The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy’s defenders can’t just win elections. They must also campaign to save democracy.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Jan. 20. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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The center-left think tank Third Way put out a handy guide on Wednesday that lays out the Republicans’ strategy to subvert democracy.

The GOP’s plan, which the guide aptly titles “The Plot to Steal the Presidency,” contains a list of familiar threats, including the avalanche of new voting restrictions, efforts to harass and replace election officials and the parade of MAGA partisans seeking office as attorneys general and secretary of state. With enough sand thrown into the gears of vote-counting, GOP state legislatures can produce “alternative” slates of electors. Aided by the confusing Electoral Count Act, a GOP-controlled House could conceivably install a losing Republican nominee as president.

Beyond describing the threat, Third Way lays out a helpful game plan for combating Republicans’ sabotage of our elections:

Model: For the first time in US history, a party must mount two parallel presidential campaigns: one to win the election, and the other to prevent its theft.
Scope: Democrats will spend at least $1B on the campaign to reelect President Biden. They and other pro-democracy actors must also mount a campaign of similar size, scope, and seriousness to stop the coup plotters.
Leadership: The political job of the President and the Biden-Harris team is to win re-election. For the parallel campaign, we need the most influential democratic voices in politics (of both parties) to come together. That includes former Presidents and First Ladies, congressional leadership, party chairs, top state officials, former office-holders, etc.
Team: As with a traditional presidential campaign, it will take tens of thousands of Americans — volunteers, lawyers, business leaders, donors, activists, and strategists — to offer their time, commitment, and resources to this effort.

While comprehensive federal voting rights reform is dead for now, a bipartisan bill to reform the ECA and counter election subversion tactics is still possible. Democracy advocates also must build on legal campaigns from 2020 to “stop the unconstitutional abrogation of voting rights and attempts by partisans to grab power from nonpartisan elections officials.”

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Meanwhile, the threat of intimidation and violence against election workers remains a major concern for state and local officials. For that reason, Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, met via Zoom on Wednesday with a bipartisan group of more than 550 election officials from a variety of states to brief them on the work of the department’s Election Threats Task Force.

A readout of the meeting stated that Justice Department officials — including FBI director Christopher A. Wray, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta — reviewed “the Task Force’s first charge for interstate threats to kill government officials, information on the work to review the over 850 reports of threats to election officials, and updated guidance to grant recipients that grant funding can be used to deter, detect and protect against threats of violence against election workers, administrators, officials and others associated with the electoral process.” The officials also made clear that state officials will receive funds to protect election personnel through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, a leading resource for states and localities to “to fill gaps in state, local, and tribal criminal justice systems.”

In a guidance letter released Wednesday, Gupta noted that “the past year has seen an unprecedented increase in threats of violence against Americans who administer the election process in our country.” She reiterated, “The Department of Justice is committed to protecting every American’s right to vote, including by protecting election workers against personal threats of violence that aim to undermine the electoral process.”

Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, attended the meeting. She tells me that Justice Department funds will help local officials “who haven’t had enough support.” Having recruited and trained some 30,000 election workers in 2020, she is confident that “we have the infrastructure in place” to run midterm elections. While she says she does not want ECA reform to be used to divert attention from other reforms, she has “long advocated for reforming the ECA.” (Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently referred concerns about fake electors submitted by Republicans in her state to the U.S. attorney in western Michigan.)

The Justice Department, state and local officials and private democracy advocates have the benefit of hindsight. They know the tactics Republicans may use to capture election machinery and, if needed, to stage a coup to ensure their 2024 presidential nominee takes power. The Justice Department’s formation of the task force and its investigation into fake electors (previously announced by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco) demonstrate Garland is fully primed to block illegal efforts to thwart the will of the voters and to prevent threats against election workers. Plainly, the Justice Department is using every lever at its disposal in the absence of sorely needed legislation from Congress.

Democrats will face a slew of challenges in preventing an election from being stolen: raising money and recruiting candidates to beat “big lie” Republican candidates running for state office; defeating additional subversion and suppression legislation; educating the public and media about the antidemocratic plot; and, most importantly, actually winning elections in 2022 and 2024. (Plans to prevent Republicans from stealing elections become moot if Democrats lose fair and square.) Fortunately, Benson notes that voters — at least in places such as Michigan — are fully engaged on democracy given all that happened “in broad daylight” in 2020.

Democrats must overcome donors’ traditional preference for spending only in high-profile federal races. They must forge a unified, effective message that can both defend their record and warn voters about the treat to democracy from Republicans, who are no longer committed to the rule of law, the sanctity of elections and the peaceful transfer of power.

This effort is daunting, no doubt. Democrats are already exhausted by Republican disinformation, obstruction and attempts to normalize violence. The good news: Democracy defenders have an active partner in the Justice Department to defend voting rights. Both have plenty of time to get this right — if they start immediately.