Can a Few Good Republicans Thwart Trump's Election Steal Again in 2024?
America needs to mend the cracks in its election laws to weather the coming political storm
The Trumpist plan to steal the presidential election remains, in broad strokes, the same going into 2024 as it was in 2020. And it depends on something Donald Trump failed to get in 2020: the near-unanimous support of every aspect of government machinery under his party’s control.
The former president and his acolytes are working to remedy that shortcoming. They are continuing to purge Republican officeholders at every level who refused to do his bidding and hand him the election in 2020. Trump is also endorsing primary challengers in down-ballot local legislative races in states such as Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia to replace those who refused to be his accomplice in 2020. This kind of intrusive interference in local party primaries by a former president is highly unusual, to say the least.
A truly lock-step major party with majority control of enough state governments and courts, and with a Congress ready to acquiesce, would possess all the tools needed to overturn the results of a presidential election they have lost. But does Trump, or anybody else, have a plausible chance of pulling it off? Although there are ample reasons to worry, there is also a case for cautious optimism.
America’s system of electing a president could be charitably described as idiosyncratic. Less charitably, it’s Kafkaesque in its bureaucratic complexity. Each state’s legislature must prescribe an election code, a statewide elections agency (usually headed by an elected secretary of state) must administer the election, the governor must certify the winning candidate’s members for the Electoral College, those certified members of the Electoral College must meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes for the winner of the state, those votes must be sent to Congress, and then Congress must count and certify the result.
Altogether, that’s almost 9,000 elected officials who have some say in the process. And that’s without even counting many more who participate in some way at the local level, plus all the state and federal courts that might be called upon to hear election-related cases. This layered onion of procedural complexity is unlike anything used in any other nation.
That complexity is part of what made the system vulnerable—along with the byzantine ambiguities in the century-plus old law governing the process. Trump pressured state government officials not to certify their election results, tried to have state legislatures meet to pass resolutions invaliding their elections, and demanded Congress and Mike Pence refuse to certify the Electoral College’s vote totals.
But that same decentralization of power into so many hands also made the system robust enough to withstand the assault in 2020, even when it came from the incumbent president who controlled the levers of power. In particular, the line was held not just because Democrats stood in Trump’s way, but because Republicans did too.
Republican state legislators, secretaries of state, governors, representatives and senators, and even Trump’s own vice president all said “no.” Most of them had been loyal Trump supporters up to that point. Almost all of them had impeccable conservative credentials. But when it came down to it, they honored their oaths of office and defended the Constitution.
They did this even though they were a distinctly minority voice among Republicans, the vast majority of whom continue to support Trump’s nonsensical claims about the election. Often, they were not even in the majority among their fellow officeholders in their respective roles.
How close did we come to the worst-case scenario? And how much closer might we be next time?
The Trump camp’s effort to overturn the election focused on six states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Two of those had Republican secretaries of state. In Nevada, Barbara Cegavske, the only Republican in statewide elected office, shrugged off a rebuke from her state party for dismissing spurious accusations of fraud in Biden’s relatively comfortable two-and-a-half-point win. In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger not only refused a direct demand from Trump to “find” enough votes to change the outcome, he also recorded the conversation and then released the tape.
Cegavske is term-limited in 2022. The state has been trending Democratic, however, and an avowedly Trumpist nominee is even less likely to prevail in the general election. Raffensperger faces a Trump-backed primary challenger in a state where the GOP is much more dominant, and there’s only one real issue in the race, namely, who is going to be a more reliable Trump ally in 2024. So if Raffensperger gets replaced by a more Trumpist candidate, Georgia’s firewall will definitely weaken, but Nevada’s is likely to be stronger.
Among governors in 2020’s key states, there were Republican incumbents in two: Arizona and Georgia. Georgia’s Brian Kemp also stood by the legality of Biden’s win despite withering attacks from Trump and other Republicans. He now faces a bruising primary fight against the Trump-endorsed David Perdue, the Republican senator who lost his own re-election bid in 2020.
Arizona’s Doug Ducey, who was memorably caught on camera refusing to answer Trump’s phone call while he signed the certification of Biden’s win, is term-limited. The leading Republican candidate to replace him this year is Kari Lake, a local TV news anchor who has courted Trump’s base and said she would not have certified the result. That means that potentially, but by no means certainly, two of the governors who refused to assist Trump in 2020 might be replaced by those who are willing to help steal an election. Should Perdue win in Georgia and Lake in Arizona, the gubernatorial resistance against a Trumpist onslaught would certainly be weaker. Forecasters such as the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato rate both races as toss-ups in the general election, however, so the chances of Democrats winning one or both are high.
What about state legislatures? In five of the six states, Republicans held majorities in the state legislature. Despite being summoned to the White House, none acted to assert a right to overturn the results. This might not have been because most Republicans in those chambers were unwilling to go along with Trump but merely that there weren’t enough, so they didn’t try. Still, Georgia’s senate did pass a resolution endorsing the deranged last-minute lawsuit filed by Texas (with the support of most GOP state attorneys general) to have the Supreme Court intervene on Trump’s behalf. The Court unanimously rebuffed that request. Likewise, Arizona’s senate peddled Trump’s post-election lies and launched its own sham audit of the results, which in the end only confirmed Biden’s win.
None of these five states are likely to lose their Republican legislative majorities in 2022. But on the bright side, it didn’t take many principled Republicans in 2020 to deny Trump the ability to do any funny business, and that won’t change. With majorities that are often in the single digits, it would only take a few defections to block action in at least one chamber. In the Arizona Senate, for example, Republicans currently hold the majority by only two seats.
In the courts, Trump failed across the board in 2020, including at the Supreme Court. Luckily, that’s also unlikely to substantially change. Lifetime appointment does have its upsides, among them the ability to resist such blatant political pressure paired with such weak legal arguments. In many ways, the courts are our safest redoubt.
Finally, we arrive at Congress and the crucial joint session to count and certify the electoral college results. On the one hand, it is widely expected that Republicans will retake both houses in 2022. But here, too, the math of narrow partisan majorities works to the advantage of defending the Constitution. A third of House Republicans and over 80 percent of Senate Republicans refused to support the lawless objections to counting electoral votes last time. That even a single Republican would come out on Trump’s side and against the rule of law is an abomination. Still, with expected margins of around a dozen to 15 House seats and only two or three senators, it wouldn’t take that many Republicans to hold the line against Trump. Senators whose terms will not expire until 2026 and who opposed overturning the election in 2020 include, for example, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Maine’s Susan Collins, and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell.
Trump is doing everything in his power to eject Republicans who went against him from Congress. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who has been repeatedly censured by the Wyoming GOP for standing up to Trump, is facing a primary challenge and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has already announced he won’t run again. Even so, most of the Republicans who refused to support the objections will still be there in January 2025. This is especially true in the Senate, where a third of the body will not have even faced their next election by then. And, of course, while majority control will have likely flipped after the 2022 mid-term election, the incumbent vice president will be Kamala Harris rather than Mike Pence. This puts the onus on Congress to potentially overturn the presiding officer who oversees the joint session, a tougher lift than merely sustaining a bad ruling from the chair.
This somewhat reassuring math shouldn’t be any cause for complacency. Merely an attempt to overturn the election result could do immense damage, especially if it comes closer in 2024 than it did in 2020. It is extremely important, therefore, to pass a comprehensive reform of the Electoral Count Act, the ambiguity-riddled 19th century statute which governs the process of casting and counting electoral votes. One much-needed change would be to limit the grounds for objections to a specific list of constitutionally valid reasons. The bad legal arguments about how state legislatures and/or Congress have unlimited power to overturn the election results that are currently being workshopped by the Trump camp must not only be roundly debunked but also put in the hands of the officeholders so that they can rapidly refute them if and when the time comes.
Still, much of the Founders’ design might work as intended here. To install a defeated candidate in the White House requires the acquiescence of some combination of state executive officials, state legislatures, the courts, and Congress. It requires Republicans in each of those positions to not just overwhelmingly support such an effort but do so almost unanimously. That’s a difficult lift even in the normal course of passing legislation. For an extraordinary attempt to subvert the Constitution, such agreement will be very difficult to come by. Even if it is mostly successful, Trump’s ongoing purge of the GOP is unlikely to be enough.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the willingness to assist a political crime of this magnitude, already uncomfortably high in 2020, will probably be higher still in 2024. And precisely because there will be fewer Republican officeholders and legislators holding the line against it, the ones who do will likely face an even more intense campaign of intimidation and harassment than they did in 2020.
The UnPopulist last week highlighted the plight of one such officeholder, Stephen Richer, the Maricopa County recorder who had to get police protection after a MAGA mob threatened him for debunking Trump’s election lies in his official capacity. The potential for violence against people like him will increase manyfold if the 2024 election is close. Withstanding such a campaign will require not just a few good Republicans but a few good and brave Republicans. Meanwhile, violent tactics from the right to mess with the election result could well engender similar violence on the left.
In short, despite the resilience of America’s election system, the country cannot afford to be sanguine about 2024. We will have a better chance of coming out of it intact if we mend some of the obvious cracks in our electoral laws. There is no time to waste.
Andy Craig is a staff writer at the Cato Institute, former campaign staffer for Gov. Gary Johnson, and studied political science at Hendrix College.
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