In the weeks leading up to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a handful of Americans — well-known politicians, obscure local bureaucrats — stood up to block then-President Donald Trump’s unprecedented attempt to overturn a free and fair vote of the American people.
In the year since, Trump-aligned Republicans have worked to clear the path for next time.
In battleground states and beyond, Republicans are taking hold of the once-overlooked machinery of elections. While the effort is incomplete and uneven, outside experts on democracy and Democrats are sounding alarms, warning that the United States is witnessing a “slow-motion insurrection” with a better chance of success than Trump’s failed power grab last year.
They point to a mounting list of evidence: Several candidates who deny Trump’s loss are running for offices that could have a key role in the election of the next president in 2024. In Michigan, the Republican Party is restocking members of obscure local boards that could block approval of an election. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the GOP-controlled legislatures are backing open-ended “reviews” of the 2020 election, modeled on a deeply flawed look-back in Arizona. The efforts are poised to fuel disinformation and anger about the 2020 results for years to come.
All this comes as the Republican Party has become more aligned behind Trump, who has made denial of the 2020 results a litmus test for his support. Trump has praised the Jan. 6 rioters and backed primaries aimed at purging lawmakers who have crossed him. Sixteen GOP governors have signed laws making it more difficult to vote. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that two-thirds of Republicans do not believe Democrat Joe Biden was legitimately elected as president.
“It’s not clear that the Republican Party is willing to accept defeat anymore,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the book “How Democracies Die.” “The party itself has become an anti-democratic force.”
Republicans who sound alarms are struggling to be heard by their own party. GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming or Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, members of a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, are often dismissed as party apostates.
Some local officials, the people closest to the process and its fragility, are pleading for change. At a recent news conference in Wisconsin, Kathleen Bernier, a GOP state senator and former elections clerk, denounced her party’s efforts to seize control of the election process.
“These made up things that people do to jazz up the base is just despicable and I don’t believe any elected legislator should play that game,” said Bernier.
In Georgia, an election bill signed this year by the GOP governor gave the Republican-controlled General Assembly new powers over the state board of elections, which controls its local counterparts.
The law is being used to launch a review of operations in solidly-Democratic Fulton County, home to most of Atlanta, which could lead to a state takeover. The legislature also passed measures allowing local officials to remove Democrats from election boards in six other counties.
In Pennsylvania, the GOP-controlled legislature is undertaking a review of the presidential election, subpoenaing voter information that Democrats contend is an unprecedented intrusion into voter privacy.
In Michigan, the GOP has focused on the state’s county boards of canvassers. The little-known committees’ power was briefly in the spotlight in November of 2020, when Trump urged the two Republican members of the board overseeing Wayne County, home to Democratic-bastion Detroit, to vote to block certification of the election.
Michigan officials say that if boards of canvassers don’t certify an election they can be sued and compelled to do so. Still, that process could cause chaos and be used as a rallying cry behind election disputes.
“They’re laying the groundwork for a slow-motion insurrection,” said Mark Brewer, an election lawyer and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.
The most prominent Trump push is in Georgia, where the former president is backing U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who voted against Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6, in a primary race against the Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperberg. Raffensperger rejected Trump’s pleas to “find” enough votes to declare him the winner.
Trump also encouraged former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary. Kemp turned down Trump’s entreaties to declare him the victor in the 2020 election.
In Nevada, multiple lawsuits seeking to overturn Biden’s victory were thrown out by judges — including one filed by Jim Marchant, a former GOP state lawmaker now running to be secretary of state. The current Republican secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, who is term limited, found there was no significant fraud in the contest.
In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Democratic governors have been a major impediment to the GOP’s effort to overhaul elections. Most significantly, they have vetoed new rules that Democrats argue are aimed at making it harder for people of color to vote.
Governors have a significant role in U.S. elections: They certify the winners in their states, clearing way for the appointment of Electoral College members. That raises fears that Trump-friendly governors could try to certify him — if he were to run in 2024 and be the GOP nominee — as the winner of their state’s electoral votes regardless of the vote count.
Additionally, some Republicans argue that state legislatures can name their own electors no matter what the vote tally says.
But Democrats have had little success in laying out the stakes in these races. It’s difficult for voters to believe the system could be vulnerable, said Daniel Squadron of The States Project, a Democratic group that tries to win state legislatures.
“The most motivated voters in America today are those who think the 2020 election was stolen,” he said. “Acknowledging this is afoot requires such a leap from any core American value system that any of us have lived through.”