We’re one year removed from the chaos of January 6, 2021 — and perhaps three years away from further chaos in January 2025.
Donald Trump is seemingly moving toward another presidential run. His loyalists are trying to gain control of key electoral positions. The GOP base remains loyal to Trump despite (or because of) his attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential election win. Various glaring institutional flaws in the US electoral system remain unaddressed.
Whether or not another angry mob materializes, the possibility of another attempt to steal a close election in 2024 remains disturbingly plausible.
Still, various actions could be taken to try and stop it from happening again. Some are institutional or technocratic tweaks, and some are electoral battles or longer-term reform efforts. They might not be enough — it’s hard to combat broader systemic forces like identity-based polarization pushing the Republican Party toward extremism. But altogether, they make up an agenda that could help reduce the chances of the 2024 election being stolen.
1) Stop hardcore election deniers from winning key state offices
Much of Trump’s efforts focused on trying to get state officials to change the results of states Biden won. He tried to get state election officers like Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and governors like Brian Kemp (R-GA) not to certify those results (which is usually a pro forma action), and to get state legislators to replace Biden’s electors with Trump electors. Then, he moved on to trying to change the results in Congress under the Electoral Count Act by pushing to get either Vice President Mike Pence or congressional majorities to reject key states’ elector slates.
These efforts uniformly failed, generally because Republican officials wouldn’t go along with Trump’s plot. But now Trump supporters are trying to replace officials who upheld the results with hardcore Trumpists. Some might be so cynical they’re willing to pander to voter fraud conspiracists; some might be so deluded as to genuinely believe such conspiracies. Either way, the danger is real.
Will the more responsible Republicans in state legislatures and statewide or local election offices will be replaced by extremists? It may be hard to find Republicans who loudly reject Trump’s stolen election claims (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rarely talks about it these days), partly because doing so means career death. The short-term path to GOP primary success and small-donor fundraising is clearly to please Trump’s base. The hope remains that some will stand up for democracy at the right moment, but we can’t know whether they will.
Beyond the primary, more Democratic wins in general elections for state offices and legislatures would clearly help prevent GOP election theft. And new district lines would give Democrats a fighting chance to win key legislatures like Michigan and Pennsylvania for the first time in a decade (though gerrymandering will still significantly disadvantage them in others, like Wisconsin and Georgia).
The problem here is that Biden’s low approval rating, and the historical pattern of a midterm backlash against the president’s party, seems to give Republicans the advantage in 2022. And depending on how Trump’s effort to install loyalists in key state positions goes, Trumpists could be even more empowered in key states in 2024 than they were last time around, particularly if Democrats lose governorships in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
2) Protect state election officials from political interference
Congressional Democrats’ big election reform bill, the For the People Act, initially focused on measures like expanding voting access and banning gerrymandering rather than responding to the specific threat of a stolen election that arose in 2020 (because the bill was largely written years earlier). But their revised version, the Freedom to Vote Act, does contain some provisions that try to address the state-level concerns.
The Freedom to Vote Act would let election administrators sue if they are removed for reasons other than gross negligence or misconduct. It would also let voters themselves sue if state results are not certified due to an “unreasonable” justification (for example, if GOP state officials decline to certify because they’re citing Trumpian voter fraud conspiracies and saying they lack confidence in the results). So essentially, this would be providing a new way for the courts to step in.
It’s unclear how this would play out in practice, since courts are hardly above politics altogether, but it’s worth a shot. The current problem, though, is that the overall bill is doomed by the filibuster, which Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) refuse to change. It also seems unlikely that Republicans would support this measure, because even those who opposed Trump’s attempted coup tend to argue that election results should be left to the states.
3) Prevent Congress or the vice president from stealing the election
When Trump’s pressure to get states to overturn the results failed, he turned to Congress and to Vice President Mike Pence. According to a law known as the Electoral Count Act, Congress can toss out state presidential election results if a majority of both chambers votes to do so. Meanwhile, the vice president presides over the count, and Trump embraced the fanciful theory that Mike Pence could unilaterally reject the electoral votes of disputed states, heavily pressuring him to do so. (Pence refused.)
Now, in Congress, there is talk in Washington of a potential bipartisan effort to reform the Electoral Count Act to make it tougher for Congress to throw out state presidential election results, and to clarify that the vice president really doesn’t have the power to do anything of the kind.
There is, however, a catch: What if those state results deserve to be thrown out? The threat of a stolen election could come from Congress disregarding legitimate state results. But it could also come from the states themselves — either from state officials who refuse to certify rightful results, or state legislators who block the winner’s electors. An effort to tie Congress’s hands and prevent congressional malfeasance could end up enabling malfeasance in the states.
Senate Minority Leader McConnell has taken the position that Congress shouldn’t interfere with the results sent up by states, and that potential fraud from state legislatures isn’t a problem. “Why would any legislature in America want to overturn the counting of votes?” he recently asked, ignoring the pressure Trump and his base placed on legislative leaders to do just that.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Politico he was worried that the reform on the table essentially meant, “You can rig the elections any way you want and then we’ll count it accurately.”
Perhaps it is possible to reach a compromise addressing those concerns, but the devil is in the details here.
4) Work to deter mob violence
The other feature of the 2020 election chaos was, of course, the violent mob bursting into the Capitol and interfering with the count of the electoral votes. It is difficult to solve the root causes here — Trump has the power to whip his base into a frenzy with “stolen election” lies again if he so chooses.
Still, better security on January 6 would have gone a long way toward preventing such a disaster, and it does seem that law enforcement is unlikely to be caught so flat-footed next time around. Additionally, prosecutions of January 6 rioters have been ongoing, with 738 people charged so far, making clear there are consequences to such actions.
Encouragingly, we didn’t see anything like a reprise of this violence in the remainder of 2021 despite many dark predictions. Of course, it’s too early to say what conditions will be like in 2024, and possible instances of political violence remain worrying, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp writes.
5) Try to avert a repeat Trump nomination
Finally, there’s the man himself. The chaos from November 2020 to January 2021 was clearly shaped by Trump’s personal traits and whims. His personal disrespect for elite norms and predilection for conspiracy theories drove him further than previous presidential nominees in disputing a close election he had lost. He also has a personality cult-style following including much of the Republican base and the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6.
Depending on how one defines the “threat to democracy,” it could well persist even if Trump exits the scene. But an outright repeat of 2020 would almost surely be less likely without Trump. Many have worried about what a “more competent demagogue” than Trump could pull off, but Trump also has some unique traits that would be tough to replicate. Would Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, or Josh Hawley command such personal loyalty that they could motivate a mob to storm the Capitol, and would they have been so stubbornly hell-bent on pushing things so hard and far?
The problem is that this isn’t really up to anyone but Trump himself — and GOP voters, who continue to view him quite positively. A Trump retirement is something his critics might hope for, but one they’re unlikely to be able to bring about. Failing that, a challenge to him in the 2024 primary might be doomed, but it’s probably better than nothing, right?
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