The Ongoing Electoral Efforts to Up the Anti-Democratic Ante


When, a few weeks ago—and two months ahead of the midterm elections—a citizens’ group in Georgia, backed by out-of-state election deniers, challenged the legitimacy of a reported thirty-seven thousand voters in Gwinnett County, it was exercising a right codified in a bill that Governor Brian Kemp had signed into law last year. The law, S.B. 202, which the Republican-controlled state legislature touted as promoting “election integrity,” makes it harder for some Georgians to vote. Among other things, the law limits the number of ballot drop boxes, restricts the number of hours that drop boxes are available, curtails voting in runoff elections from nine weeks to four, and institutes strict voter-I.D. requirements. The law also makes it a crime to hand out water and food within twenty-five feet of people waiting in line to vote, or to people within a hundred and fifty feet of a polling place, and it would potentially be criminal for those people to accept any offer of water or food. (Because Georgia has reduced the number of polling places in majority-Black neighborhoods, despite a surge in registrations of non-white voters, this change will have a disproportionate effect on communities of color, where wait times can sometimes be measured in hours.)

Georgia, like most states, already allowed citizens to lodge electoral challenges. But S.B. 202 lets voters file an unlimited number of voter challenges in the county in which they are registered. Bulk challenges such as the one filed in Gwinnett County, or one filed in neighboring Forsyth County (both of which are part of the greater Atlanta area), where one man questioned the legitimacy of more than thirteen thousand voters, are the result. In the ensuing weeks, many of the challenges in Gwinnett County were rejected, and, on Monday night, the County Board of Elections voted 3–2 to dismiss all the remaining challenges, with the board’s one nonpartisan member voting with the Democrats. But in all, about sixty-five thousand voters in eight Georgia counties have been challenged in the run-up to the midterms. Another potential obstacle is that S.B. 202, which removed Georgia’s secretary of state as the chair of the State Elections Board, makes it possible for the legislature to effectively take over county elections. Legislators can request a performance review of a county’s election officials. The state board, a majority of which has been appointed by Republicans, would then call for an investigation that could ultimately deem those officials incompetent to administer their own elections. The state board could then deputize a single, hand-picked individual to temporarily run—and perhaps even certify—those elections. Mass challenges may increase the odds of such reviews occurring.

Voter challenges have been on the rise across the country. (Many appear to be part of a broader effort on the part of right-wing activists—some funded, in part, by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with pro-Trump entities—who continue to insist that the 2020 election was stolen because the voter rolls are riddled with errors. There is no evidence that this is true.) According to the Associated Press, in Nassau County, Florida, for example, two residents challenged two thousand voters six days before the August primary. (Because they had filed their complaints using the wrong format, their challenge was voided, though the elections supervisor said that they would be looked at after the primary.) In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, six thousand voters were challenged. In Iowa’s Black Hawk County, an individual challenged five hundred and seventy voters, while, in Linn County, where one election official recalled previously receiving just three challenges during his fifteen-year tenure, a hundred and nineteen challenges were recorded during just two days this year. As the Times recently reported, in most instances, these challenges have been rejected, because they were “filed incorrectly, rife with bad information or based on flawed data analysis.”

But winning the challenges may be secondary to the goal of intimidating Democratic voters and people of color. As the Associated Press reported, “sometimes the challenges come after election conspiracists go door-to-door, often in heavily minority neighborhoods, seeking evidence that votes were cast improperly in 2020.” Something similar appears to have occurred in Forsyth County. Though it is a reliably Republican district, an election-board member there told Bloomberg News that the challenges targeted voters in the southern, more heavily Democratic, part of the county.

According to the Washington Post, election deniers have also been flooding election officials, as they prepare for the midterms, with records requests for information relating to the 2020 election. The Post reports, “In nearly two dozen states and scores of counties, election officials are fielding what many describe as an unprecedented wave of public records requests in the final weeks of summer, one they say may be intended to hinder their work and weaken an already strained system.” Officials in Geauga County, Ohio, have received so many requests that they would have to hire additional workers to process them all. In an interview with the Web site, the director of the Geauga County Election Board noted that many of the requests, which have come from all over the state, are worded identically. She added that “they want a copy of all the ballots in 2020, used and unused, all notices and correspondences, all poll lists and poll records. Some of it, we don’t know what they are asking for.” Lorain County, also in Ohio, has received requests for an estimated one million documents. The county clerk in Erie, Pennsylvania reported that her office has been inundated with them. Even my small state of Vermont has not been immune. This month, clerks in at least three towns received requests to inspect ballots from 2020, even though Joe Biden carried the state with sixty-six per cent of the vote.

It is often claimed that it’s difficult to hack American elections because they are decentralized, with some ten thousand voting jurisdictions scattered across the country. That assertion may or may not be correct. But what is indisputable about our decentralized system is that the multiplicity of precincts means that elections are run by one’s neighbors. They may be elected to the job. They may be appointed to it. They may be contract workers or volunteers. The average salary for an election clerk is less than forty thousand dollars a year, so it’s unlikely that anyone—except, perhaps, for election officials in the largest jurisdictions, who are paid much more—is attracted to the work simply for the money. Indeed, a survey undertaken by the Democracy Fund and Reed College found that only about half of election officials were happy with their pay—except, again, those from the larger jurisdictions—but that ninety-two per cent of them, whether they were happy with their salary or not, were satisfied with their job.

That survey, though, was conducted before the 2020 election, with its subsequent death threats and attacks on the integrity of election workers. Since then, too, a number of Republican-led state legislatures have passed laws that will impose significant fines and criminal charges on election workers who do not strictly conform to the law. Florida election officials can be fined up to twenty-five thousand dollars if they allow drop boxes—now called “secure ballot intake stations”—to be unsupervised. (In August, a photograph taken in Broward County that appeared to show an unsupervised drop box triggered an investigation by Governor Ron DeSantis’s newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security; officials later confirmed that the drop box was being watched.) Election workers in Iowa could face a ten-thousand-dollar fine if they are late opening a polling place. Add to these penalties the rise of voter challenges and records requests, and it’s no wonder that a more recent poll, from the Brennan Center and the Benenson Strategy Group, found that twenty per cent of election workers are thinking of leaving their positions before the 2024 election, owing in large part to the stress and the politicization of their jobs.

Maintaining accurate poll books is necessary. Transparent record-keeping is necessary. But using laws intended to bolster election integrity to, instead, willfully undermine it, is a fundamentally cynical and dangerous gambit. We will soon find out if American democracy is robust enough to withstand it. ♦


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