Democracy, poisoned: America’s elections are being attacked at every level

Item number 28 on the agenda for the March meeting of the county commission in rural southern Nevada seemed benign enough. But by the end of the hour-and-45-minute presentation Sandra Merlino, the longtime local clerk, felt sickened.

Related: About The Fight for Democracy – a Guardian series

One by one, a band of activists took to the podium to argue that Nye county should switch from electronic ballots to paper ones in forthcoming elections. They were led by Jim Marchant, a Las Vegas businessman who lost a 2020 House race but refused to concede, alleging fraud. He argued that the county couldn’t trust its electronic election equipment and that it should switch to a system in which it only used paper ballots and counted those ballots by hand.

Three other speakers offered a flurry of complex-sounding analyses purporting to prove that the county’s voting equipment was vulnerable to hacking. They included Russell Ramsland, a Texas man who helped Donald Trump and allies push outlandish theories about fraud after the 2020 race, and Phil Waldron, a former army colonel who produced a 38-slide PowerPoint presentation after the 2020 race, urging Trump to seize control of voting equipment.

Merlino was alarmed. She knew that what they were saying was bogus – the county’s election systems aren’t connected to the internet and there’s no evidence they were not secure. Counting ballots by hand was costly, not reliable, and would take a long time after the election to complete. “It’s so prone to error,” she said. “It just is a nightmare as far as I’m concerned.”

A longer count could also leave more time for chaos after election day, said Jessica Marsden, a lawyer for Protect Democracy, a government watchdog group. “That’s exactly the kind of change that would slow down the count, giving you time to sow confusion and cry about fraud – all the mayhem we saw in 2020,” Marsden said.


The episode in Nye county is just one example of a new poison that has seeped deep into the bloodstream of American politics since the 2020 election. While there have long been fights in America over who gets to vote, this new toxin is focused on how the vote is counted and on undermining confidence in results. Its prevalence has raised an alarming possibility that once seemed unfathomable in one of the world’s leading democracies – that the result of a valid election could be overturned.

“People need to stop fooling themselves. This is unlike anything that’s happened in American history,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor who was among a group of historians that met with Biden earlier this year to discuss the threat to democracy. “It is continuing and it is grave. And I think the country needs to wake up.”

The movement threatens American elections from the top down and the bottom up at the same time. At the top, there is a push to install statewide officials who would have no reservations about making baseless claims of fraud and overturning an election result. From the bottom, it seeks to harass, threaten and ultimately remove non-partisan local election officials and make it harder for them to administer elections. If there is an overarching strategy to the movement – and it’s not clear there is one – it seems to be to cause as much chaos, as much confusion, and as much uncertainty, as possible.

Since the 2020 election, this movement has enjoyed a once unimaginable amount of success. Candidates who questioned the 2020 election performed remarkably in the GOP primaries this year, advancing to the November ballot in 27 states. Facing unrelenting pressure and harassment, election officials are retiring from their jobs. And to work the polls this fall Republicans are recruiting people who believe the 2020 election was stolen.

So what’s going to happen is you’re going to get these people that are conspiracy theorists

Sandra Merlino

The 2022 midterm elections offer an inflection point unlike any America has seen before. Election deniers are on the verge of winning their campaigns for offices with oversight of elections. What happens in November will determine whether people who have spread lies about the 2020 election will be in charge of overseeing future contests.

This is why today the Guardian is launching The Fight for Democracy, a series focused on investigating the threats facing the democratic system in one of its supposed bastions. Building off an impactful series on US voting rights, it will scrutinize the movement to undermine election legitimacy, weaken voting rights and target election officials – a movement that ultimately seeks to codify a system of minority rule fundamentally opposed to the promise of a multiracial, multicultural, representative, constitutional democracy.

The county commission eventually voted 5-0 to ask Merlino to consider switching to hand-counting paper ballots. She resigned from her role shortly after and has since been replaced by Mark Kampf, a retired financial executive, who has falsely said Trump won the 2020 election. He is moving ahead with a plan to use hand-counted paper ballots in the election this fall.

Merlino doesn’t want anyone to fail in their job, but she said the change was concerning.

“Even though I’m conservative or whatever, I treat everybody the same. I’m a non-partisan when it comes to my office,” she said. “I think what’s eventually going to happen is you’re going to get people in office, good people, who feel that way, that they serve everybody, that don’t want to do it any more. So what’s going to happen is you’re going to get these people that are conspiracy theorists.”

Election deniers

A recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight estimated that 60% of Americans will have election deniers on the ballot in November.

The threat posed by individuals prepared to throw out legitimate election results is especially pronounced in the handful of key battleground states that were decisive in 2020.

That suggests a concerted effort to target roles with the goal of possibly overturning valid election results, a phenomenon that has come to be called election subversion. “It’s not just the number of election deniers who are running, worrying though that is. It’s the way these candidates have focused on the very positions that are most pivotal in determining the outcome of state and presidential elections,” said Jessica Marsden, a lawyer with Protect Democracy.

Doug Mastriano.
Doug Mastriano. Photograph: David Dermer/AP

Among the Republican candidates are four extreme election deniers running for governor in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Doug Mastriano, competing in Pennsylvania, was a central figure behind the plot to send fake Trump electors to Congress on January 6 even though Biden won the state by 80,000 votes.

There are also three extreme election deniers running for secretary of state – the top election administrator post – in Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. In Arizona, state representative Mark Finchem actively lobbied to overturn Biden’s victory and hand the state’s 11 electors to Trump; he has been involved with the far-right Oath Keepers militia and was at the Capitol on January 6. In Michigan, Kristina Karamo first came to prominence when she falsely claimed a miscount in Detroit based upon a basic misunderstanding of election procedures.

In Nevada, Marchant, who led the presentation in Nye county, is now the Republican nominee to be the state’s top election official.

Marchant, who is closely linked to the QAnon movement, is also leading a nationwide group of election deniers vying for secretary of state positions; should he win in November, he told the Guardian he plans to scrap all electronic voting machines and switch to paper-only counts.

Out-of-state funding

These candidates are being supported by a flood of money that’s unprecedented for secretary of state races, which have long drawn little attention.

In six states with competitive secretary of state races this year, candidates raised $16.3m overall as of the beginning of August, more than double the amount raised at the same point in 2018, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Not accounting for incumbents, who have a significant fundraising advantage, election denier candidates have far outpaced those who have not questioned the election results.

In years past, a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to name their own secretary of state, never mind one of another state

Ian Vandewalker

Much of the money is coming from outside the states where the candidates are running. Patrick Byrne, the former CEO, who has been one of the most prolific financial backers of election denialism, has been a major donor. So has Richard Uihlein, a GOP mega-donor.

“In years past, a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to name their own secretary of state, never mind one of another state. So the idea that a candidate could raise a majority of their money, as some of these are, from out of state, is very surprising,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, who has been tracking funding in these races.

One of the most successful fundraisers has been Finchem, in Arizona, who had raised $1.2m in his race, 59% of which came from out-of-state donors. In Nevada, candidates have raised more than five times the amount of money raised at the comparable point in past cycles.

“To some extent, it’s the usual suspects. People who have been involved in election challenges, including to one degree or another, January 6, who are either directly supporting candidates or are spending in ways that help them or their message,” Vandewalker said. “At the same time, there clearly is some degree of a broad base of financial support for these candidates.”

Eyes and ears

There is a long US tradition of politicians alleging voter fraud, a specter that in recent years has been used to justify sweeping new voter restrictions, including polling place closures, aggressive voter purging and limits on mail-in voting.

Making matters worse, in 2013 the US supreme court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, a historic piece of legislation from the civil rights era that was supposed to ensure equal access to the polls. As a result, the legal system’s power to protect minority voters from unfair restrictions has been blunted.

The push to put election deniers in control of statewide elections has been complemented by an equally forceful push to exert more influence over election administration at the local level.

One part is an aggressive effort to recruit poll observers and poll workers to be eyes and ears in the polling place.

Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who was closely linked to Trump’s effort to overturn the election, is playing a leading role. Working through the Conservative Partnership Institute, which is linked to Trump’s political apparatus, she’s held a series of events across the country encouraging people who doubt the 2020 election results to sign up to be poll workers. The group encourages attendees to become embedded in their election offices and to become a “permanent presence” in every election office and to determine whether government officials are “friend or foe”.

A second part of this effort appears to involve putting as much pressure as possible on local election officials, making it harder for them to run elections and seeding the ground for more chaos. Since the 2020 election, election officials have faced an unprecedented wave of harassment and many are choosing to leave the field. Nearly one in five officials surveyed by the Brennan Center earlier this year said they were “very” or “somewhat likely” to leave the field by 2024.

After the 2020 election, we just had to put up with kind of a barrage of garbage. Every day a new conspiracy theory

Lynn Constabile

Already beefing up security in their office, election officials are now being swarmed with voluminous records requests related to the 2020 election, forcing them to reallocate resources to fulfill them that would otherwise be going towards getting ready to run the elections.

Lynn Constabile recently stepped down as the elections director in Yavapai county in Arizona after working there for nearly two decades. Trump handily won Yavapai county, but that didn’t stop false claims about the election from spreading.

“After the 2020 election, we just had to put up with kind of a barrage of garbage that came our way. Every day a new conspiracy theory – taking up time that I needed to plan the 2022 election. So probably around last fall I decided I really wasn’t being effective any more in my county,” she said.

“People would call us on the phone and yell at us. I’ve been called a communist. And you know, it gets old. We got a barrage of records requests. I would get 10-page records requests. Just threatening that if I didn’t fulfill it, they were gonna sue us. You’re trying to do your job but there’s not enough hours in the day,” she added.

She didn’t get explicit death threats, but she did get menacing messages that said things like “watch your back” and “you should be nervous”. She installed security cameras around her house – not something she thought she would ever have to do. It also became hard to find people to fill both full-time and seasonal jobs.

“The people that were applying, they didn’t really want to work for us, they wanted to watch us,” she said.

Perfect storm

The multiple pressures bearing down on US elections could come to a crunch when Americans choose their next president in 2024. “We face a perfect storm,” Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book Power Politics: Trump and the Assault on American Democracy, told the Guardian.

“There are restrictions on voting rights, a toxic information ecosystem, political violence – there’s lots of mischief that could take place.”

With Trump hinting strongly that he plans to run again, the conditions for West’s perfect storm are all too conceivable: Trump stands, Trump loses in the same swing states that defeated him in 2020, Trump launches a false “stolen election” plot 2.0.

Only this time the forces of subversion are far more organized, sophisticated and powerful. Which is one reason so much is at stake in the midterm elections in November.

At state level, should election deniers win governor or secretary of state positions they would be empowered to wreak havoc around the 2024 presidential election on a scale that will make Trump’s first “stolen election” effort look like a tea party.

Take Finchem in Arizona. He has already made several unsuccessful attempts to overturn Biden’s 2020 win by decertifying results in pockets of the state. As secretary of state, the top election administrator in Arizona, his fraudulent ploys would carry much more weight.

Mark Finchem, Arizona’s Republican secretary of state candidate.
Mark Finchem, Arizona’s Republican secretary of state candidate. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

In Pennsylvania, Mastriano, should he manage to win his increasingly beleaguered campaign and become governor, would have the power to select the secretary of state who in turn would hold sway over how the count is conducted in critical parts of the commonwealth. The Finchems and Mastrianos would be well placed to throw out just enough votes on fake grounds of mass fraud to swing the result in their states to Trump.

“The way election subversion would most likely play out in 2024 is that the secretary of state would refuse to count a certain segment of votes, claiming they were tainted by fraud, and that would lead to a different slate of electors being sent to Congress,” Marsden said.

At that point, the crisis would switch to Congress itself. Here too the stakes couldn’t be higher in November.

Should the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, elevating Kevin McCarthy, an avid backer of Trump’s stolen election lie, to the role of speaker, they would be in a strong position to accept the electors sent to Congress fraudulently by election deniers in the states.

Potentially the only person left who could stave off democratic disaster would be Kamala Harris, the vice-president, who under the US constitution will preside over certification just as Mike Pence did in 2020. But should she attempt to block the Republicans from certifying Trump as president on the back of fraudulent state actions, she could trigger a confrontation between the executive branch in the form of the vice-president and the legislative branch in Congress.

“It’s all about power now,” West said. “If you have power, you can use it to your own advantage – we’re seeing a lot of that in American politics these days.”