The House Jan. 6 Committee plans to hold its first public hearing tonight into the Capitol Riot, a violent attack that election conspirators orchestrated to disrupt the tallying of the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Good. The public needs to know as much as possible about this unprecedented attack on the foundations of American democracy. However, while the committee is holding these hearings, the election conspirators are working on a new, nonviolent strategy to undermine the results of this year’s congressional elections. Unlike the Capitol Riot, they plan to undermine the election without breaking the law.
To address this threat, federal and state policymakers must clearly define the roles of election observers, challengers, and certification commissions to prohibit officials from acting in bad faith.
Across the country, election conspirators are increasingly involved in midterm elections by serving as tellers, observers, challengers, and running for county clerk and secretary of state.
Their new strategy was inspired by their failure to disrupt the 2020 presidential election. with the two Democratic board members (while the other Republican board member abstained). Without Van Langevelde, Michigan might have unleashed election chaos, ending only with the involvement of the Supreme Court. In 2021, the Michigan Republican Party declined to nominate Van Langevelde for another term on the board.
As election conspirators seek to play a bigger role in overseeing the casting of ballots and certifying results, election officials who are now in office are heading for the exits. In a 2022 Brennan Center survey, 1 in 5 local election officials said they were likely to quit before November 2024. Why? Well, in a survey the previous year by the Brennan Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, nearly one in five election officials listed “threats to your life” as a job-related concern.
Efforts to challenge the legitimacy of the elections are not limited to the Republican Party. President Biden has suggested that the midterm elections could be illegitimate if Congress does not pass federal electoral reform, which he has not.
Following her loss in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, Democrat Stacy Abrams refused to concede, saying “[Republican Brian Kemp] won under the rules of the game at the time, but the game was rigged against Georgia voters. Abrams will likely face Kemp again in Georgia’s gubernatorial race this year.
Federal and state policymakers must recognize the danger looming on the horizon and make it much more difficult to disrupt free and fair elections. What should they do?
On the one hand, state policymakers need to establish stricter rules for election observers and challengers. Many state policies lack clarity about the processes observers and challengers can witness and what happens when an observer or challenger intentionally disrupts the vote. Observers and challengers are a necessary part of transparent and trustworthy elections but, due to lax rules, observers and challengers have scope to exploit their role and undermine the electoral process.
On the other hand, federal policymakers should require that for federal contests, state election results be automatically certified unless a court finds evidence of fraud that exceeds the margin of victory. The threat of a certification board not certifying a free and fair election outcome is greater in 2022 than in 2020, and it will be even greater in 2024 without federal legislation.
Policymakers cannot legislate to eliminate conspiracy theories that undermine our democracy, or demand that people always act in good faith. But federal and state policymakers can and should take proactive steps to strengthen our democratic processes against anticipated threats.
Matthew Weil is director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. Previously, he held positions with the Treasury Department and the United States Election Assistance Commission.