The Memo

The Memo: Anti-democratic fears rise as GOP stokes election doubts 

Experts are worried about an intensifying erosion of American democracy as Republican politicians, spearheaded by former President Trump, stoke doubt about the legitimacy of elections.

"It is very dangerous because it is sowing doubt in our elections process, which is fundamental to a functioning democracy," said Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University and an expert on democratization and polarization.

Trump's repeated false claims about the 2020 presidential election have become more and more shrill.

In a statement last week, he said that the "real insurrection" happened not on Jan. 6, when his supporters rioted at the U.S. Capitol, but on Election Day last year.

On Sunday, Trump released a video to mark the birthday of the late Ashli Babbitt, the protester who was shot dead by police near the House chamber. Trump, in his video, declared Babbitt "a truly incredible person" and said that her family had his "unwavering support."

Many GOP figures have followed Trump's lead on elections rather than rebutting his specious claims.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) repeatedly declined to say whether the 2020 election was stolen during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" over the weekend. Pressed by anchor Chris Wallace, Scalise said that "a number of states ... didn't follow their state-passed laws that govern the election for president."

Such views are not in themselves new. 147 Republicans in Congress voted against certifying November's election results, even in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection.

But there are signs that casting doubt on elections, even before they take place, is becoming a more standard GOP tactic.

During the final days of campaigning in California's gubernatorial recall election last month, conservative talk show host Larry Elder insisted Democrats were "going to cheat."

Elder's claims faded away after incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) won by such a wide margin as to put the result beyond contention. Elder, who would have replaced Newsom if the governor had been recalled, accepted defeat.

But the issue of election legitimacy is being raised in other races, too. In the upcoming election for Virginia governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin has called for an "audit" of voting machines in the commonwealth.

"We need to make sure that people trust these voting machines," he said during a virtual forum last week. 

Youngkin's Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, has sought to turn that claim to his advantage, releasing an ad accusing the Republican of "putting Trump's agenda first."

The broad Republican effort to create doubts about electoral legitimacy has not been slowed by the debacle of a bizarre "audit" in Arizona that ultimately affirmed Biden's win.

Attempts to cast doubt on the outcome in that instance had included self-described investigators searching for traces of bamboo in ballot papers - something that would have allegedly indicated nefarious deeds linked to China.

Just days before the Arizona effort concluded, the Texas secretary of state's office announced an investigation into voting in four of the state's largest counties - soon after Trump had demanded that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) back such a probe.

There are also three separate probes going on into voting in Wisconsin and a GOP-led "investigation" in Pennsylvania.

Democrats and many independents mock the flimsiness of these efforts and the falsity of Trump's claims. But the efforts have got significant traction with Republican voters.

In an Economist-YouGov poll released last week, 73 percent of Republicans said Biden had not legitimately won the election. Thirty-seven percent of independents held the same view.

The poll also found about 1 in 4 Republican voters thought it was "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that Trump would be reinstated as president before the end of 2021.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said the breadth of the election skepticism - and the way in which that skepticism is being nurtured - is perilous.

"It is a very corrosive trend," Zelizer said. "The premise of democracy isn't just that we have elections but that the losers accept the result. That makes the system legitimate. And if you have one party that is constantly making accusations that it isn't legitimate, it's just dangerous."

Zelizer gave little credence to the argument sometimes heard from conservatives that Democrats protested election results in 2000, following a highly controversial decision by the Supreme Court, and in 2016 amid allegations of Russian interference in Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton.

"We had a contested election in 2000. In 2016, the complaints about Russian interference were based on intelligence about Russian interference! And Democrats accepted the election," he said.

Zelizer and other experts, including Georgia State's McCoy, believe that part of the GOP push is aimed at laying the groundwork to pass or sustain laws that make voting more difficult.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have this year enacted 33 laws making it harder for Americans to vote - an onslaught the center's researchers call "unprecedented."

McCoy said there was no reason to think that the undermining of election legitimacy can be rebutted soon.

"It is not going to be short-term, because it is so deeply embedded. It is being stoked by many Republican officials, not just the more extremist ones but among very mainstream ones," she said.

Turning back the tide, she added, would require major GOP figures "standing up" in defiance of Trump and his supporters.

Nine months after the insurrection, it is plain that the chances of such resistance are vanishingly slim.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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