The 2022 midterm elections, one year from now, won’t just decide control of the House and Senate but will also provide the first major test of Americans’ confidence in the integrity of their electoral system since the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
People who study campaigns, from academics to operatives, have sounded the alarm about voters’ faith in future U.S. elections given that former President Donald Trump has carried on with his false claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent, long after a “Stop the Steal” rally in support of him turned deadly.
Last week’s elections pointed to potential political upheaval in the midterms, but they may also have offered small solace to those worried about faith in democracy because losing candidates mostly conceded swiftly. And even in New Jersey, where the Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli has not admitted defeat, he has discouraged supporters from believing internet conspiracies and pledged that after all votes were counted, the result would be “legal and fair.”
Still, some of the ensuing political rhetoric offers cause for concern.
Many GOP congressional candidates and incumbents have sided with Trump over his 2020 election charge, even as he lost repeated legal challenges. Senate and House Democrats, meanwhile, have intensified their messaging that the political system is rigged and that new state laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures are designed to suppress voters.
“The ‘Stop the Steal’ movement has seeded both misinformation and disinformation about our elections system and has undermined confidence in the election process throughout the country,” said Meredith McGehee, a longtime advocate of campaign and voting reforms, who recently retired as executive director of government watchdog group Issue One. “There is the possibility that we could have midterm elections and a large swath of Americans — not the majority — who are doubting the validity of the outcomes.”
The success of American democracy hinges on voters’ confidence, or trust, in the electoral system. Without that confidence, turnout could plummet — and, as Jan. 6 proves, violence and lawlessness could erupt.
“We still have the Trump Big Lie that is metastasizing,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause. “Trust is the glue that really holds the system together. When it starts to erode, it really threatens the whole system.”
Groups, such as Spaulding’s, are gearing up for big efforts ahead of the midterms to combat election disinformation. They plan to dispatch nonpartisan poll monitors and scrub social media of inaccurate information, especially about dates, places and ways of voting.
Signs of optimism
Recent elections, including last week’s gubernatorial race in Virginia and a California recall before it, may offer some reasons for optimism. In California, the losing Republican candidate conceded. Ditto for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, who lost a race for his old job to Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin.
Katie Harbath, a former lobbyist for Facebook who is now a technology and democracy fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that such signs made her a bit more hopeful about the upcoming midterms, though she acknowledged that with redistricting, voters could still be misled and confused about their polling places or other important information.
“We’ve had candidates on both the left and the right concede and do all those things we’ve traditionally seen as part of an electoral process that we need to instill confidence,” she said during a recent discussion on election misinformation.
Youngkin met last week with Virginia’s current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, and the two pledged to cooperate with the transition between their administrations. Vice President Kamala Harris, who campaigned for McAuliffe, told reporters last week that even though the result wasn’t what she preferred, “it clearly was a fair election.”
A record number of voters turned out in Virginia. And Trump, with whom Youngkin did not campaign, urged his supporters to head to the polls as a way of winning “bigger than the margin of fraud.” It was a shift in rhetoric from the former president, who just weeks before had warned that his supporters would not vote in the midterms if the “fraud” that he alleges denied him a second term had not been resolved.
Republican operatives believe that Trump’s post-2020 rhetoric of election fraud depressed turnout in the pair of Georgia Senate runoff elections in early January, leading to Democratic victories in both.
As GOP-controlled states, including Georgia, have enacted legislation to curb some of the pandemic voting practices, including universal vote-by-mail, Democrats have said such laws represent attempts at voter suppression. Advocates say Democrats may want to reconsider their rhetoric about rigged elections, even if their aim is to build support for election overhauls.
“This is a perpetual dilemma for reformers, and I feel I face this myself,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University who specializes in political law. “I have to accurately describe a problem and its magnitude so there’s an impetus to fix it. And in so doing, I always risk, and reformers risk, alienating an already skittish electorate.”
Amid all that, “Turnout nationally is massively up,” said Doug Heye, a former GOP campaign operative and House leadership aide.
But, Heye said, he still sees reason to worry, especially about Trump’s messages, as the former president has sought to capitalize on a general weakening of institutions, from football and religion to democracy.
“What Trump has done is really weaponize that,” he said.
Heye noted that Democrats, too, had failed to concede elections, including Georgia’s Stacey Abrams in her 2018 gubernatorial race against Republican Brian Kemp. “Trump deserves most of the blame,” Heye added. “He has the loudest microphone.”
Trump, of course, won’t be on the ballot in 2022, but his endorsements, rallies and email missives are expected to loom large. If even just a few candidates in close races — in primaries or general elections — invoke his playbook, it could cause chaos.
At the start of this year, House Democrats were facing a decision over whether to support a challenge to a super-slim, but state-certified, win by Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s 2nd District. She was seated when the House first met, but Democrat Rita Hart, who finished behind by just six votes, filed a challenge citing specific voters whose ballots were rejected. The House Administration Committee opened an investigation, but Hart ultimately withdrew her challenge after it was clear not enough Democrats were going to vote to oust Miller-Meeks.
Still, it’s Trump’s message that has most election law experts concerned heading into the midterms.
“What keeps me up at night is this lasting perception among Republican voters, and especially Trump voters, that the election was stolen,” Torres-Spelliscy said. “It is very disturbing to me, the lack of faith in the democratic process that reveals, and how stridently they hang on to this belief despite the facts.”
Through the Trump team’s legal challenges, the judicial system “firmly has its feet on the ground and can tell the difference between propaganda and fact,” Torres-Spelliscy said. Also, some of Trump’s lawyers have faced, or are facing, disciplinary action, perhaps providing a disincentive for future candidates to take on similar legal challenges.
Matthew Weil, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, agreed that some scenarios, should they materialize in the midterms, would be left to the courts. If elections officials refuse to certify results for purely political reasons, Weil said he assumed a court would step in to force them to act.
“We had instances where people were toying with not certifying elections that did not have errors in 2020,” he said. “If we start seeing that, that would be a very big problem and not one the federal government can really confront.”
That’s what worries Richard L. Hasen, a law professor and author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy.” The 2022 midterms and, perhaps more importantly, the state and local races, he said, could pave the way for Trump to make his return in 2024.
Already, Trump loyalists are running to oust secretaries of state and other officials who oversee elections. In Georgia, Rep. Jody B. Hice, for example, decided against seeking another House term and is instead challenging Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a GOP primary.
Some longtime elections officials are leaving their posts because of threats of violence, Hasen added, leading him to wonder who might replace them and potentially making the midterm races all the more pivotal.
“When I think about the 2022 elections, I’m most worried indirectly about the 2024 elections,” Hasen said.