The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Democratic attacks on the GOP over democracy missing their mark?

A sign near a gas station in Worthington, Pa., this past December still holds on to the claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Another set of GOP primaries takes place Tuesday, most notably in Georgia, where incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp will likely hold off a challenge from former senator David Perdue, whose campaign is largely based on the idea that Kemp failed to help President Donald Trump steal the 2020 election.

But in the race for secretary of state, Trump-backed Rep. Jody Hice could win, and could end up overseeing the 2024 election in this vital swing state. And in other secretary of state primaries Tuesday, such as in Arkansas and Alabama, Republicans might nominate Trump loyalists who pose a genuine threat to our ability to conduct fair elections and have our votes counted.

Yet Democrats have yet to convince the public to take the threat seriously enough.

A new set of focus groups run by Democratic pollster David Binder from May 10 to May 12 illustrates the point. The research raises a question: Are Democrats getting their criticism of the GOP abandonment of democracy right?

Binder conducted four focus groups in Georgia and two in Michigan, mostly with suburban voters, independents and moderates who have voted for candidates in both parties. The groups were commissioned by the Democratic-aligned voting rights organization IVote to determine what voters want to hear from Democratic candidates for secretary of state.

The results are worrying when it comes to democracy — but also suggest a way forward for Democrats.

For instance, according to a summary of the results of all six focus groups provided to us, they found that most of the voters surveyed appear conflicted about rhetoric that calls out Trump’s “big lie” about 2020 and frames all discussion of it around his efforts to overturn his loss.

On the one hand, most of these voters agree with the substance of those claims. On the other, most of them tend to interpret it as partisan rhetoric.

The focus groups do find that voters understand the need for a secretary of state to talk about 2020. But the research concludes that voters want to hear an emphasis on nonpartisan procedural improvements, and that, above all, they want to hear discussion of “proactive measures” a secretary of state will take to “ensure transparency and fairness in future elections.”

“When we talk about the ‘big lie’ and Trump, it looks to them like you’re looking backwards and getting partisan," Binder told us. “They want a secretary of state to say, ‘I am going to make sure that everyone has the right to vote in a nonpartisan way.’ ”

Importantly, the focus groups show strong voter support for removing measures that make it harder to vote. Yet, at the same time, they show that these swing voters don’t tend to see voter suppression as an effort to “subvert democracy.”

All of which suggests several possibilities.

One of them is galling: Republicans have largely treated congressional efforts to probe Trump’s effort to destroy our political order as an illegitimate partisan exercise. This may be successfully recasting the dispute over what to do about it as a conventional partisan one.

The second possibility might be that if Democratic candidates for secretary of state want to warn about the threat posed by would-be election saboteurs, they need to make this case in a more urgent fashion.

Talk about the “big lie” sounds backward looking, smacking of an effort to relitigate a past outcome. By contrast, highlighting the specific ways Republicans are gearing up to steal the next election might sound more relevant.

“We cannot be quiet in the face of Republicans saying they’re going to change rules in a way that will sabotage future elections,” Binder told us. “Do it in a way that looks forward."

In truth, the backward-looking and forward-looking arguments are two sides of the same coin: When a GOP candidate announces his conviction that Trump won in 2020, that’s strong evidence that they will try to steal the 2024 election for him (or another GOP loser). But it can be hard to prove this, because the rhetoric of even the most deranged election saboteurs is clothed in high-minded claims about “transparency" and “integrity.”

Nevertheless, if voters are more interested in the future than the past, then they are focusing in the right direction. Many Trump loyalists seeking positions of control over election positions — especially governor and secretary of state — accept the presumption that only Republican victories are legitimate, and if voters decide to elect Democrats then they must simply be overruled.

Which is something all voters should be worried about. And if they aren’t, Democrats have a duty to make sure they understand the true stakes we face. In future elections.