“Not to be hyperbolic, but our democracy is at stake,” New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said recently. She’s not being hyperbolic, unfortunately, and it’s put new strains on the officials in charge of keeping elections fair and functioning. Russian interference is one real threat, but the biggest threat by far comes from inside the United States.
That internal threat to democracy comes from Donald Trump’s Big Lie. Unable to admit he just plain lost, Trump has been the ultimate sore loser. His January 2021 coup attempt may have failed, but he hasn’t given up, and neither have the Big Lie-embracing Republican candidates running to become their states’ top election officials, people trying to gain power over how elections are carried out while claiming, against all evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen. There are also local election officials, in office now, who have harmed the integrity of elections.
The Arizona fraudit showed how efforts to discredit a past election can also cause problems for future ones, when millions of dollars in equipment had to be replaced because it was compromised by being put in the hands of unaccredited people trying to find cause to overturn the 2020 election. Similarly, in Colorado, Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, told Politico that there are two ongoing investigations into whether local election officials allowed unauthorized outsiders to have access to election equipment.
”It’s incredibly concerning that the people elected to oversee elections are working from within to undermine them, and that phenomenon in itself is increasing,” she said. “States need to get ready for situations where folks in the secretary of state’s office or the county clerk’s office, or the county clerks themselves, are working to undermine the elections from within.”
Some of the harm being done is through misinformation and disinformation. Republican secretaries of state in Kentucky and Ohio told Politico that they were seeing the damage it does.
“The biggest problem I’ve got with regards to misinformation is we’ve got a sitting state senator who’s going around the state conducting a tour alleging that we’re having corrupt, hacked elections,” Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams said. “It’s not just fighting misinformation that she’s putting out to the public, it’s also finding out the misinformation that she’s putting within the legislature.”
In Oregon, Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said she’s developing ways of “pre-bunking” misinformation before it gains a foothold and becomes harder to dislodge.
Many, many, many strains of election-related disinformation and misinformation are coming from Republicans in the U.S. But not all of them. Election officials “expect Russia to be much more involved in spreading mis- and disinformation in 2022 and 2024,” Fagan said.
Meanwhile, the election officials trying to conduct fair elections and count ballots accurately while also trying to combat misinformation and keep the elections equipment safe from tampering are also facing unprecedented threats from Trump supporters enraged that they are doing their jobs. All of which is, again, happening against the backdrop of Trump’s failed coup, which involved an effort to seize voting machines.
So, yeah. Our democracy is at stake, and it’s not hyperbole to say it in so many words.