steps to a democratic breakdown

Democracy is most likely to break down through a series of incremental actions that cumulatively undermine the electoral process, resulting in a presidential election that produces an outcome clearly at odds with the voters’ will. It is this comparatively quiet but steady subversion, rather than a violent coup or insurrection against a sitting president, that Americans today have to fear most.

Five sets of actions fuel this corrosion: limiting participation in elections; controlling election administration; legitimizing and mobilizing social support for methods to obstruct or overturn an election; using political violence to further that end; and politicizing the regular military or National Guard to delegitimize election outcomes.

We have identified 18 steps to democratic breakdown and assigned a score of one to three alarm bells for each step, which indicates how big a threat we believe it poses to our democracy now.

Regulating participation in elections

These steps make elections closer than they would otherwise be or change the outcomes.

1 State legislatures pass laws that directly restrict voting access by making early and mail voting more difficult, imposing stricter voter ID requirements or increasing the likelihood of faulty voter purges. This year, legislatures in 19 states have passed new restrictions.

What to watch for: In solidly blue or red states, changing voting laws won’t make much difference, but new laws in states such as Florida, Georgia and Arizona could prove consequential.


2 The United States Supreme Court issues rulings that validate efforts to limit election participation. In July, the court upheld Arizona voting restrictions; the majority concluded that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 can be used only to strike down voting restrictions that impose a “substantial and disproportionate” burden. Other decisions upheld laws making it harder to vote in Ohio and North Carolina.

What to watch for: The outcome of pending litigation over voting laws in federal courts, particularly in Georgia; whether Congress passes either of two stalled bills that would protect voting rights.


3 While an election is in progress, election officials issue directives or civil-society groups sue to limit the number of polling places or sites to drop off absentee ballots.

What to watch for: Renewed efforts in key states such as Texas and Georgia during the 2022 and 2024 elections.


Controlling election administration

These steps put officials in place who may be willing to make decisions that subvert election outcomes. Of all the actions that contribute to democratic breakdown, these should be of most concern to voters right now.

4 State legislatures pass laws that give themselves more power over the administration and certification of elections, or impose criminal penalties on election officials. Such laws have been enacted in at least 14 states this year.

What to watch for: The outcome of a move underway in Wisconsin to eliminate the bipartisan election commission, charge its members with felonies and allow Republicans to assert full control of federal elections.


5 State and federal courts issue rulings that validate controversial efforts by states to unilaterally determine the administration and certification of elections, enabling them to control the outcome.

What to watch for: The outcome of lawsuits like the one in Wisconsin that seek to establish unilateral state control over election administration, including those for federal offices, such as the presidency.


6 Governors, state election boards or commissions appoint, or voters elect, chief election officials who are sympathetic to false claims of voter fraud and willing to use their position to undermine confidence in election results, create new voting regulations or interpret election rules to partisan advantage.

What to watch for: Battleground states Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, where Republican candidates who publicly supported partisan audits or other actions to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election are now running for secretary of state or other statewide offices.


Consolidating elite and public support for anti-democratic actions

These steps build constituencies in support of the previously outlined steps.

7 Politicians and other elites convince federal judges to endorse the “independent state legislature” doctrine, which interprets the Constitution as enabling legislatures to make final determinations about the outcomes of federal elections. A blueprint for such an effort appears in a memo drafted by attorney John Eastman after the 2020 election to try to convince Vice President Mike Pence that there were legal grounds to overthrow the election results. This would provide social backing for courts ceding power to the states to control elections.

What to watch for: Increased funding and organizational efforts to mainstream the independent state legislature doctrine.


8 Politicians or other elites make statements casting doubt on the legitimacy of elections, or support repeated unwarranted audits of elections, to lay the groundwork for their own supporters to endorse future electoral challenges.

What to watch for: Well-funded and organized efforts to draft model laws and file legal briefs to engineer election outcomes.


9 Proponents of overturning an election encourage acts of violence to further polarize society and consolidate support among social allies. These could include local officials endorsing violence against their political opponents, such as the Michigan sheriff who defended militias members plotting to kidnap the state’s governor, politicians calling on particular militia groups to counterprotest at pro-democracy rallies, and militia leaders continuing to organize their groups to do so.

What to watch for: Politicians making new statements in support of acts of political violence; polls that show growing public support for violence to advance political goals.


Engaging in political violence

These steps reduce participation in elections or use coercion to change the outcomes.

10 Political elites undermine accountability for prior acts of political violence in ways that decrease perception about the costs of future violence. Making statements minimizing the Jan. 6 attack, obstructing efforts to investigate it and failing to punish politicians who supported it would fall into this category, as would punishing those politicians who support investigations.

What to watch for: Whether the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, or ongoing trials of Jan. 6 defendants, results in real accountability.


11 Militias intimidate voters at or near polling places. There were reports about militias preparing to show up at polling sites during the 2020 presidential election but less evidence of actual intimidation at the polls.

What to watch for: In 2022 and 2024, signs that armed militias are organizing to show up at polling sites and an increased, coordinated effort to perpetuate voter intimidation, especially in battleground states.


12 Protesters or militia members occupy a state capitol to pressure the legislature to change an electoral outcome. Armed protesters entered the Michigan Capitol to protest pandemic restrictions; armed protesters and militias have also taken over or broken into federal buildings and shut down the state capitol in Oregon several times. Since Jan. 6, there have also been repeated threats at the U.S. Capitol.

What to watch for: Signs that militias are organizing to show up at state capitols or the U.S. Capitol in 2022 and 2024.


13 Elements of state or local law enforcement abet anti-democracy elements by fraternizing with anti-democracy militias or participants at protests. There were several examples of law enforcement officers wearing the logos of far-right militant groups, posing with protesters as they policed Black Lives Matter protests last year or socializing with them. The failure to respond more aggressively to such incidents signals to militia members that their actions enjoy support within the government and may encourage them to engage in more violent acts.

What to watch for: More overt coordination between members of law enforcement and militia groups. Elements of local or state law enforcement refusing to investigate and apprehend militias who are instigating political violence or occupying statehouses.


Politicizing the military and National Guard

These steps build constituencies in support of previously outlined steps or use coercion to change the outcomes of elections.

14 Anti-democracy politicians actively foster the notion that members of the military or other law enforcement agencies are partisan allies and on their side as a means of legitimizing their advocacy for challenging election outcomes.

What to watch for: New efforts to draw particular members or portions of the military or law enforcement into debates about elections or make intimidating statements about those who stand up for democracy, as occurred with retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified before Congress in the Trump-Ukraine hearings.


15 Retired military officers make public statements supporting claims of election fraud or anti-democratic actions.

What to watch for: Increasing activism by retired officers directed at undermining election outcomes along the lines of a letter posted in May by a group calling itself “Flag officers 4 America”; further calls to extremism from retired Gen. Michael Flynn.


16 Active-duty military officers make public statements supporting claims of election fraud or anti-democratic actions. This would represent a serious escalation, but remains unlikely to occur.

What to watch for: Active-duty officers write op-eds questioning the legitimacy of the election.


17 Governors deploy National Guard units with the intent of intimidating voters, either in their own or other states, while an election is underway. There is a precedent for partisan divides in deployments in other contexts — National Guard troops from Arizona, South Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas and Texas were recently sent to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

What to watch for: Politicians calling for the National Guard to assist at polls during the 2022 and 2024 elections when they are not needed.


18 Governors send the National Guard to state capitols for the express purpose of “rerunning” elections based on a false claim of fraud.

What to watch for: Governors ordering National Guard troops to go to neighboring states to seize ballots or close polling places in 2022 or 2024. This would be along the lines of what Flynn and retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney floated last December. It would represent a serious escalation in the way governors have used the Guard.

About this story

Design and development by Andrew Braford.

Story by Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks is the Allis Chalmers associate professor of political science at Marquette University. She is the author of numerous books and articles on civil-military relations and political violence in the United States. Twitter Twitter
Story by Erica De Bruin
Erica De Bruin, an associate professor of government at Hamilton College, is the author of "How to Prevent Coups." Twitter Twitter
Illustrations by Hanna Barczyk