Not content with limiting voting rights, they are threatening the integrity of vote counting itself.
“A new, more dangerous front has opened in the voting wars, and it’s going to be much harder to counteract than the now-familiar fight over voting rules. At stake is something I never expected to worry about in the United States: the integrity of the vote count. The danger of manipulated election results looms.
We already know the contours of the battle over voter suppression. The public has been inundated with stories about Georgia’s new voting law, from Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta, to criticism of new restrictions that prevent giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. With lawsuits already filed against restrictive aspects of that law and with American companies and elite law firms lined up against Republican state efforts to make it harder to register and vote, there’s at least a fighting chance that the worst of these measures will be defeated or weakened.
The new threat of election subversion is even more concerning. These efforts target both personnel and policy; it is not clear if they are coordinated. They nonetheless represent a huge threat to American democracy itself.
Some of these efforts involve removing from power those who stood up to President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board. This seems aimed clearly at Georgia’s current Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, punishing him for rejecting Mr. Trump’s entreaties to “find” 11,780 votes to flip Joe Biden’s lead in the state.
But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger’s successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted. Michigan’s Republican Party refused to renominate Aaron Van Langevelde to the state’s canvassing board. Mr. Van Langevelde voted with Democrats to accept Michigan’s Electoral College vote for Mr. Biden as legitimate. He was replaced by Tony Daunt, the executive director of a conservative Michigan foundation that is financially backed by the DeVos family.
Even those who have not been stripped of power have been censured by Republican Party organizations, including not just Mr. Raffensperger and Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, but also Barbara Cegavske, the Republican secretary of state of Nevada who ran a fair election and rejected spurious arguments that the election was stolen. The message that these actions send to politicians is that if you want a future in state Republican politics, you had better be willing to manipulate election results or lie about election fraud.
Republican state legislatures have also passed or are considering laws aimed at stripping Democratic counties of the power to run fair elections. The new Georgia law gives the legislature the power to handpick an election official who could vote on the state election board for a temporary takeover of up to four county election boards during the crucial period of administering an election and counting votes. That provision appears to be aimed at Democratic counties like Fulton County that have increased voter access. A new Iowa law threatenscriminal penalties against local election officials who enact emergency election rules and bars them from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
A Texas bill would similarly stymie future efforts like the one in Harris County to expand access to the ballot and give challengers at the polls the ability not only to observe but to interfere with polling place procedures meant to ensure election integrity. According to a new report by Protect Democracy, Republican legislators have proposed at least 148 bills in 36 states that could increase the chances of cooking the electoral books.
State legislatures and others also have been taking steps to amplify false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, solidifying the false belief among a majority of Republican voters that the November vote count was unfair. It’s not just the hearings featuring charlatans like Rudy Giuliani or Sidney Powell spewing the big lie. It’s also steps like the Arizona State Senate demanding the seizure of November ballots from Democratic-leaning Maricopa County, and ordering an audit of the votes to be conducted by a proponent of the bogus “Stop the Steal” movement who falsely contended that the election was rigged against Mr. Trump. Never mind that Arizona’s vote count has been repeatedly subject to examination by courts and election officials with no irregularities found.
Combating efforts that can undermine the fair administration of elections and vote counting is especially tricky. Unlike issues of voter suppression, which are easy to explain to the public (what do you mean you can’t give water to voters waiting in long lines?!?), the risks of unfair election administration are inchoate. They may materialize or they may not, depending on how close an election is and whether Mr. Trump himself or another person running for office is willing to break democratic norms and insist on an unfair vote count.
So what can be done? To begin with, every jurisdiction in the United States should be voting with systems that produce a paper ballot that can be recounted in the event of a disputed election. Having physical, tangible evidence of voters’ choices, rather than just records on electronic voting machines, is essential to both guard against actual manipulation and protect voter confidence in a fair vote count. Such a provision is already contained in H.R. 1, the mammoth Democrat-sponsored voting bill.
Next, businesses and civic leaders must speak out not just against voter suppression but at efforts at election subversion. The message needs to be that fair elections require not just voter access to the polls, but procedures to assure that the means of conducting the election are fair, auditable and verifiable by representatives of both political parties and nongovernmental organizations.
Congress must also fix the rules for counting Electoral College votes, so that spurious objections to the vote counts like the ones we saw on Jan. 6 from senators and representatives, including Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, are harder to make. It should take much more than a pairing of a single senator and a single representative to raise an objection, and there must be quick means to reject frivolous objections to votes fairly cast and counted in the states.
Congress can also require states to impose basic safeguards in the counting of votes in federal elections. This is not part of the H.R. 1 election reform bill, but it should be, and Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress wide berth to override state laws in this area.
Finally, we need a national effort to support those who will count votes fairly. Already we are seeing a flood of competent election administrators retiring from their often-thankless jobs, some after facing threats of violence during the 2020 vote count. Local election administrators need political cover and the equivalent of combat pay, along with adequate budget resources to run fair elections. It took hundreds of millions of dollars in private philanthropy to hold a successful election in 2020; that need for charity should not be repeated.
If someone running for secretary of state endorses the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, they should be uniformly condemned. Support should go to those who promote election integrity, regardless of party, and who put in place fair and transparent procedures. Ultimately, we need to move toward a more nonpartisan administration of elections and create incentives for loyalty to the integrity of the democratic process, not to a political party.
We may not know until January 2025, when Congress has counted the Electoral College votes of the states, whether those who support election integrity and the rule of law succeeded in preventing election subversion. That may seem far away, but the time to act to prevent a democratic crisis is now. It may begin with lawsuits against new voter-suppression laws and nascent efforts to enshrine the right to vote in the Constitution. But it is also going to require a cross-partisan alliance of those committed to the rule of law — in and out of government — to ensure that our elections continue to reflect the will of the people.
Richard L. Hasen (@rickhasen) is a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”