Despite the predictable howling of certain Republicans, the 2022 midterm elections largely went off without a hitch, a much-needed reprieve from the chaos that erupted in 2020 as former President Donald Trump and his allies lied to voters about a stolen election in a brazen attempt to cling to power. But a new report from nonpartisan legal experts shows we’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.
Trump is running for president once again and currently leads his GOP primary opponents in the polls. Meanwhile, state lawmakers who embraced Trump’s disinformation about widespread “voter fraud” — a propaganda myth that Republicans obsessed over long before Trump ran for president — are pushing a wave of “election subversion” bills that experts say would set conditions for partisans to sow chaos and doubt around the results in 2024.
The term “election subversion” describes scenarios in which election results do not reflect the will of voters. Legal experts say the risk has not subsided despite the relatively smooth midterms, when Republican election deniers such as Kari Lake in Arizona were broadly rejected by voters and saw their objections to the results crumble under public scrutiny.
However, like Trump, the election denial movement is not going away anytime soon. Rather, legal experts say election subversion efforts have “evolved” along with Trump-fueled conspiracy theories that remain alarmingly salient on the right despite multiple audits and recounts affirming the 2020 results.
Nonpartisan pro-democracy groups are tracking 185 bills introduced or passed in 38 states that would put election administrators in an “untenable position” and make it easier for partisans to manipulate election results in 2024, according to a new report from the States United Democracy Center and other nonpartisan groups.
“The packaging is slick, laced with terms like ‘forensic audits’ or nostalgic calls for ‘hand counts,’” Victoria Bassetti, a senior adviser at the States United Democracy Center, told reporters this week. “But what’s inside is dangerous — and only creates more doubt and confusion.”
At least 15 bills have become law, including four in Georgia, where activists say Republican lawmakers responded to historic mobilizations of Black voters in recent elections by changing voting rules and engineering a partisan takeover of local election boards.
The restructuring of election boards enabled avenues for “altering the racial composition and skewing the bipartisan distribution of the members of the boards,” according to the report. In short, the new Georgia laws make it easier to stack election boards with white Republicans, even in diverse areas such as Fulton and Ware Counties.
Black voters were a major force behind President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the state, where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger infamously received a call from Trump, who demanded he “find” 11,000 Trump votes to sway the results. Georgia prosecutors are currently investigating Trump’s alleged attempt to swing the election and are considering criminal charges.
“Election subversion and voter suppression really go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin,” Bassetti said. “They are ways for officials and bad actors in and outside the government to manipulate who votes and how their votes are counted to win elections, rather than appeal to voters to win office.”
In 2023 alone, lawmakers in 14 states considered at least 31 bills that would shift some control over local elections to state legislatures, according to the report. Like Georgia, proposals in Texas target specific counties and particularly Harris County, home to the city of Houston and one of the fastest-growing multicultural populations in the nation, not to mention large numbers of voters who lean to the left.
Taking cues from Georgia, both Texas and Arizona are considering bills that would allow partisan actors, such as lawmakers or the secretary of state, to take over election administration duties usually performed by nonpartisan professionals on “flimsy grounds.”
Other bills would place “unworkable burdens” on election officials and poll workers, creating stress and delays that would provide partisans with time to rally their supporters and cast doubt on the results — just as Trump did in 2020. This includes proposals to mandate hand counts of ballots, which are expensive, time consuming and prone to human error. Other bills would enable partisans to swamp election offices with records requests, a disruptive tactic used by Trump supporters in 2020.
While the report is intentionally nonpartisan and does not mention Trump or political parties, virtually all the election subversion bills in each state were filed by Republicans and far right followers of Trump.
Republicans have also proposed imposing legal penalties on election officials in the normal course of their jobs, which the report argues would criminalize even “inadvertent mistakes.” Civil and criminal penalties for inappropriate and unfair behavior are warranted, the report states, but the proposals identified by researchers would escalate criminalization of election workers “with no apparent need or benefit.”
Fear of facing fines or, more likely, expensive legal fees from frivolous challenges, would push seasoned election officials to join hundreds of their peers who have left the field since 2020. Many election offices are already suffering from insufficient funding, outdated infrastructure and staffing shortages, not to mention the harassment and death threats that flooded their inboxes as Trump contested the 2020 results.
Perhaps of greatest concern to individual voters are bills in a handful of states that would empower partisan “poll watchers” and make it difficult for poll workers to remove those who are abusive or disruptive to voters. Many states allow political groups and parties to send observers to the polls, but a bill in Pennsylvania, for example, would allow any voter to register as a poll watcher anywhere in the state. According to the report:
In the 2020 election, election deniers spread disinformation about cities like Philadelphia that are either majority Black or have large Black populations, questioning the legitimacy of their votes, which caused some tense moments at the central count facilities. If this bill were to become law, one can imagine a situation where out-of-town poll watchers would target cities like Philadelphia, observing elections with preconceived notions of fraud that could lead to disruptive behavior.
Activists in the South compare efforts to empower “poll watchers” to the Jim Crow era, when a combination of legal discrimination and violent intimidation was deployed to prevent Black people from voting. In fact, many election subversion bills are designed to create opportunities for harassing voters and poll workers alike, according to Rachel Homer, an attorney at Protect Democracy, one of the groups behind the report.
“Their aim is to create the conditions for partisan politicians to try to declare their preferred results, order new elections, or otherwise cast doubt on the results,” Homer said.
There is good news for voters and the basic concept of majority rules. Of the 239 election subversion bills introduced across 33 states in 2022, the vast majority never became law, perhaps sparing the midterms from the chaos that followed Biden’s victory over Trump. Many (mostly blue) states have also gone the opposite direction with legislation aimed at protecting nonpartisan election workers and the rights of voters.
With a bird’s eye view, the strategy behind the deluge of election subversion legislation is clear: Make life difficult for election officials and voters and set conditions for harassment, delays and chaos, thereby enabling propagandists and politicians to muddy the waters as they cast doubt on any results not in their favor. Such a strategy did not keep Trump in the White House, and some election subversion bills may simply be a show of fealty to Trump. However, it’s clear the election denial movement will be alive and kicking in 2024.
“We must remain vigilant and safeguard our elections from manipulation — because the decisions being made by statehouses across the country now will shape how the 2024 election and future elections are conducted,” Homer said.