The 2020 election was a watershed moment for American democracy: it was the first time in the long history of the republic that a sitting president refused to recognize the results of an election, and that the normal transfer of power was challenged through secret subterfuge efforts and intentional misinformation designed to inspire public agitation, resulting in violence.
American democracy weathered that initial phase of the storm: key state election officials remained committed to the rule of law, the January 6 insurrection was quashed, and the effort to prevent the smooth transfer of power was defeated. But the storm only abated. It did not end. Indeed, in some ways, the storm has only intensified in the year and a half that has followed. And now, the elections of 2022 and 2024 represent inflection points in the history of American democracy.
This is not the first time that elections have really mattered. The election of 1860—when it was all but guaranteed that the victory of anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln would push the United States into civil war—springs to mind; so does the election of 1932, when voters faced a choice between continuing with the incumbent whose policies had worsened the Great Depression or gambling on the big promises of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In a way, the crisis that we face today is less dramatic than the crises of those eras. But the outcomes of our upcoming elections will nonetheless play a crucial role in determining the future of democracy in our country—and thus in the world.
These elections are the first full tests of our electoral system since the crisis of the 2020 election, in which President Trump and his faction tried to overturn the election results and to prevent the inauguration of Joe Biden. That was a major stress test of American democracy. The fact that the political system barely survived the test should induce no false comfort.
In addition, the 2022 election (and 2024 as well, if pro-democracy leaders are not elected in 2022) will take place under new rules that have been instituted since the 2020 election. These rules, enacted by the Republican Party in a range of battleground states, are designed in many cases to make voting harder for people who historically have voted mainly for Democrats. Even more ominously, they are designed to empower Republican Party loyalists to administer elections, count the votes, and even decide who wins and who loses in their states.1
The Trump faction, which controls the Republican National Committee and the party more generally, has continued to spread the big lie that Trump really won and Biden’s inauguration was illegitimate. Polls indicate that large numbers of Republicans believe this.2 And many Republican candidates in 2022 are campaigning on it.3
On the basis of this big lie, Republicans have succeeded in reshaping state election laws to suit their purpose. They have made it easier to subvert Democratic election victories in the future and thus tilt the political playing field in their favor.
These election law changes are important.
The poisoning of public opinion, and the creation of an enormous reservoir of public skepticism about elections in general, is perhaps more important.
And as a result, it is not an exaggeration to say that democracy itself is on the ballot this November and in 2024.
Our shared concern over these coming challenges prompted this somewhat unusual writing partnership. We first came together in the fall of 2021, along with our recently departed friend and colleague, Todd Gitlin. One of us (Kristol) was a leader of what used to be known as neoconservatism and the editor of a leading conservative magazine; the other two (Gitlin and Isaac) were writers and activists on the democratic left and members of the editorial board of Dissent magazine. We came together as fellow citizens motivated by a similar fear about the fate of our democracy. Through many conversations, we discovered the depth of our shared convictions about the threats to, but also the inestimable worth of, our democracy. So we became friends and collaborators, even as we continued to be divided by real differences of opinion about matters of history, policy, and our hopes for the future.
Together, we organized an open letter calling attention to the threats faced by our democracy that was published in October 2021, with dozens of signers like us—experts with a range of political beliefs united in our desire to protect our democracy.4 And though Todd passed away not long after we began planning this article, we have continued sounding the alarm because we know that addressing this crisis will require all of us to work together.
In this article, we explain how the developments described above have seriously challenged our democracy and why these impairments are so dangerous. We briefly reflect on what this means for all of us and conclude with a focus on our civic duty: it is up to us to stand against those who seek to impair our democracy and to support those seeking to protect free and fair democratic elections and a free and pluralistic public life.
How the Republican Party Is Tilting the Playing Field
The Brennan Center for Justice is an independent, nonpartisan, and highly respected law and policy organization that publishes reports on questions of election security and the freedom and fairness of elections in the United States. It regularly publishes voting laws roundups documenting the status of election laws in every state. These reports show a dramatic increase in the number of laws, all pressed by statehouse Republicans, to restrict voting and potentially impair the fairness of the vote counting process under the guise of protecting the integrity of elections.5
These laws take different forms in different states, but their basic contours are similar and consist of voting restrictions and partisan administering of elections.
In the past year, there has been a concerted effort to use the law to make voting more difficult by doing some or all of the following:
- limiting who can vote by mail-in ballot
- establishing new barriers to applying for mail-in ballots
- prohibiting the sending of unsolicited mail-in applications or ballots
- restricting how mail-in ballots can be returned, including eliminating drop boxes
- creating new grounds for rejecting mail-in ballots
- enacting onerous voter identification requirements and mechanisms for enforcement
- limiting Sunday voting
- limiting the number of polling places and drop boxes, particularly in communities that tend to vote for Democrats
Some of these laws involve criminal liability for voters who improperly fill out or submit ballots. Others involve criminal liability for election officials who are allegedly insufficiently strict in enforcing the new restrictions.
One law that has received much media attention is Georgia SB 202, which was enacted in March 2021.6 Along with many other voting restrictions, the new law makes it a crime to distribute water or snacks to voters waiting in line, a practice voter participation groups in Georgia adopted to help voters endure what were already “notoriously long wait times in some elections.”7
A similar bill, SB 90, took effect in Florida in May 2021. Although a federal judge barred the state from enforcing parts of the law, ruling that it was an unconstitutional and partisan effort to suppress voters—and particularly Black voters8—that ruling was overturned in May 2022.9
While there is strong evidence of the racial effects of such laws, political scientists debate whether they have a substantial partisan effect in decreasing voter turnout. But there can be no question that these laws are being actively promoted by Republicans who believe that Democrats have cheated by encouraging “invalid voters” to vote. The real challenge for our democracy is that many of these Republicans, animated by extremists, believe that “invalid voters” include people of color, people with low incomes, and students. And it is equally clear that the purpose of such laws is to make it harder for these citizens to vote. To make their voter suppression seem more palatable, many Republicans claim that they are striving to protect our democracy by preventing undocumented immigrants, people who live outside the voting district, and people who vote more than once or on behalf of dead people, for example, to vote.10 But such voter fraud is essentially nonexistent.11
Partisan Election Administration and Vote Counting
Republicans have also introduced bills that affect how elections are administered after the votes are cast. In 2021, there was a big jump in the number of bills that could make it possible for Republicans to do what they tried and failed to do in 2020: sabotage fair elections so that their preferred candidates win.12 As the Brennan Center documents, “The most extreme of these ‘election sabotage’ bills would have allowed partisan officials to simply reject election results.”13
Election sabotage bills have taken a number of forms; they might
- initiate or allow biased citizen reviews or audits of elections in ways that lack transparency, show disregard for the security of election data, and make it easy for political operatives to cast suspicion on the credibility of elections;
- expand criminal law enforcement powers over election affairs or establish new prosecutorial authorities;
- impose new criminal or civil penalties on election officials; or
- allow state legislatures to remove professional election officials, shift authority over election administration away from election officials, or simply override the determinations of election officials and assume authority for deciding electoral winners and losers.
These are not just extreme bills to rally the Far Right base; some are becoming laws. For example, Florida’s SB 524,14 which was signed in April 2022, creates a state Office of Election Crimes and Security with a police force to investigate allegations of voter fraud—a forceful reminder of the South’s history of voter intimidation by law enforcement.
In April 2021, a full year before Florida created its election police force, three democracy-oriented groups—the States United Democracy Center, Protect Democracy, and Law Forward—had already produced a report on these efforts to politicize, criminalize, and interfere with the administration of elections. The report sums up the problem in stark terms:
These are substantial changes that, if enacted, could make elections unworkable, render results far more difficult to finalize, and in the worst-case scenario, allow state legislatures to substitute their preferred candidates for those chosen by the voters. American democracy relies on the losers of elections respecting the results and participating in a peaceful transition of power. If, instead, the losing party tries to override the will of the voters, that would be the death knell for our system of government.15
And in July 2021, the National Task Force on Election Crises published a report that also makes clear how dangerous these developments are for American democracy:
Any legislative activity premised on lies and conspiracy theories is deeply concerning. But recent efforts by highly partisan state legislatures to interfere in election administration in a way that may disrupt the conduct of elections or allow for manipulation of election outcomes pose a particularly acute risk of future crises. Combined with a failure to address critical weaknesses in our election systems and protect election workers, as well as a failure to address the root causes of the January 6th insurrection, these efforts are a threat to the very foundation of our democracy.... [and] pose an especially urgent threat of future election crises.16
The fact that so many reputable, nonpartisan public interest groups are expressing such a high level of alarm is reason to take these developments seriously—and to be alarmed ourselves. Worse, the fact that their efforts to warn lawmakers and citizens have largely gone unheeded shows that we are on the edge of a precipice. But the danger to our democracy does not end there.
The Dangerous Delegitimization of the Democratic Public Sphere
The legislative changes we describe above have been accompanied by a broader incitement of distrust and anger toward ordinary democratic political processes. These efforts have had a huge influence on the Republican Party, with many candidates in 2022 running on a platform of denying the results of the 2020 presidential election and hostility toward democratic processes.17
Without doubt, the most consequential form of this delegitimization of electoral processes has been the ongoing “Stop the Steal” rhetoric of Trump,18 who remains the leader of the Republican Party. His claims of the election being stolen from him not only help sustain his political power but also spur his followers to act in ways that further undermine our democracy.
One form that this distrust and anger has taken has been an upsurge of physical threats toward, and actual intimidation of, professional election officials. Secretaries of state, other election officials, and members of their staffs in states where Trump claims election fraud occurred have been the targets of near-constant harassment and numerous death threats, to the extent that some have had to hire private security or have 24-hour police protection.19 These threats are so serious that in June 2021, two of the top election lawyers in the country—Democrat Bob Bauer and Republican Ben Ginsberg—organized an effort to provide legal support to besieged election officials who “face threats, fines, or suspensions for doing their jobs.”20
Special targets of attack have been Republican elected officials—such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—who insisted on doing their duty and refusing to subvert the election results in their states in 2020.21 It has sadly become increasingly clear in 2022 that many Republicans want such law-abiding officials purged from their party.22
A second form of this distrust has been a rash of partisan and unprofessional election audits that purportedly aim to boost voter confidence in the election results but instead are likely to undermine voter confidence.23 In Arizona, for instance, an audit found no evidence of fraud (even though it was partly funded by Trump supporters and criticized as partisan and unprofessional by election experts), but the media attention generated by doing the audit spurred the spread of election misinformation.24
All of this means our democratic processes and norms are at risk. America is on the verge of becoming an authoritarian state. How will we respond?
Our Responsibilities as Citizens
Our October 2021 open letter made two basic points: that American democracy was in grave danger, and that all who care about democracy ought to come together to strengthen voting rights and democratic guardrails and to oppose those who seek to weaken them.
The letter was signed by almost 50 writers, academics, and political activists from across the political spectrum. To underscore the broad, nonpartisan nature of the appeal, the letter was simultaneously published in the New Republic, one of the nation’s oldest and most reputable liberal publications, and The Bulwark, a relatively new publication created by former Republicans who remain conservative yet oppose Trumpism and seek to safeguard America from it.
We were hardly alone in expressing our apprehension about democracy. A week later, over 100 former high-level national security officials published a similar letter,25 and a week after that, over 100 scholars of democracy did the same.26
That our democracy may be headed over a cliff is now widely understood among those who pay close attention to politics. But the danger we face seems not yet widely understood among the general public. What is to be done to defend democracy as the November 2022 and 2024 elections loom?
There is no one thing. But we would like to offer some recommendations.
As you think about these elections, be aware of what the candidates and the party platforms have to say about democracy. Do they promote versions of the big lie? Do they support the kinds of anti-democratic measures we describe above? Do they ignore or evade the question of democracy entirely? Or do they stand squarely behind democracy and support measures designed to strengthen rather than weaken it? More specifically, are they in favor of increasing access to voting, and are they honest about the security of mail-in voting, drop boxes, and other practices that make voting easier?
Elections in normal times are occasions for candidates and parties to offer policy options to voters, and for voters to choose those candidates and parties whose policies they most prefer. Tax rates. Spending priorities. Social programs. Health, safety, and environmental regulations. Education policies. These are issues about which it is possible to disagree strongly—indeed, the two authors of this article disagree about many of them. But it is the right of all citizens to freely associate with the causes they believe in, to express themselves publicly, and to vote in free and fair elections. These are not policy issues. These are matters of fundamental principle, and the principle is democracy itself.
As you think about discussing these elections with others—be they students or community members—you need not wade into the policy issues on which we all may disagree. Instead, you can highlight all that is at stake. Through your local union or another community group, you can volunteer to engage in phone banking, texting, or going door to door to call attention to the need to protect voting rights. You can also attend (or even organize) rallies to underscore the threats to our democracy. Or, if you prefer an entirely neutral way to get involved, you can volunteer for Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns. The goal of GOTV efforts is for every eligible person to vote—that’s all. And if you want to defend democracy, volunteering to increase voter participation is a great start.
Will we be a country where we can agree to disagree and still respect the rules of the democratic game? Where we can seek to persuade and still respect each other as individuals and fellow citizens?
Will we be a country whose elected leaders submit themselves to electoral accountability and then respect the results of elections?
These questions are up for grabs in a way that hasn’t been the case in our lifetimes. Defending our democracy is a burden and a challenge. But to be able to do our part—as others have done before us, and as others are doing now, at great risk, elsewhere in the world—is a privilege. It is a privilege of democratic citizenship. It is also a moment that we can seize or neglect. Let us rise to the occasion.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington and a co-convenor of the Democracy Seminar. William Kristol is the editor-at-large of The Bulwark and a co-director of Defending Democracy Together. The authors dedicate this article to the memory of their friend and colleague Todd Gitlin, who passed away just as the three of them began planning it.
1. Brennan Center for Justice, “Voting Laws Roundup: February 2022,” brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-february-2022; and K. Morris and W. Wilder, “Restrictive Voting Laws Are Highly Partisan,” Brennan Center for Justice, April 5, 2022.
2. L. Cuthbert and A. Theodoridis, “Do Republicans Really Believe Trump Won the 2020 Election? Our Research Suggests That They Do,” Washington Post, January 7, 2022.
3. A. Edelman, “These Candidates Say Trump Won in 2020—Now They’re Running to Oversee Future Elections,” NBC News, May 1, 2022.
4. T. Gitlin, J. Isaac, and W. Kristol, “An Open Letter in Defense of Democracy: The Future of Democracy in the United States Is in Danger,” New Republic, October 27, 2021; and T. Gitlin, J. Isaac, and W. Kristol, “An Open Letter in Defense of Democracy: The Future of Democracy in the United States Is in Danger,” The Bulwark, October 27, 2021.
5. See, for example, Brennan Center, “Voting Laws Roundup: February 2022”; and Brennan Center for Justice, “Voting Laws Roundup: December 2021,” January 12, 2022, brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-december-2021.
6. S. Fowler, “What Does Georgia’s New Voting Law SB 202 Do?,” GPB News, March 27, 2021.
7. W. Wilder and S. Baum, “5 Egregious Voter Suppression Laws from 2021,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 31, 2022.
8. B. Farrington, “Judge Strikes Down Parts of Florida Election Law; Cites Race,” AP News, March 31, 2022.
9. J. Timm, “Appeals Court Reinstates Florida’s Restrictive Voting Law,” NBC News, May 6, 2022.
10. J. Rutenberg, N. Corasaniti, and A. Feuer, “Trump’s Fraud Claims Died in Court, but the Myth of Stolen Elections Lives On,” New York Times, October 11, 2021.
11. Brennan Center for Justice, “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/vote-suppression/myth-voter-fraud.
12. Brennan Center, “Voting Laws Roundup: February 2022.”
13. Brennan Center, “Voting Laws Roundup: February 2022.”
14. G. Fineout, “DeSantis Signs Bill Creating One of the Nation’s Only Election Police Units,” Politico, April 25, 2022; and M. Bissada, “Florida Gov. DeSantis Signs Bill to Form Election Police Force,” Forbes, April 26, 2022.
15. A Democracy Crisis in the Making: How State Legislatures Are Politicizing, Criminalizing, and Interfering with Election Administration (Washington, DC: States United Democracy Center, Protect Democracy, and Law Forward, April 22, 2021), s3.documentcloud.org/documents/20688594/democracy-crisis-report-april-21.pdf.
16. Undermining Free & Fair Elections: An Update on the Risk of Election Crises Since November 2020 (Washington, DC: National Task Force on Election Crises, July 14, 2021), static1.squarespace.com/static/5e70e52c7c72720ed714313f/t/60ecbb773b84fb5bce43c7fc/1626127223644/Task+Force+Progress+Report+(July+2021).pdf.
17. Edelman, “These Candidates Say.”
18. D. Boucher, C. Hendrickson, and T. Spangler, “Trump Hammers at False Claims of Voter Fraud in Return to Michigan,” Detroit Free Press, April 2, 2022.
19. I. Dovere and J. Herb, “‘It’s Absolutely Getting Worse’: Secretaries of State Targeted by Trump Election Lies Live in Fear for Their Safety and Are Desperate for Protection,” CNN, October 26, 2021.
20. B. Bauer and B. Ginsberg, “State Election Officials Are Under Attack. We Will Defend Them,” New York Times, June 4, 2021.
21. L. So, “Special Report: Trump-Inspired Death Threats Are Terrorizing Election Workers,” Reuters, June 11, 2021.
22. A. Gardner, T. Hamburger, and J. Dawsey, “Trump Allies Work to Place Supporters in Key Election Posts Across the Country, Spurring Fears About Future Vote Challenges,” Washington Post, November 29, 2021; and E. Palmer, “How Donald Trump Is Purging GOP of Those Who Voted to Impeach: ‘2 Down, 8 to Go!,’” Newsweek, November 18, 2021.
23. See, for example, D. Graham, “Republicans’ Phony Argument for Election Audits,” The Atlantic, June 3, 2021.
24. D. Clark, A. Berzon, and K. Berg, “Building the ‘Big Lie’: Inside the Creation of Trump’s Stolen Election Myth,” ProPublica, April 26, 2022.
25. J. Ali et al., “Letter from Former High-Ranking National Security Officials to Congress: Election Subversion Poses National Security Threat,” Medium (blog), November 9, 2021.
26. J. Aldrich et al., “Statement in Support of the Freedom to Vote Act,” New America, November 21, 2021.
[Illustrations by Daniel Bejar]