitol, and launch new ones. The possibility that they would impeach the president also looms on the horizon. A Republican majority in the House of Representatives could also put an end to Trump’s legal problems; the former president has already survived two impeachment proceedings. In the fractured American democracy, that would set a dangerous precedent of impunity for former presidents.