Jamelle Bouie: What happens when election deniers let their freak flags fly

Confusion sows doubt, and doubt gives these Republicans the pretext they need to seize control.

(Bridget Bennett | The New York Times) Flags fly at Donald Trump's fly-in rally in Minden, Nevada, on Oct. 8, 2022.

Here’s a prediction: If Donald Trump is on the ballot in 2024, there is little reason to think that the United States will have a smooth and uncomplicated presidential election.

Just the opposite, of course. Republican candidates for governor and secretary of state who are aligned with Trump have promised, repeatedly and in public, to subvert any election result that doesn’t favor the former president if he runs again.

On Saturday, for example, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada, Jim Marchant, told a crowd at a rally for Trump and the statewide Republican ticket that his victory — Marchant’s victory, that is — would help put Trump back into the White House.

“President Trump and I lost an election in 2020 because of a rigged election,” Marchant said, with Trump by his side. “I’ve been working since Nov. 4, 2020, to expose what happened. And what I found out is horrifying. And when I’m secretary of state of Nevada, we’re going to fix it. And when my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”

This is very different from a de rigueur promise to help a candidate win votes. Marchant, a former state assembly member, believes (or at least says he believes) that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party stole the 2020 presidential election away from Trump, whom he regards as the rightful and legitimate president.

He said as much last year, in an interview with Eddie Floyd, a Nevada radio host with a taste for electoral conspiracy theories. “The 2020 election was a totally rigged election. Whenever I speak, I ask everybody in the audience, I says, ‘Is there anybody here that really believes Joe Biden was legitimately elected?’ And everywhere I go, not one hand goes up. Nobody believes that he was legitimately elected.”

Marchant, as he noted in his rally speech, leads a coalition of 2020 election-denying America First candidates for governor and secretary of state. It’s a who’s who of MAGA Republicans, including Kari Lake and Mark Finchem of Arizona, Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania and Kristina Karamo of Michigan.

If elected, any one of these candidates could, at a minimum, create chaos in vote casting and vote counting and the certification of election results. Marchant, for example, has said that he wants to eliminate same-day voting, mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes. He also wants to dump machine ballot tabulation and move to hand counts, which are time-consuming, expensive and much less accurate.

That’s the point, of course. The problem for election-denying candidates is that ordinarily the process is too straightforward and the results are too clear. Confusion sows doubt, and doubt gives these Republicans the pretext they need to claim fraud and seize control of the allocation of electoral votes.

Congress could circumvent much of this with its revised Electoral Count Act, which appears to have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But if the act passes, the danger does not end there. Even if Congress closes the loopholes in the certification of electoral votes, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court could still give state legislatures free rein to run roughshod over the popular will.

This is not theoretical. In Moore v. Harper, which will be heard this term, the court will weigh in on the “independent state legislature” theory, a once-rejected claim that was reintroduced to conservative legal thinking in a concurring opinion in Bush v. Gore by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was later embraced by the conservative legal movement in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, when lawyers for Trump seized on the theory as a pretext for invalidating ballots in swing states where courts and election officials used their legal authority to expand ballot access without direct legislative approval. Under the independent state legislature theory, the Constitution gives state legislatures exclusive and plenary power to change state election law, unbound by state constitutions and state courts.

This, as I’ve discussed in a previous column, is nonsense. It rests on a selective interpretation of a single word in a single clause, divorced from the structure of the Constitution as well as the context of its creation, namely the effort by national elites to strengthen federal authority and limit the influence of the states.

Why, in other words, would the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution essentially reinscribe the fundamental assumption of the Articles of Confederation — the exclusive sovereignty of the states — in a document designed to supersede them? As J. Michael Luttig, a legal scholar and former judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (appointed by George H.W. Bush), wrote in a recent essay for The Atlantic, “There is literally no support in the Constitution, the pre-ratification debates, or the history from the time of our nation’s founding or the Constitution’s framing for a theory of an independent state legislature that would foreclose state judicial review of state legislatures’ redistricting decisions.”

But the total lack of support for the independent state legislature theory in American history or constitutional law may not stop the Supreme Court from affirming it in the Constitution, if the conservative majority believes it might give the Republican Party a decisive advantage in future election contests. And it would. Under the strongest forms of the independent state legislature theory, state lawmakers could allocate electoral votes against the will of the voters if they concluded that the election was somehow tainted or illegitimate.

Which brings us back to the election deniers running in Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Victory for the election deniers in any state would, in combination with any version of the independent state legislature theory, put the United States on the glide path to an acutely felt constitutional crisis. We may face a situation where the voters of Nevada or Wisconsin want Joe Biden (or another Democrat) for president, but state officials and lawmakers want Trump, and have the power to make it so.

One of the more ominous developments of the last few years is the way that conservatives have rejected the language of American democracy, saying instead that the United States is a “republic and not a democracy,” in a direct lift from Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, who made the phrase a rallying cry against social and political equality. This rests on a distinction between the words “democracy” and “republic” that doesn’t really exist in practice. “During the 18th century,” political scientist Robert Dahl once observed, “the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ were used interchangeably in both common and philosophical usage.”

But there is a school of political thought called republicanism, which rests on principles of nondomination and popular sovereignty, and it was a major influence on the American revolutionaries, including the framers of the Constitution. “The fundamental maxim of republican government,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 22, “requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.” Likewise, James Madison wrote at the end of his life, the “vital principle” of “republican government” is the “lex majoris partis — the will of the majority.”

Election deniers, and much of the Republican Party at this point in time, reject democracy and the equality it implies. But what’s key is that they also reject republicanism and the fundamental principle of popular government. Put simply, they see Trump as their sovereign as much as their president, and they hope to make him a kind of king.

Jamelle Bouie | The New York Times

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.