Levine is an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which develops strategies to deter and defend against autocratic efforts to interfere in democratic institutions.
As the first wave of midterm primary elections approaches, it is becoming clear how elections will be conducted following the 2020 presidential election and the picture is not a pretty one in many jurisdictions. Many states, fueled by the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, began by passing laws to unnecessarily limit voting rights. Apparently that was not enough, and a number have now enacted laws that could threaten the integrity of the vote count itself.
Voters naturally focus on the candidates’ views on issues such as the pandemic, taxes, inflation, immigration and similar policy matters. But it is at least as important that voters consider whether candidates support free and fair elections, a step that could prevent U.S. democracy from being at risk.
The integrity of elections is not a partisan issue; it’s a prerequisite to democracy. Republican as well as Democratic officials have defended the election process — note that all the positive examples given below involve Republican officeholders. That said, only one party has a dominant faction that has made support for “Stop the Steal” — a slogan that has nothing to do with stopping election theft and everything to do with achieving a particular outcome regardless of the will of the eligible voters who cast ballots — a litmus test for its support.
At least four sets of concerns weigh in the process of assessing a candidate’s support for election integrity.
First, does the candidate seek to protect voting and lawful election procedures rather than discredit them? A recent report by Wisconsin special counsel Michael Gableman alleged that the rules for voting in nursing homes during the pandemic, along with election officials’ acceptance of private grants to assist voting in Wisconsin cities, constituted “unlawful conduct in the 2020 Presidential election[that] casts grave doubt on Wisconsin’s 2020 Presidential certification.” Gableman offered no evidence either to support these claims or to show how his assertions, if true, would have altered the outcome of the election.
Wisconsin voters should be asking candidates whether they believe more in Gableman or the integrity of Wisconsin elections. And the answer to that question does not turn on a voter’s choice of political party. As former local election official (and current state Senator) Kathy Bernier noted earlier this year, “There’s been recount after recount, court case after court case and, at some point, I wish [Donald Trump] would come out and say, ‘You know, I accept the results. Not only for the greater good of the Republican Party but the greater good of the United States.’”
Second, is the candidate prepared to defend the outcome of a legitimate, fairly run election? In Arizona, the Legislature leveraged conspiracy theories and falsehoods about the 2020 election results to conduct a partisan review of the vote in the state’s largest county. While the review reaffirmed the outcome, it has since been used to sow further doubt about the fairness of American elections and cited to promote election legislation based on false premises. Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed House Bill 2492, which requires Arizona election officials to verify the citizenship status of everyone who registers to vote using the federal voter registration form. The U.S. Supreme Court found a similar mandate unconstitutional in 2013, and there is little, if any, evidence to suggest that this measure will help ensure the integrity of Arizona elections.
To ensure that legitimate election outcomes are respected, voters should support elected officials like Arizona Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican who recently received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for being willing “to protect democracy principles and free and fair elections,” regardless of the personal consequences. Bowers supported Trump’s reelection bid in 2020, but once the election results confirmed Joe Biden’s victory, he repeatedly resisted overtures to try to undo the election. This included rebuffing legislation to overturn the results of the election, killing a bill to decertify the 2020 vote, and blocking a proposal that would have allowed the Legislature to overturn the results of any election it did not like.
Third, does the candidate believe that elections should continue to be administered in a nonpartisan manner – a hallmark of a healthy democracy? In Georgia, after Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s request that he overturn the 2020 election results (“I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Trump said), the state passed SB 202, a law that makes it easier for partisan actors to take over the administration of elections by removing the secretary of state as Chair of the State Elections Board and empowering the General Assembly to handpick a chairperson to replace him. SB 202 also allows the elections board to temporarily replace election officials in up to four counties if they find “nonfeasance, malfeasance or gross negligence” – it offers no standards, and is silent on the criteria for replacement.
While SB 202 now makes the partisan administration of elections more likely, voters can help prevent such initiatives from influencing the outcome of future elections. As Georgia Speaker David Ralston noted when some fellow Republicans were considering whether to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results, “I would remind people if we overturn this one, there could be one overturned on us some day.” Georgia voters should support candidates who believe that the role of election administration is to call balls and strikes in American elections fairly, rather than calling the game so that the team they favor wins.
Fourth and finally, does a candidate defend election officials who facilitate the right of the people to elect their own leaders, rather than rogue officials who advance the causes and goals of conspiracy theorists? Last November, election deniers aggressively recruited followers to run for local positions in Pennsylvania that oversee polling places and vote counting. This came on the heels of reporting that at least 21 election directors and deputy directors from more than a dozen of the state’s 67 counties left their posts soon after the 2020 presidential election. That election went smoothly, but sparked a string of verbal attacks on election officials from angry voters. Together, these developments raise concerns that exiting professional election officials can and will be replaced with individuals who may not have the same allegiance to the integrity of the election system.
Pennsylvania voters can help avert this potential insider threat by supporting elected officials like outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who believes that “a fundamental, defining feature of a democratic republic is the right of the people to elect their own leaders.” Citing this belief, Toomey opposed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, calling it an attempt “to disenfranchise millions of voters in my state and others.”
In the 2022 elections, voters have an interest in electing officials who not only reflect their views on substantive issues, but who also will stand up for the process and procedures that are essential if democracy is to function.
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