In 1980, because I was an idealistic conservative eager to do my bit for democracy, I volunteered for my local Republican Party as a poll watcher. When polls closed, election officials asked us to gather around as they opened the backs of the machines one by one and tallied the votes. We could all see what was happening, and we all gave our assent that the totals were correct.
It was a glimpse into the ordinary yet extraordinary system we’ve devised over decades and centuries to ensure that elections are performed honestly and securely. Each state has developed its own procedures, but they’re all broadly similar. The results of each polling location are delivered to the precinct and then on to the canvassing board. Election administrators are observed by partisans of both parties, and the results are often counted more than once.
Our voting systems in America have not always been perfect — the most glaring flaw being the disenfranchisement of many African Americans until the mid-20th century — but we corrected that, and over time and in most places, we’ve conducted free and fair elections every two years.
Today, that stability is at risk.
Across the country, candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election are seeking office in order to prepare the ground for the next election contest. Pardoned Trump ally Steve Bannon is encouraging MAGAites to run for local posts with authority to count votes. Bannon uses his popular podcast to tout “taking over the Republican party through the precinct committee strategy … It’s about winning elections with the right people — MAGA people. We will have our people in at every level.”
At least 23 candidates who deny the outcome of the 2020 election are running for secretary of state in 19 states. Among those are battleground states that Joe Biden won narrowly: Michigan, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona. Trump has endorsed candidates in Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, the only time in history that a former president has bestirred himself over races so far down the ballot. “We’re seeing a dangerous trend of election deniers lining up to fill election administration positions across the country,” Joanna Lydgate, chief executive of the States United Democracy Center, told The Guardian. States United also tallies 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 have caused one in five election administrators to say they will leave their posts before 2024. The most common explanation is that too many politicians were attacking “a system that they know is fair and honest” and that the job was too stressful. A February survey of 596 local election officials found that they spanned the political spectrum pretty evenly — 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.
While MAGA types are beavering away, attempting to stack election boards and other posts with election-denying zealots, what are other Americans doing? The clock is ticking.
Democrats are likely to have a tough election in November — not that widespread Republican victories will cause election deniers to reconsider their belief that the 2020 race was stolen. But while Democrats are likely to lose seats in the House and Senate, local elections may not be so lopsided, particularly if the craziness of some of these candidates is highlighted. Kristina Karamo, for example, the Trump-endorsed secretary of state candidate in Michigan, claims that she personally witnessed fraudulent vote-counting in 2020, that Trump won her state (Biden won it by 154,000 votes) and that left-wing anarchists attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Some Republicans, it should not be forgotten, continue to uphold the integrity of elections; a handful of honest Republicans saved the country from a potentially disastrous constitutional crisis in 2020.
If past is prologue, Democrats will probably pour money into unwinnable races over the next few months. Remember Amy McGrath? She was supposed to dethrone Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Democratic donors gave her $88 million. Remember Jaime Harrison? He was going to defeat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Donors shoveled $130 million his way. Harrison lost by a 10-point margin. McGrath lost by nearly 20 points. The list goes on. Beto O’Rourke, anyone? (Republicans do this, too. Just look at the money wasted in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district.)
This year, donors are spending millions in an attempt to unseat the execrable Marjorie Taylor Greene. Sigh. Trump won Greene’s district with 75% of the vote. This. Won’t. Work.
Democrats, independents and sane Republicans should focus instead on the critical local contests that will determine who counts the votes in 2024. Those unsexy races for local positions and administrative posts like secretaries of state could make the difference in 2024 between an election and a coup.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her most recent book is “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.” To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.