Politics

The Midterms Are About Vigilantism

This is a broad new public desire to take the law into one’s own hands because, well, you did the research.

Illustration of a pitchfork.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

There are a lot of issues on the ballot—or simmering just beneath the ballot—in the November midterms, but one overarching theme seems to unite them all: Vigilantism. This is a broad new public desire to take the law into one’s own hands because, well, you did the research and the election law was wrong.

It’s not just the guys in the “tactical gear” monitoring the drop boxes in Arizona last week, although that feels like the most tangible manifestation of the problem. And it’s not just those who are collecting names and photographs of voters in an attempt to catch the “mules” they have conjured up from Dinesh D’Souza’s resoundingly debunked film 2,000 Mules.

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It’s also the folks in North Carolina who have launched a nationwide effort to monitor “election integrity” at the state and local level, under the tutelage of unindicted election arsonist Cleta Mitchell.

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It’s also efforts by another 2020 election cowboy, John Eastman, who is, according to leaked audio, romping through New Mexico telling conservative activists to personally challenge individual voters in order to amass future evidence to set aside elections. (According to Politico, “Eastman’s instructions included extremely narrow, technical and sometimes simply incorrect interpretations of voting rules.”)

The goal here isn’t merely to induce random citizens to enforce imaginary local voting rules but also to create a narrative about a stolen election, absent facts or evidence. The goal is to challenge voters and harass election workers and to continue foment mistrust in election results generally. That Eastman and Mitchell failed to do this successfully in 2020, and are afforded a clean shot at a do-over in 2022, tells you everything you need to know about the lack of accountability for election vigilantism at the highest levels.

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But even that is all the tip of the iceberg for the most zealous election vigilantes. Whether it’s the deranged “constitutional sheriffs” who believe they have unfettered power to investigate and intervene in election administration, or the bloodless proponents of the “independent state legislature theory” who argue that state legislatures have the unfettered constitutional power to set their own election rules, a broad swath of self-appointed enforcers have declared themselves the sole arbiters of who gets to vote and how. Trust election deniers with elections and corrupt state actors with election suppression, and everyone and their crazy uncle becomes a nationally accredited expert on “stolen elections.”

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We should be candid about the fact that the selfsame party that downplayed and spread disinformation about an attempted homicide against Nancy Pelosi, is currently telling self-appointed experts/vigilantes that they should each be personally determining rules for who gets to vote—and thinking about removing any leadership that gets in their way. The new election law? Once you’ve determined that you’ve personally asked the right questions, and that you’ve run a quick search on Reddit, there’s no law, judge, elections official, or fact that can deter you from upending and undermining an election. The 2020 election was immune to a mass hijacking because the elections system is decentralized and local. It is now being subjected to a decentralized and local takeover.

If voting vigilantism is the new pumpkin spice heading into the midterms, it will be a result of the fact that America has now descended into a form of choose-your-own-ending elections law, in which anyone who doesn’t like the agreed-upon ending, feels entitled to make up a new one, and to impose it on others by force.

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