For the last two years, I have been writing about my grave concerns over the future of American democracy. With developments over the last week, culminating on Monday night with the loss of election denier Kari Lake for governor in the key swing state of Arizona, I’m a little less worried. If we were two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock before last week’s midterm elections, we are now back to 10 minutes to midnight. Given how people are always asking me how worried I am about our country’s democracy, I thought it worth sharing why I’m a bit less terrified, and what dangers still lie ahead for 2024 and beyond.
Back in September 2020, I wrote for Slate a piece with the title, “I’ve Never Been More Worried About American Democracy Than I Am Right Now.” It began by stating:
With less than six weeks to go before Election Day, and with over 250 COVID-related election lawsuits filed across 45 states, the litigation strategy of the Trump campaign and its allies has become clear: try to block the expansion of mail-in balloting whenever possible and, in a few key states, create enough chaos in the system and legal and political uncertainty in the results that the Supreme Court, Congress, or Republican legislatures can throw the election to Trump if the outcome is at all close or in doubt.
Things only got worse after Election Day in November. Donald Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden but he called the election rigged and stolen. He refused to concede. He and his allies filed more than 60 lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results. He tried to pressure state and federal officials, including the vice president, to overturn the election results. He inspired the Jan. 6 violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and he refused to take immediate steps to call it off and let Congress finish the counting of the Electoral College votes.
After Joe Biden took office, things did not quiet down. Rather than fading into the sunset, Trump doubled down on his stolen election rhetoric and remained the leader of the Republican Party, inspiring a base of support utterly convinced of Trump’s 2020 victory; a CNN poll in September 2021 found 59 percent of Republicans stating that belief in a stolen 2020 election was an important part of what it means to be a Republican.*
As Trump’s vise on the Republican base tightened, a slew of candidates ran for offices that had real control over how elections are run and results certified. Lake, of Arizona, and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania ran as their states’ Republican nominees for governor saying they would not have certified the 2020 election for Joe Biden. A cadre of election denialist Republican candidates for secretary of state ran under the “America First” banner, led by election deniers such as Jim Marchant of Nevada and Mark Finchem of Arizona. Scores of other Republican candidates for office ran espousing election denialism.
In all of the swing states, the election denialist candidates lost for governor or secretary of state. In Michigan, Democrats took back control of the state legislature, making state legislative action impossible to try to steal a 2024 election victory for Trump in the state if he loses the vote. Democrats may take control of the state House in Pennsylvania, blocking an avenue there, too.*
Mike Pence is finally, belatedly, speaking out about how Trump endangered him and his family by egging on the rioters who were trying to get him to unilaterally reject Electoral College votes for Biden and throw the election to Trump. And now the lame-duck session of Congress is poised on a remarkably bipartisan basis in the Senate to pass a set of reforms to the arcane 1887 Electoral Count Act that Trump tried to exploit to turn his election loss into victory.
How did we make such progress? The same election deniers that pleased Trump and the Republican base repelled enough sane Republicans who oppose stolen elections to hold back their votes. The New York Times reported Monday that Trump had told U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick, running in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, that “If you don’t deny it, you won’t win.” McCormick didn’t deny it, failed to get Trump’s support, and lost the primary to Trump-supported Mehmet Oz by fewer than 1,000 votes. Oz went on to win the Republican primary but lose the general election to Democrat John Fetterman.
Across the ballot, in the places where it mattered, Democrats, Republicans, and others poured money into defeating election-denying candidates. The message was that if these people were willing to say, against all reliable evidence, that the last election was stolen, how could you trust them to run the next one? Democracy was on the line. This time, the line held.
We will now be going into 2024 in much better shape than I expected at this point.
But now is not the time for popping a champagne bottle and declaring the risk of election subversion over. Why not?
First, Congress hasn’t passed Electoral Count Act reform yet. If it doesn’t pass in the lame-duck session, I don’t expect the presumptive incoming Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, to give it a vote in the new House. That legislation and other legislation protecting election workers and otherwise strengthening democracy is essential.
Second, election-denying secretaries of state won their races in deep-red states like Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wyoming. These are not swing states, and so it is unlikely to affect the outcome of the presidential election directly. But these kinds of claims encourage lawlessness and undermine voter confidence in election integrity—confidence which is absolutely essential to keep things going. So long as election denialism spreads, our democracy is not safe.
Third, Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party, and he’s completely committed not only to perpetuating lies about the last election but to doing whatever it takes to win the next one. That could include encouraging violence among his supporters, including those in police forces and the military. We cannot exclude the possibility of more extreme tactics next time around.
Fourth, Trump could well run for office and win fairly in 2024, and then seek to change the rules for conducting elections so that he or his cronies and successors can remain in power. There’s no knowing what such a second Trump term would look like, but it would be a graver threat to democracy than the first.
Finally, once Trump leaves the scene, the next Trump-like candidate may be more effective at organizing for election subversion. Trump had the will but not the talent to manipulate the political system to end our democracy. The 2020 election was a test run for our democracy and we barely passed because of the courage of enough people in power. Now, with so many people believing that our elections can be stolen, the fragility of our democracy cannot be taken for granted as some of them eventually serve in positions of power in elections.
So maybe pour a glass of champagne and celebrate that we got over the very low bar of not electing truly anti-democracy candidates to offices in states where it matters. But don’t drink the whole bottle. We need to soberly assess what’s ahead and not reduce our vigilance to safeguard democracy.
Correction, Nov. 15: This article originally misstated that the CNN poll had taken place in September 2020. It took place in September 2021. It also misidentified the state House in Pennsylvania as the state Senate.