Michelle Goldberg: How Republicans could steal the 2024 election

While American democracy was given a reprieve in 2020, the work of repairing it has barely begun.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, violent protesters storm the Capitol, in Washington. People charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol left behind a trove of videos and messages that have helped federal authorities build cases. In nearly half of the more than 200 federal cases stemming from the attack, authorities have cited evidence that an insurrectionist appeared to have been inspired by conspiracy theories or extremist ideologies, according to an Associated Press review of court records. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Erica Newland serves as counsel for Protect Democracy, a nonprofit organization founded in 2017 to fight democratic breakdown in America. Before Joe Biden’s victory was officially confirmed in January, she researched some of the ways that Donald Trump’s allies in Congress might sabotage the process. She came to a harrowing conclusion.

“It occurred to me,” she told her colleagues then, “as I dug into the rules and watched what happened, that if the current Republican Party controls both Houses of Congress on Jan. 6, 2025, there’s no way if a Democrat is legitimately elected they will get certified as the president-elect.”

Liz Cheney’s removal from Republican House leadership is the latest sign that Newland is probably right. Today’s Republican Party has no political philosophy in the normal sense; it is, rather, organized around fealty to Trump and the stab-in-the-back myth that the election was stolen from him. Cheney had to go because she rejects that lie, recognizing it as inimical to democracy, which she continues to value. Her defenestration is one more indication that the party is preparing to do in the next election what it could not do in the last one.

Absent an overwhelming mobilization by Democrats, Republicans have a good chance of winning the House in 2022. Redistricting alone will probably give them several new seats. They could win the Senate as well. If Biden or another Democrat prevails in 2024, a House run by Kevin McCarthy, the craven minority leader who helped push Cheney out, seems likely to collaborate in right-wing schemes to change the result.

Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election revealed how much our democracy depends on officials at all levels of government acting honorably. Republicans on state boards of election, like Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, had to certify the results correctly. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had to resist Trump’s entreaties to “find” enough missing votes to put him over the top. Republican state legislatures had to refuse Trump campaign pressure to substitute their own slate of electors for those chosen by the people. Congress had to do its job in the face of mob violence and count the Electoral College votes. Trump’s rolling coup attempt didn’t succeed, but it did reveal multiple points at which our system can fail.

Since the election, Republicans, driven by the lie that is now their party’s central ideology, have systematically attacked the safeguards that protected the last election. They have sent the message that vigorous defense of democracy is incompatible with a career in Republican politics. (Besides losing her leadership role, Cheney could easily lose her House seat.) Michigan Republicans declined to renominate Van Langevelde to the Board of State Canvassers. Raffensperger will most likely face a tough primary challenge in 2022. As Politico reported, in the next election, there will be secretary of state races in five of the 10 closest battleground states. Republican candidates for those offices will have an incentive to pretend to believe that a great injustice was done to Trump in 2020, and pledge to help rectify it.

Republicans in states like Arizona have proposed laws that would allow state legislatures to override the popular vote and choose their own electors. Right now, these bills have little chance of passing, but other measures to involve state legislatures in vote counting and election certification are being enacted. Georgia’s new voting law, for example, gives the legislature the power to choose the head of the State Election Board — a position formerly held by the secretary of state. The board, in turn, will be invested with the power to investigate and replace local election officials.

Think about what 2020 would have been like if Trump loyalists had controlled the local and state level counting and certification process. “Raffensperger did a tremendous job communicating throughout the vote-counting process his confidence in the processes, his confidence in the results,” said Jess Marsden, another lawyer for Protect Democracy who researches state laws. “You could imagine that a different person in that role could have very much clouded the public perception of the vote-counting process, in a way that would have validated later efforts by legislators to undo the certification to the extent that state law allows.”

Some legislatures, she said, might even be prepared to go beyond state law “in a way that invites litigation and uncertainty and delay that then invites Congress to step in.” We’ve already seen how the accretion of lies and confusion about the last election has justified political purges and restrictive new voting laws. Such lies could also give a Republican-controlled Congress a pretext to object to the counting of state electors.

Our current system, Newland told me, provides lots of opportunities for “bad actors” to “claim there are ambiguities and to exploit those claims of ambiguities. They have to believe in the process in order for the process to actually work.” Otherwise, they can purposely gum up the works so thoroughly that it’s impossible to declare a winner.

If that happens, the election would be tossed to the House, with each state delegation getting one vote. Even now, with the House as a whole controlled by Democrats, there are more states whose representatives are predominantly Republican. With enough procedural mischief, politicians representing a minority of the country could hand the presidency to a candidate who got a minority of both the popular and Electoral College votes. If this has never been an evident danger in the past, it’s because both parties were at least outwardly committed to liberal democracy, and probably thought their voters were, too.

That is no longer true. The Republican electorate, believing that Democratic victories are by their nature illegitimate, demands that everything possible be done to subvert them. For rejecting the anti-democratic turn in her party, Cheney — a right-wing extremist in many other regards — has been cast out. Republicans are showing us exactly what they expect of their officials. They’ve made it clear that while American democracy was given a reprieve in 2020, the work of repairing it has barely begun.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.