[Editor’s note: The following essay was written by former New York Times Washington, DC bureau chief, frequent NC Policy Watch contributor and all-around legendary journalist, Hedrick Smith. It originally appeared on Smith’s own website, Reclaim the American Dream.]
Veteran journalist sums up the current mess and how we got here
For all the uproar among Democrats over restrictive voting laws passed by Republican legislatures in 17 states, Democrats have only recently awakened to the more dangerous threat to American democracy posed by Republican moves to take partisan control of counting votes and even overturn the popular vote in future elections.
For months, Democrats in Congress and nonpartisan election reformers have railed against the obstacles to voter turnout from new Republican restrictions on absentee ballots, mail voting, voter registration, and early voting, which fall especially hard on minority and younger voters.
But the greater danger to American democracy and election security lies in the stealth GOP scheme to gain partisan control of the traditionally non-partisan process of counting and certifying the vote, by empowering Republican legislatures to disqualify the popular vote and by putting Trump loyalists in charge of running elections in swing states.
Act two of “The Big Lie”
Call it Act Two of “The Big Lie,” the Republican action plan to manipulate the rules, change the process and prepare to alter the vote count in 2022, 2024 and beyond, if Republicans are losing. But for months, the big Democratic election reform bills in Congress, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, ignored the GOP plot to subvert the popular vote. Only now are counter-moves surfacing in Congress.
What makes the GOP action plan so menacing is that it builds on the Trump plot to change the outcome of the 2020 election. In his final month as President, Donald Trump went to war against our constitutional democracy on multiple fronts. The mob attack on Congress was just the most visible ploy.
Behind the scenes, Trump was simultaneously putting intense pressure on his Acting Attorney General, Jeffrey Rosen, to declare vote fraud, and when Rosen refused, Trump prepared to fire Rosen and replace him with a loyalist primed to do Trump’s bidding. Only the threat of group resignations of Justice Department and White House lawyers stopped Trump.
In a second desperate gambit, Trump placed a secret phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on January 2 and demanded that Raffensperger “find 11,780 votes” so that Trump could win Georgia.
The day after that, Trump summoned Vice President Mike Pence to the Oval Office and had conservative lawyer John Eastman lay out a step-by-step game-plan for Pence, on January 6, simply to reject Electoral votes from swing states like Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania that had been won by Joe Biden, and then declare Trump had won re-election.
Election guardrails are now being targeted
Fortunately, constitutional Republicans like Pence, Rosen, Raffensperger, Republican supervisors in Arizona’s Maricopa County, (Phoenix area), and election board officials in Michigan refused to kowtow to Trump’s dictates. So the 2020 election withstood the Trump storm.
But this year, Trump loyalists are out to erode and override the election guardrails. They have targeted the procedures, institutions, and individuals who stood in Trump’s way after the last election. In multiple states, Republican legislatures have moved to take control of the machinery of elections and post-election vote counts.
“Election subversion ” is what election law attorneys politely call this. But in hardball politics, it amounts to “the real steal,” an aggressive stealth cabal that is underway in key states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas.
Massive 2020 turnout triggered GOP tactics
Ironically, what triggered the GOP plot for usurping the popular vote was the stunning success of the 2020 election. Contrary to Trump’s ”Big Lie,” the 2020 election was a blowout. Despite fears of COVID, the pandemic actually caused many states to open up voting and that generated the best voter turnout since 1908 – 68% of eligible voters cast ballots.
In all, 158 million Americans voted -101 million voted either by mail (65 million) or voted early in person (36 million), far more than the 57 million voting on Election Day. That big 2020 vote benefited from a decade of political reforms that expanded mail voting, early voting, and easier registration.
So today, the U.S. has a more accessible voting system than two or three decades ago. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia now permit early voting. Thirty-four states and DC permit absentee mail voting, no excuse required. Seven states vote entirely by mail. All this has helped boost voter turnout, especially among Blacks, Latinos, and younger voters.
Supreme Court judges embolden the GOP
In a fearful backlash, Republican strategists have responded with a two-pronged strategy to turn back the clock: (1) by making it harder for some democratic-leaning voters to cast their ballots; and (2) by engineering ways for Republican-controlled legislatures or election officials to disqualify and/or change the popular vote. Read more