Democrats are worried about U.S. democracy. They’ve got limited tools to protect it

When it comes to the future of American democracy, Democrats are sounding the alarm loudly and often that the country is in a constitutional crisis.

“One of our great political parties has embraced the idea that our last election was fraudulent, that our current president is illegitimate, that they must move legislatures across the country to fix the results, to fix the results of future elections,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, in a floor speech arguing in favor of a voting rights bill that was ultimately defeated by a Republican filibuster.

The fix King is talking about are laws passed by Republican state legislatures that could make it harder to cast a ballot and would give partisan Republicans a greater role in certifying elections.

But state legislatures can already determine the outcome of the 2024 election without changing any laws, says Rick Hasen, co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center at the University of California, Irvine.

“I don’t think there needs to be one law that needs to be passed in any state,” he says. “You would just need state legislatures to come together or members of Congress to come together and decide that they’re going to not follow the rules.”

Hasen’s nightmare scenario for 2024 is that in key battleground states, legislators who, according to the Constitution are responsible for certifying Electoral College results, say something like this: “‘There were irregularities in the election. We can’t be sure who the winner is. We’ve got to appoint an alternative slate of electors.’ ”

Those slates of electors are sent to Congress, which is then controlled by Republicans who count the GOP electors rather the Democratic electors.

“That’s what Trump was trying to get to happen,” Hasen says. “That’s why the question is whether 2020 was a failed coup or a dress rehearsal for 2024.”

Limited options for Democrats

So what can Democrats do about this?

They’re fighting these Republican laws in court. They’d like to pass federal legislation, but that means convincing West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, to agree to an exception to the filibuster, the procedural motion whereby the opposition party can block a bill from advancing without 60 votes. Manchin has so far resisted all calls to change the filibuster.

“If there’s not going to be an actual policy solution to a lot of the subversion elements, then the only option available to you is a political one,” says Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican who started the group Defending Democracy Together.

“So right now, Trump is going around endorsing candidates who, for the most part, bolster and repeat his claims that the election were stolen. They also say openly that they would potentially not certify the 2024 elections, depending on how they turn out,” Longwell says. “And so you have to beat candidates like that.”

In particular, Longwell is talking about candidates for secretary of state, state legislature and county clerks, all of whom have a role to play in ensuring that an election is fairly administrated.

But Republicans tend to pay a lot more attention to those kinds of races than Democrats, says former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper.

“So much of the problem is at the statehouse level and most people, they cannot name their statehouse member. They have no idea what those people’s power is. Individual citizens have to really, you know, get involved,” Pepper says. “If one side is relentlessly attacking democracy and the other side runs out of gas, the attacks on democracy will succeed.”

Disengaged voters

Democrats have another problem. Even after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, election subversion is not an animating issue for most voters.

“It’s what I would call a low-salience issue,” says Longwell, who also runs voter focus groups and has a podcast called “The Focus Group” published by The Bulwark.

Most of the people in Longwell’s groups are like Farah, a swing voter from Georgia (NPR agreed to only use the first name of focus group participants).

I think if a candidate says that they did certify and support the results or not, it’s just a non-issue for me,” says Farah.

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell says the issue of election subversion does matter to key parts of the Democratic base, especially young voters and people of color.

“But it’s complicated, it’s not that easy,” he says. “It can have a boomerang effect where it ends up sort of causing people to be frustrated and stay home. You don’t want that.”

While the idea of future election subversion is a complicated one for Democrats to explain to their voters, for Republicans, says Longwell, the false charge that the last election was stolen is actually a big motivator.

When Wyoming Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney wouldn’t accept Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him, she was kicked out of House Republican leadership.

“When [Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy said that Liz Cheney could no longer be in leadership because she was off message, what he meant was, ‘Our message going into 2022 is that the election was stolen. That is a turnout mechanism for us in 2022,’ ” says Longwell.

As this week’s elections show, Republicans don’t have to cheat to win. The election in Virginia was high turnout and free of fraud.

But what Democrats and their allies worry about is that in 2024, Republican legislatures in states like Arizona and Georgia erect enough barriers to the ballot and destroy enough democratic norms so that their party simply cannot lose a close race.

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