“Donald Trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago,” or so Barton Gellman writes last week in The Atlantic in a piece perfectly pitched to the growing belief among Democrats that the former president, in 2024, will succeed in doing what he failed to do last year.
Assumptions about what might happen in 2024 consistently ignore the key reason Trump failed in 2020: The system held.
This is not a new argument. Indeed, two months before the 2020 election, Gellman laid out a similar doomsday scenario. Republican state legislatures, in states won by Joe Biden, would be pressured by Trump to appoint a rival set of electors loyal to him. Then-Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over a joint session of Congress, would refuse to recognize any electors from those states, thus provoking a constitutional crisis and, potentially, a continuation of the Trump presidency. These efforts would also, it was said, receive the support of the Supreme Court and the Trump-controlled Department of Justice.
Even before the unimaginable chaos of Jan. 6, such scenarios, bandied around frequently by Democrats, seemed far-fetched— largely because they were. I noted then that “to steal the election, Trump would have to rely on an extraordinary confluence of events — dominoes lined up one after another and falling in precise order.” If one domino is out of place, the whole effort would fall apart.
Indeed, the assumptions about what might happen in 2024 consistently ignore the key reason Trump failed in 2020: The system held, and the Republican Party’s devotion to democracy over party was greater than many people had imagined.
In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republican state legislative leaders refused to go along with Trump’s perfidy — even under enormous pressure from him.
The same goes for GOP governors and secretaries of state, including Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger in Georgia. The federal courts, even judges appointed by Trump, weren’t interested in carrying out the president’s wishes, either. More than five dozen judges rejected the president’s pre- and post-election legal gambits. The president’s hand-picked attorney general, William Barr, and officials at the Department of Justice also refused to help. Trump’s White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Deputy White House Counsel Pat Philbin — both of whom defended him in his impeachment trial — threatened to resign if the president used the Justice Department to pressure states not to certify their election results. And, in perhaps the cruelest blow for Trump, Pence, his vice president, refused to help him.
The courage of these acts should not be underestimated. Many of these officials sacrificed their long-term political viability within the Republican Party by standing up for a larger set of democratic principles.
The true cowards and enablers of 2020 were the congressional Republicans who refused to vote to certify Biden’s victory, knowing full well that the effort would fail, but knowing also that Trump’s Republican supporters would appreciate their cynical gesture.
Since then, many on the left have argued that Trump and his allies are laying the groundwork for another run in 2024, and it would be foolish to fully dismiss these concerns. But the same obstacles that thwarted Trump’s efforts in 2020 will be in place three years from now.
First, America does not have one presidential election decided by popular vote; it has 50 individual ones, which makes the challenge of stealing an election much greater.
In 2020, Trump didn’t need one state to flip for him to be re-elected. He needed it to happen in multiple states, which would have necessitated the complicity of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Republican officials. Unless 2024 comes down to one or two states, with a compliant Republican governor and secretary of state, a GOP-controlled legislature and perhaps dozens of county election board officials, Trump (if he’s the Republican nominee) will face the same nearly insurmountable hurdles.
The true cowards and enablers of 2020 were the congressional Republicans who refused to vote to certify Biden’s victory, knowing full well that the effort would fail.
Trump may also be stymied by a collective action problem: namely, which GOP official will want to go first in subverting the will of the electorate? Will anyone want to step forward unless they are fully confident that the others will also take the dive?
It’s also possible that in several of the key swing states that could decide the 2024 election (Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), Democrats will hold the governor’s mansion and/or the secretary of state’s office, thus making electoral theft in these places far more difficult.
Second, why in 2024 would Republican officials do what they didn’t do last year — and go along with Trump’s coup attempt? Critics will argue that Trump is seeding the ground with accomplices who support the big lie in swing states. It’s true that the former president has endorsed such candidates for secretary of state races in Arizona, Michigan and Georgia and state legislature candidates in Michigan. Last week, he offered public support for David Perdue, a former U.S. senator, who’s announced he’ll run against Kemp, and who has said he would have refused to certify Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia.
With the obvious caveat that none of these candidates has yet prevailed in a primary race, it’s important to remember that it’s one thing to talk about stealing a presidential election — it’s quite another to do it. The political, ethical, legal and reputational constraints against openly and directly subverting the will of voters are significant. There’s little doubt they played a role in 2020. For the past six years, Republicans’ complicity with Trump’s anti-democratic endeavors is largely defined by inertia. It’s something else altogether to directly assist them.
Those fearful of a stolen 2024 election also point to new state laws that seek to give greater power to state legislatures and governors than nonpartisan election officials. However, few of these laws have actually passed. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, state legislators “brazenly introduced at least 10 bills in seven states during the 2021 legislative session that would have directly empowered partisan officials to change or overturn election results.” None was enacted.
There has been new legislation in Georgia and Arkansas that, according to the Brennan Center, “allow partisan actors to remove professional election officials and seize complete control of election administration in a specific jurisdiction.” These are obviously concerning, but they are the exception, not the rule. Similar legislation proposed in other states has not passed or has been scrapped. If Republicans were as inculcated with anti-democratic fervor as many suggest, one would expect that these bills would have passed handily. Yet, that hasn’t happened.
It’s one thing to talk about stealing a presidential election — it’s quite another to do it.
Where Republicans have been far more successful — and where concern should be far greater — is in placing ever-rising obstacles in front of those seeking to cast a ballot. Georgia and Texas both passed onerous new laws that make it more difficult to vote, and, in particular, to vote by mail. The Georgia law even makes it a crime to hand out food and water to people waiting in line to exercise their franchise. As of October 2021, 19 states have passed laws this year restricting voting access.
Six states (Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Texas, Florida and Georgia) have imposed new criminal and civil penalties on election officials for deviating from election law or even sending mail ballots to a person who hasn’t requested one. In Iowa, prosecutors can now charge election officials with a crime for not being sufficiently vigilant in purging voter registration rolls.
Yet, Gellman is oddly sanguine about this much more pervasive assault on basic democratic norms. He even criticizes the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland for suing Georgia over its voting rights law but not challenging “the hostile takeover of election authorities.” According to Gellman, “the provisions that Garland did not challenge make it easier for Republicans to fix the outcome. They represent danger of a whole different magnitude.”
There’s no question that the threats to American democracy are real and significant.
The fact is, they don’t. Fixing the outcome of an election is incredibly difficult. Making it harder for people to vote is, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past several years, much easier.
There’s no question that the threats to American democracy are real and significant. This includes the aforementioned assault on voting rights, but also the growing politicization of the federal judiciary, partisan gerrymandering that is insulating scores of public officials from true democratic accountability, the corrosive impact of Trump spreading misinformation against free and fair elections, and the growing authoritarian bent of the Republican Party. All these events are happening in real time and should be of much greater concern to Americans than the slim possibility of a political coup in 2024.
Unless they are confronted more aggressively, Trump won’t need to worry about stealing a presidential election. He’ll have an excellent chance of winning it outright.