The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the midterms were the Y2K of elections

Nevadans cast their votes on Election Day at a busy Centennial Center polling place in Las Vegas. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
5 min

When it comes to subversion at the ballot box and the vote-counting center, the 2022 midterms were the Y2K of elections.

You might remember how a computer glitch was supposed to cause chaos when dates rolled over to Jan. 1, 2000. News articles predicted everything from crashing home PCs to planes falling from the sky. The nightmare never arrived, precisely because we saw it coming and had time to prepare.

Something similar happened in the midterms. For months, those of us worried about ensuring a fair election warned about the threat of subversion via disruptions at polling places, the intimidation of election workers and efforts to wreak havoc with ballot-counting.

But very little of that happened. While isolated problems popped up here and there, as they always do — most notably in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where a tabulator problem at many polling sites led to temporary delays — on the whole, voting went smoothly.

Why? There were many factors at play. First, election deniers appearing on ballots talked a lot about fraud, but they didn’t do much. The paranoid fantasies they doled out were about getting supporters energized to vote, not organizing them to do anything disruptive.

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Second, the folks who make up the hard core of the election subversion movement — both the leaders and the rank-and-file — are, to put it bluntly, not that bright. There are plenty of smart people in the Republican Party, but these are not them. The movement is led by buffoonish celebrities including MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and Rudy Giuliani, and populated on the ground by people foolish enough to believe them. They’re the Four Seasons Total Landscaping crew, and they aren’t going to pull off an “Ocean’s 11”-style heist.

Indeed, many if not most of these people knew almost nothing about the process of elections other than what they had heard from Newsmax and YouTubers on the far right. They expected to arrive at the polls and see election officials setting ballots on fire and loading voting machines into vans marked “Soros Conspirators LLC.”

Instead, they saw the orderly, slow process that is familiar to anyone who has voted. And while we heard a good deal about Republicans recruiting partisans to challenge voters at the polls, that didn’t prove to be a problem, either.

According to Michael Waldman and Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice, which closely monitored election day, no deluge of problematic poll watchers arrived. “It’s one thing to get people to sign up to hear about election fraud,” Norden told me, “and another to get them to show up at a polling place and spend all day there.”

Which brings us to the most important reason the vote went smoothly: Election officials knew what was coming, and spent the past two years preparing. “There were a lot of risks and a lot of threats,” Waldman said, “but the defenses against it were stronger.”

Election officials made doubly sure they had enough pens on hand and contingency plans in place for the kind of technical issues that inevitably crop up on election days, and prepared for unruly voters, as well. “There was a lot of work done in de-escalation training with election officials,” said Norden.

They also coordinated with local police, so everyone knew what to watch out for and how to handle any incidents. “The fact that law enforcement said that intimidation of election workers won’t be tolerated was a very big thing,” said Norden.

A couple of other factors likely played a part in tamping down efforts to disrupt the vote. All the talk of a “red wave” might have made Republicans too confident to worry that the election would be stolen from them. Donald Trump’s claims of fraud have become so repetitive that they might have lost their urgency: Waldman and Norden said that in focus groups they conducted, even some people who thought the 2020 election was flawed weren’t as worried about the midterms; without Trump himself on the ballot, they were less afraid the election would be stolen.

The conspiratorial frenzy might also have peaked before the election. In August, in deeply red Gillespie County, Tex., the chief election official and her staff resigned, citing threats and harassment. But when I recently visited the county and spoke to Lindsey Brown, the new county clerk who had been given the job of administering the election on short notice, she said early voting was going surprisingly well.

Other than one elderly man who got a little worked up over a clerical issue, there had been no disruptions or protests, Brown said. Other people in town told me that the community rallied together to make sure the election proceeded in an orderly fashion and they wouldn’t be seen as a bunch of lunatics.

One well-run election doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll never face this problem again. But we should be encouraged by how many people, including some Republicans, are pushing back against those who would cause chaos at the polls.

“We know there is an election denial movement,” said Waldman. “But there is a democracy movement, too.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.