A new, more dangerous front has opened in the voting wars, and it’s going to be much harder to counteract than the now-familiar fight over voting rules. At stake is something I never expected to worry about in the United States: the integrity of the vote count. The danger of manipulated election results looms.
We already know the contours of the battle over voter suppression. The public has been inundated with stories about Georgia’s new voting law, from Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta, to criticism of new restrictions that prevent giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. With lawsuits already filed against restrictive aspects of that law and with American companies and elite law firms lined up against Republican state efforts to make it harder to register and vote, there’s at least a fighting chance that the worst of these measures will be defeated or weakened.
The new threat of election subversion is even more concerning. These efforts target both personnel and policy; it is not clear if they are coordinated. They nonetheless represent a huge threat to American democracy itself.
Some of these efforts involve removing from power those who stood up to President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board. This seems aimed clearly at Georgia’s current Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, punishing him for rejecting Mr. Trump’s entreaties to “find” 11,780 votes to flip Joe Biden’s lead in the state….
Combating efforts that can undermine the fair administration of elections and vote counting is especially tricky. Unlike issues of voter suppression, which are easy to explain to the public (what do you mean you can’t give water to voters waiting in long lines?!?), the risks of unfair election administration are inchoate. They may materialize or they may not, depending on how close an election is and whether Mr. Trump himself or another person running for office is willing to break democratic norms and insist on an unfair vote count.
So what can be done? To begin with, every jurisdiction in the United States should be voting with systems that produce a paper ballot that can be recounted in the event of a disputed election. Having physical, tangible evidence of voters’ choices, rather than just records on electronic voting machines, is essential to both guard against actual manipulation and protect voter confidence in a fair vote count. Such a provision is already contained in H.R. 1, the mammoth Democrat-sponsored voting bill.
Next, businesses and civic leaders must speak out not just against voter suppression but at efforts at election subversion. The message needs to be that fair elections require not just voter access to the polls, but procedures to assure that the means of conducting the election are fair, auditable and verifiable by representatives of both political parties and nongovernmental organizations.
Congress must also fix the rules for counting Electoral College votes, so that spurious objections to the vote counts like the ones we saw on Jan. 6 from senators and representatives, including Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, are harder to make. It should take much more than a pairing of a single senator and a single representative to raise an objection, and there must be quick means to reject frivolous objections to votes fairly cast and counted in the states.
Congress can also require states to impose basic safeguards in the counting of votes in federal elections. This is not part of the H.R. 1 election reform bill, but it should be, and Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress wide berth to override state laws in this area.
Finally, we need a national effort to support those who will count votes fairly. Already we are seeing a flood of competent election administrators retiring from their often-thankless jobs, some after facing threats of violence during the 2020 vote count. Local election administrators need political cover and the equivalent of combat pay, along with adequate budget resources to run fair elections. It took hundreds of millions of dollars in private philanthropy to hold a successful election in 2020; that need for charity should not be repeated….