The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The latest GOP primaries point to serious election chaos ahead

Otero County, New Mexico Commissioner Couy Griffin outside federal court after his conviction for actions on January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

We’re in primary season, which means that almost every Tuesday, a few new election deniers win the Republican nomination for seats from governor to senator to city councilperson. And what we’re seeing in the latest primaries is truly ominous for the future of democracy.

November’s election is going to bring chaos. And as bad as it will be, it’s only a taste of what’s to come in 2024. That election could be an outright cataclysm — potentially nothing less than the end of democracy as we have known it.

Consider the Nevada primaries that just concluded on Tuesday. Nevada is exactly the kind of swing state that could go to the opposition party in an off year, and the Republican Party there is now dominated by conspiracy theorists. Its nominee for Senate is Adam Laxalt, who insists that Donald Trump was the true winner in 2020 and has said that while fraud happens in cities where Democrats live, the vote in Republican areas is “legitimate.”

Even worse, the Republican nominee for secretary of state is right-wing extremist Jim Marchant. He got into the election denial business when he lost a race for U.S. House; he claimed it was stolen from him. Marchant’s website says his top priority will be overhauling Nevada’s “fraudulent” elections, and he has said he would not have certified Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the state.

Marchant is just one of many election deniers running for governor and secretary of state this year, including in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan. Almost inevitably, some of them are going to win.

How this can play out on the ground is illustrated by a disturbing story out of heavily Republican Otero County in New Mexico, where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden in 2020 by 26 points. All three members of the county commission are Republicans.

Those Republicans have now unanimously refused to certify the results of the recent primary election. Why? They can’t point to anything fraudulent or even suspicious that occurred in the primary; all they have are the usual claims about Dominion voting machines, which have been widely debunked. “I have huge concerns with these voting machines,” one of the commissioners said.

The commission may have become convinced that something was amiss after they listened to “hours-long presentations” from David and Erin Clements, a pair of c-list traveling election conspiracy theorists.

To top it all off, another person on the three-member commission is Couy Griffin, conspiracy theorist and co-founder of Cowboys for Trump, who was convicted of trespassing into a restricted area at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

These are the people in charge of certifying the election in Otero County. Now multiply that by dozens or maybe hundreds of counties across the country.

All up and down the line, we’re going to see efforts to disrupt election procedures and undo results. It will come from local officials such as those in Otero. It will come from Trumpist partisans who have signed up to work as poll workers to secure the election for the GOP. It will come from a network of far-right sheriffs who have convinced themselves that they have the authority to seize voting machines and otherwise impede the casting and counting of votes.

And it will come from high-ranking Republicans who are outright enemies of democracy and keep winning primaries, like Laxalt and Marchand in Nevada.

Think about what election day 2022 will be like. We’ll see widespread intimidation of voters and election officials. We’ll see repetitions of the Otero County case, with uncertain outcomes. Many will wind up being determined by state supreme courts, but many of those are in Republican hands.

Meanwhile, many GOP state legislatures have moved to exert more power over elections. Some may decide to intervene and change the results if they don’t like the outcome. It will all be hyped into a frenzy by Fox News and other conservative media.

The result will be one place after another — towns, counties, maybe entire states — where the Republicans in charge say “Something fishy went on, we can’t say exactly what, but anyhow, we declare that the Republican candidates won.”

That will be just the warmup for 2024, when many more anti-democratic extremists now running will be in office, standing ready to make sure that Donald Trump becomes president again no matter what.

We shouldn’t forget that essentially the entire Republican Party, even those who admit Trump’s lies about 2020 are lies, have accepted that this is how their party will do business from now on. Who are the Republicans who believe their party can lose fair and square? Who are the Republicans who will condemn the electoral mayhem their comrades have planned?

If they’re out there, they’re keeping their mouths shut because they hope the same thing that the authoritarian extremists hope: that out of whatever nightmare they put the country through, they’ll be able to grasp and hold power.

It’s as though we live in a canyon vulnerable to flash floods and we all hear the rumble of an approaching deluge that could wipe away our town. From time to time we raise our heads and say, “Gee, that sounds ominous,” and then go back to what we were doing before. If you haven’t heard what’s coming, you might want to start listening.