A few hours after Michael Flynn, the retired three-star general and former national-security adviser and convicted felon, told a group of QAnon conspiracists who met in Dallas over Memorial Day weekend that the Biden Administration should be overthrown by force, Democratic legislators in the Texas statehouse, two hundred miles away in Austin, did something remarkable: they stopped their Republican colleagues from passing one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country. Flynn’s pronouncement and the Republicans’ efforts rely on repeating the same untruth: that the Presidency was stolen from Donald Trump by a cabal of Democrats, election officials, and poll workers who perpetrated election fraud. No matter that this claim has been litigated, relitigated, and debunked. Based on data collected by the conservative Heritage Foundation, the incidence of voter fraud in the two decades before last year’s election was about 0.00006 per cent of total ballots cast. It was negligible in 2020, too, as Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, acknowledged at the time.
Illustration by João Fazenda
Senate Bill 7 was stymied at the last minute, when Democrats in the Texas House walked out, depriving Republicans of a quorum. The legislation is full of what are becoming standard suppression tactics—most of which burden people of color, who in 2020 overwhelmingly voted Democratic—and includes measures that would, for example, allow a judge to overturn an election result simply if a challenger claimed, without any proof, that fraudulent votes changed the outcome. Sarah Labowitz, of the A.C.L.U. of Texas, called the bill “ruthless.” Texas was already the most difficult state in which to cast a ballot, according to a recent study by Northern Illinois University. In 2020, voter turnout there was among the lowest in the nation. Even so, with nonwhites making up more than sixty per cent of the population under twenty, Texas is on its way to becoming a swing state. S.B. 7 is intended to insure that it doesn’t. Governor Greg Abbott has promised to call a special session of the legislature to reintroduce it.
Since January, Republican lawmakers in forty-eight states have introduced nearly four hundred restrictive voting bills. What distinguishes these efforts is that they target not only voters but also poll workers and election officials. The Texas bill makes it a criminal offense for an election official to obstruct the view of poll watchers, who are typically partisan volunteers, and grants those observers the right to record videos of voters at polling places. In Iowa, officials could be fined ten thousand dollars for “technical infractions,” such as failing to sufficiently purge voters from the rolls. In Florida, workers who leave drop boxes unattended, however briefly, can be fined twenty-five thousand dollars. In Georgia, poll watchers can challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters.
Even before the pandemic, sixty-five per cent of jurisdictions in the country were having trouble attracting poll workers. The threat of sizable fines and criminal prosecution will only make that task harder, and that’s clearly the point. Polls can’t operate without poll workers. Voters can’t vote if there are no polling places, or if they can’t stand in hours-long lines at the sites that are open—not to mention if other means of casting a ballot, such as by mail, have been outlawed.
What began as thinly veiled attempts to keep Democrats from voting has become a movement to undermine confidence in our democracy itself. How else to understand the “recount” under way in Maricopa County, Arizona (which gave Joe Biden the state), six months after the election was certified? Despite an audit in February that showed no malfeasance, Republicans in the Arizona Senate took possession of the county’s more than two million ballots and turned them over to a private Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, which has no election-audit experience. The firm’s C.E.O. had reportedly tweeted that he was “tired of hearing people say there was no fraud.” It’s unclear who is paying for the recount, which was supposed to have concluded last month. According to the Arizona Republic, recruiters for the project were “reaching out to traditionally conservative groups.” At least one of the recounters was at the January 6th Stop the Steal rally outside the U.S. Capitol. Some have been examining ballots for bamboo fibres, which would purportedly prove that counterfeit ballots for Biden were sent from South Korea. The official chain of custody has been broken for the voting machines, too, which could enable actual fraud, and may force the county to replace them.
It’s easy to joke about conspiracy hunters searching for bits of bamboo. But the fact is that more than half of Republicans still believe that Trump won, and a quarter of all Americans think that the election was rigged. Republicans in at least four other states—New Hampshire, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—are now considering recounts. Soon, Trump will begin to hold rallies again and will use them to amplify his Big Lie lie; he has reportedly suggested that he could be back in the White House in August, after the recounts are completed. The real, and imminent, danger is that all the noise will make it easier for a cohort of Americans to welcome the dissolution of the political system, which appears to be the ultimate goal of the current Republican efforts.
Last Tuesday, in a speech commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, Biden vowed to “fight like heck” to preserve voting rights, and he deputized Vice-President Kamala Harris to lead the charge. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, said that he would bring the For the People Act to a vote this month. Among other provisions, the act mandates automatic voter registration, prohibits voter intimidation, and reduces the influence of dark money in elections. If it became law, and survived the inevitable legal challenges, it could stop much of the Republican pillage, and perhaps prove the most pivotal piece of legislation in a generation.
Nearly seventy per cent of Americans favor measures in the bill, but it’s unlikely to gain the support of Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat, let alone of enough Republicans to clear the sixty-vote hurdle imposed by the filibuster. So far, to Biden’s evident annoyance, Manchin and another Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, oppose eliminating the filibuster. It’s up to Democratic leaders to impress upon their colleagues that their legacies, and that of their party, are now entwined with the survival of American democracy. ♦