The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is the Republicans’ back-up plan in case they can’t suppress enough votes

Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks on voting rights at the Justice Department on Friday.
Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks on voting rights at the Justice Department on Friday. (Pool/Reuters)

Like termites, destructive but largely unseen, anti-democracy forces around the country are gnawing at the foundations of America’s free and fair elections.

State by state, the termites are trying to change the rules to allow Donald Trump or someone like him to succeed in 2024 where Trump tried and failed in 2020: to steal an election that he lost.

In April, a report by three nonprofit organizations documented how Republicans in dozens of state legislatures were pursuing a strategy “to politicize, criminalize, and interfere in election administration.”

Now, less than two months later, this “Democracy in Crisis” report has an update, and it is alarming. The number of bills raising red flags has grown from 148 in 36 states to 216 in 41 states — and 24 of them have become law.

Attorney General Merrick Garland on June 11 announced that he would double the number of staff working on voting rights enforcement over the next 30 days. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The commitment of many state legislatures to attacking the foundations of our democracy appears to have deepened,” says the report from Protect Democracy, States United Democracy Center and Law Forward. “The trend toward threatening election administrators with criminal penalties is more pronounced and aggressive, and attempts by legislatures to perform core elections functions has grown more brazen.”

For the past half-century, civil rights groups have focused on the right to vote, a right that is once again under threat in many places. Encouragingly, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that he will double the Justice Department staff dedicated to protecting that right.

But no less crucial, as Garland noted in his speech, is to ensure “that all lawful votes are counted.” We haven’t paid as much attention to that, because until now we haven’t had to. Election administration in America, overseen in many cases by partisan officials and volunteer poll-watchers, may strike foreigners as odd. But it has worked, because those officials have put election integrity first.

After his decisive loss, Trump tried to undermine that integrity, threatening and cajoling state officials to back up his lie of having won. Shamefully, many Republicans in Congress and state capitals went along and continue to go along with his corrosive claim of election fraud. But the officials who mattered last fall — in Georgia and Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona — put duty over party and refused to bend.

Now, anti-democrats are working to improve their odds next time around. They are trying to replace the honest officials with peddlers of Trump’s lie, as in Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger faces a primary challenge from Rep. Jody Hice.

They are subjecting election officials to criminal penalties for actions they may take in the course of performing their duties. Often the supposed offenses are ill-defined; the effect will be to discourage honest people from taking these often-thankless jobs while giving state judges and legislators the power to make mischief.

The Texas election law that was temporarily derailed by a Democratic legislators’ walkout May 31 — but which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to put back on track — creates 14 scenarios under which election officials could find themselves in legal jeopardy. The language is “so expansive and unclear that it could effectively freeze every local election official or worker in their tracks when faced with any need to adapt their practices to local circumstances or to emergency situations,” the Protect Democracy report notes.

Potentially most dangerous, legislatures are giving themselves the right to interfere in vote-counting and election disputes while tying the hands of secretaries of state to rule impartially or even in some cases to seek legal advice.

One by one, these bills may seem arcane and hardly threatening to the republic. Who is going to lose sleep over Arizona S.B. 1068, say, which would give seven legislators control of the state’s Elections Procedures Manual, replacing the secretary of state?

But bills giving legislators more oversight of elections, allowing them to interfere in the running of elections and otherwise injecting partisanship into the process, already have passed in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, according to the report. These could dramatically alter the outcome when a fraudster such as Trump comes calling.

As Garland and members of Congress look to defend the franchise, they should examine these efforts to corrupt the process with the same urgency they bring to combating efforts to restrict people’s ability to vote.

It’s bad enough that most Republicans continue to defend Trump’s slander on American democracy and use it as a pretext to suppress the vote, instead of looking for ways to appeal to more voters.

It’s even scarier that they are trying to write themselves an insurance policy so that, if their vote suppression strategy fails in 2024, they can nonetheless reclaim power.

That should be unacceptable to every patriotic American.

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