Opinion | How Congress and voters can respond to rising GOP election deniers

Storm clouds gather over the US Capitol in July.  (Tom Brenner for the Washington Post)
Storm clouds gather over the US Capitol in July. (Tom Brenner for the Washington Post)

Election deniers are increasingly dominating the Republican Party — and may soon gain unprecedented power over the nation’s democratic system. That’s according to an alarming investigation by The Post’s Amy Gardner. Their analysis found that a majority of GOP candidates in congressional and major statewide races this November — 299 in total — engaged in some form of election denial. More than 60 percent of House candidates are running in districts with partisan profiles, suggesting they are unlikely to lose. Only two states – Rhode Island and North Dakota – did not nominate a single voter denier in any of the races The Post examined, while Republicans in Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming nominated voter deniers for every major race. And the Post’s latest tally captures only part of the threat.

The country does not have to watch the system fall apart. Any leader who claims to believe in democracy has an opportunity to act forcefully and immediately to strengthen the system against another 2020-style attack. It is high time for them to do so.

The Post’s figures are ominous – but not shocking. Conspiracy theory candidates defeated moderate Republicans in elementary school after elementary school this summer. The Post analysis counted candidates for Congress, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general who had questioned President Biden’s victory, opposed the counting of his Electoral College votes, supported partisan ballot reviews or lawsuits , aimed at overturning the 2020 results, or at the Stop the Steal rally on January 6, 2021.

Many of the offices that these candidates run for oversee critical parts of the electoral process. Governors might refuse to certify state electors or even certify spurious alternate lists. Undersecretaries not only have authority over electoral procedures, but could spread public distrust after a vote by refusing to confirm results or by demanding unnecessary audits and recounts. And as the country has seen in 2021, members of Congress can falsely object to the counting of electoral votes submitted by states.

The postal count doesn’t even capture the mischief that might be taking place at the local level. There has been an exodus of experienced poll workers, with conspiracy theorists and partisans increasingly filling the void. Election officials are also increasingly pressured by campaigns of harassment, including coordinated recording requests that waste officials’ time and resources. Several states have enacted laws empowering partisan election observers and forcing election administrators to prepare for further confrontations at polling stations.

Then there are unscrupulous county clerks and other local officials who could do significant damage to democracy but often remain under the radar. In Coffee County, Georgia, a local elections official told the Post that she has opened her office to voter deniers looking for evidence of voter fraud. A criminal investigation into the violation of the electoral system is underway. State advertisers responsible for certifying vote counts can do significant damage: In Michigan, for example, Republican state advertisers tried this year to block an abortion law amendment from going to a vote, forcing the state Supreme Court to intervene. In 2020, Michigan’s recruiters came under pressure to refuse to confirm Mr. Biden’s win in the state – and they nearly buckled. The country might not be so lucky next time.

As states and localities conduct elections in the United States, the primary responsibility for preparing the electoral system for another 2020-style attack rests with them. The most immediate task is to invest in the training and safety of poll workers. While they’re at it, local officials should try to remove partisan pressures from the vote counting process, for example by changing the requirements for those running for the office of secretary of state to make the post less political.

The main task of the Congress

But the single greatest measure to protect US democracy lies with Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week expressed support for the Electoral Count Reform Act, which would make it harder for conspiracy theorists to hijack the election process and overturn a legitimate vote. It’s a vital response to the wave of abstentions likely to take office next year — and as such, it’s the most important legislation federal lawmakers have considered in recent years.

The bill would reform the archaic rules for counting and certifying votes in presidential elections. By closing many of the loopholes that President Donald Trump and his allies tried to exploit to make up for his 2020 loss, the legislation could help prevent another January 6th – or something even worse. It would confirm that the vice president’s role in counting the electoral vote is only ceremonial, in response to Mr Trump’s attempts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally discard votes. The bill would direct Congress to consider only one list of voters from each state to avoid the potential for conflicting filings that could spark controversy over the count. And it would create a judicial review process to stop rogue state officials from sending in illegal slates.

The effort has garnered notable bipartisan support. Last week, the Senate Rules Committee, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), advanced the bill 14-1, with only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) opposed voices. At least 11 Republicans already support the proposal. The history of cross-gang collaboration isn’t nearly as rosy in the House of Representatives, where an alternative bill drafted by Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) received scant GOP support. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), leader of the House Minority, even whipped against it. The opposition, particularly from voters who are not in the House, is “like a bank robber saying, ‘Please make sure you keep the door unlocked,'” Senator Angus King (I-Maine) told us. The Post’s abstention count suggests that opposition to the law is unlikely to gather strength until next year, meaning it’s crucial for Congress to seize the opportunity to pass this law now.

The bill is hardly perfect, and while it may seem bureaucratic and mysterious, the details can make a world of difference. The law’s proponents have already addressed some of its weaknesses, specifying that only “force majeure” or force majeure-type events count as exceptional and catastrophic events for the purpose of extending an election period. One amendment clarified that “conclusive” electoral lists approved by the governor can still be challenged in federal courts.

Not perfect, but still good

There is still room for other adjustments that should be acceptable to both parties, notably raising the threshold for the number of congressmen required to uphold an objection to a state’s electoral list; A large number of House Republicans tried to reject Biden’s electoral lists on Jan. 6, 2021, and The Post’s count suggests that the congressional GOP will soon be even more populated with election deniers. Senators could also clarify the grounds on which lawmakers may object. But the effort of writing a perfect bill shouldn’t interfere with the effort of passing a good one. And by the looks of it, the Senate bill is good.

To their credit, some Senate Republicans have pushed for reform of the Electoral Counts Act, despite intense pressure from vote-resisters within their own party. More should follow. For their part, Democrats should rise to the occasion by throwing themselves behind the best bill they can get — whether it’s the one they would have written had they done it alone or not.

The responsibility for safeguarding democracy does not rest solely with Congress or state officials. In a functioning democracy, the voters ultimately decide who governs, and the country’s democratic system still functions. But the rules and procedures Congress is writing now could determine how long it stays that way.

The view of the post | About the editors

Editorials represent the views of the Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the editorial board based on range of opinion and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Associate Editor of Editorial Site Karen Tumulty; Associate Editor of Editorial Page Ruth Marcus; Associate Editor of Editorial Page Jo-Ann Armao (Education, DC Affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (Global Public Health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (Economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (Elections, White House, Congress, Legal Affairs, Energy, Environment, Healthcare).

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