Opinion How to confront the rising power of the GOP’s election-denying wing

Storm clouds loom over the U.S. Capitol in July. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)
Storm clouds loom over the U.S. Capitol in July. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this editorial gave an incorrect count of Republican nominees who have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election according to a Post analysis. The correct number is 291. This version has been corrected.

Election deniers increasingly dominate the Republican Party — and could soon gain unprecedented power over the nation’s democratic system. That is the takeaway from an alarming investigation by The Post’s Amy Gardner. Her analysis found that a majority of GOP nominees in congressional and key statewide races this November — 291 in all — have engaged in some form of election denialism. More than 60 percent of the House candidates are running in districts with partisan profiles suggesting they are unlikely to lose. Only two states — Rhode Island and North Dakota — did not nominate a single election denier in any of the races examined by The Post, while Republicans in Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming nominated election deniers for every major race. And The Post’s latest tally captures only part of the threat.

The country does not have to sit by and watch the system unravel. Any leader claiming to believe in democracy has options to act forcefully and immediately to bolster the system against another 2020-style attack. It’s past time for them to do so.

A nationwide problem

The Post’s numbers are ominous — but not shocking. Conspiracy-theorizing candidates defeated moderate Republicans in primary after primary this summer. The Post analysis counted candidates for Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general who had questioned President Biden’s victory, opposed counting his electoral college votes, supported partisan ballot reviews or lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 results, or attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021.

Many of the offices for which these candidates are running oversee critical parts of the election process. Governors could refuse to certify state electors or even certify bogus alternative slates. Secretaries of state not only have authority over election procedures, but they could also spread public distrust after a vote by refusing to certify results or calling for unnecessary audits and recounts. And, as the country saw in 2021, members of Congress can spuriously object to counting the electoral votes states submit.

The Post’s count does not even capture the mischief that could take place at the local level. There has been an exodus of experienced poll workers, with conspiracy theorists and partisan operatives increasingly filling the void. Election officials are also increasingly under pressure from harassment campaigns, including coordinated records requests that waste officials’ time and resources. Several states have passed laws empowering partisan poll watchers, forcing election administrators to prepare for more confrontations at polling sites.

Then there are rogue county clerks and other local officials who could do considerable damage to democracy but often fly under the radar. In Coffee County, Ga., a local elections official told The Post that she had opened her office to election deniers searching for evidence of voter fraud. A criminal investigation into the voting systems breach is ongoing. State canvassers, who are responsible for certifying vote totals, can do significant harm: In Michigan, for example, Republican state canvassers attempted this year to block an abortion rights amendment from getting onto the ballot, forcing the state Supreme Court to intervene. In 2020, Michigan’s canvassers came under pressure to refuse to certify Mr. Biden’s victory in the state — and they nearly buckled. The country might not be so fortunate next time.

Because states and localities administer elections in the United States, responsibility for preparing the electoral system for another 2020-style assault falls firstly on them. The most immediate task is investing in training and security for poll workers. While they are at it, local officials should seek to remove partisan pressures from the vote-counting process by doing things such as changing the requirements for those seeking to run for state secretary of state to make the office less political.

Congress’s essential task

Yet the greatest single measure to protect U.S. democracy lies in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced his support last week for the Electoral Count Reform Act, which would make it harder for conspiracy theorists to hijack the electoral process and overturn a legitimate vote. It is an essential response to the wave of election deniers likely to take office next year — and, as such, it is the most important legislation federal lawmakers will have considered in recent years.

The bill would reform the archaic rules governing the counting and certifying of electoral votes in presidential elections. By stitching shut many of the loopholes President Donald Trump and his allies tried to exploit to overturn his 2020 loss, the legislation could help prevent another Jan. 6 — or something even worse. It would confirm that the vice president’s role in counting electoral votes is solely ceremonial, a response to Mr. Trump’s attempts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally toss out votes. The bill would instruct Congress to consider only one slate of electors from each state, avoiding the potential for conflicting submissions to stoke controversy about the count. And it would create a judicial review process to restrain rogue state officials from sending in unlawful slates.

The effort has garnered remarkable bipartisan support. Last week, the Senate Rules Committee, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), advanced the bill 14-1, with only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) voting against it. At least 11 Republicans are already on record supporting the proposal. The story of cross-aisle collaboration isn’t nearly as rosy in the House of Representatives, where an alternative bill drafted by Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) received only scant GOP support. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) even whipped against it. The opposition, especially from election deniers in the House, is “sort of like a bank robber saying, ‘Please be sure to keep the door unlocked,’ ” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told us. The Post’s election-denier count suggests that opposition to the bill is likely to only gain strength next year, which means it is crucial for Congress to seize the opportunity to pass this legislation now.

The bill is hardly perfect, and though they seem bureaucratic and arcane, the details can make a huge difference. The legislation’s supporters have fixed some of its weaknesses already, stipulating that only “force majeure” or act-of-God-type events qualify as extraordinary and catastrophic for the purposes of extending a voting period, for example. A modification clarified that “conclusive,” governor-approved slates of electors are still subject to challenge in federal court.

Not perfect, but still good

There’s still room for other tweaks that ought to be acceptable to both parties, most notably raising the threshold for the number of members of Congress necessary to sustain an objection to a state’s electoral slate; a large number of House Republicans tried to reject Biden electoral slates on Jan. 6, 2021, and The Post’s count suggests that the congressional GOP will soon be even more packed with election deniers. Senators could also make clearer the grounds on which lawmakers would be allowed to object. But the effort to write a perfect bill should not disrupt the effort to pass a good one. And, as it stands, the Senate’s bill is good.

To their credit, some Senate Republicans have rallied behind Electoral Count Act reform, despite extreme pressures from election deniers within their own party. More should follow. Democrats should in turn rise to the occasion by throwing themselves behind the best bill they can get — whether or not it’s the one they would have written if they had gone it alone.

Responsibility for securing democracy does not lie only with Congress or state officials. In a functioning democracy, it is ultimately up to voters to decide who will govern, and the country’s democratic system is still working. The rules and procedures Congress writes now might determine just how long that remains true.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Associate Editor Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).