By Punishing Raffensperger, The GOP Moves One Step Closer to Nullifying Democracy

The recent legislation passed by Georgia Republicans to suppress Democratic votes in future elections deserves the heavy attention it has received. It’s part of a larger effort in red states across the country to prevent Democratic constituencies from voting while re-energizing their own low-trust base.

But one aspect of the new Georgia law has received much less attention, even though in some ways it presents an even more profound threat to democracy. Republicans are still furious with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to bow to Trump’s demands to “find” 11,780 votes, thereby overturning the will of the state’s voters and hand Trump the election. So the new law strips the Secretary of State of authority over elections, handing it instead to an appointee of the gerrymandered GOP legislature:

The law replaces the elected secretary of state as the chair of the state election board with a new appointee of the legislature after Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s election results. It also allows the board to remove and replace county election officials deemed to be underperforming.

That provision is widely seen as something that could be used to target Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold covering most of Atlanta, which came under fire after long lines plagued primary elections over the summer.

Raffensperger’s office was notably displeased but supported the law, anyway. However, playing the good Republican soldier isn’t saving them from the Trumpist mob.

The direct implications of the new law are alarming enough: conservatives with an interest in voter suppression could use their authority to disrupt election administration in majority-minority counties. The possibilities for mischief by a partisan legislature fearful of high turnout by opposed constituencies are endless.

But it’s the chilling effect on the actions of secretaries of state in future elections that should terrify defenders of American democracy. Raffensperger was engaged in very public, very bitter dispute with then-President Trump over the election result. Trump’s actions were both immoral and very likely illegal. The House of Representatives was on track to possibly impeach Trump for his threatening phone call, until the events of January 6th presented an even more immediate danger to the nation that demanded addressing. Prosecutors in Georgia are still closing in on the former president for his cajoling threats against Raffensperger, empaneling two grand juries with possible RICO and election fraud charges in the works.

And yet Raffensperger is the one being punished by the GOP, not Trump.

The message here is clear: next time the Republican nominee for president demands that a Republican secretary of state invent a reason to simply give the Republican the state’s electoral votes, they will know they had better do so–or else.  The incentives roll outward from there: both secretaries of state and appointee overseers of elections will know they had better find reasons to invalidate the votes of Democratic constituencies or find themselves threatened and disempowered. The Republicans sitting on bipartisan election boards will find reasons to refuse to certify elections.

Democrats would of course challenge all of it this in the courts. But in many states, the end result will be deadlock and non-certification. That would in turn then hand the election to be decided by gerrymandered state legislatures, which often lean heavily Republican even when the state itself votes majority Democratic as a whole. The formerly small faction of authoritarian Republicans seeking to repeal the 17th Amendment will have won the day not only for Senate elections, but for Presidential elections as well. It would overlay a series of undemocratic gerrymanders on top of already malapportioned Electoral College that increasingly grants the presidency to the loser of the popular vote.

It would mean, in short, the end of American democracy.

Democrats have no choice but to act to build a restraining wall against the oncoming authoritarian tide. In this case, maximizing access to the ballot (as H.R.1 does) would not prevent Republicans from simply ignoring the final result. Ending the gerrymandering that allows state legislatures out of sync with their populations to overrule results will help. But that’s a long-term solution over multiple cycles, and this problem is immediate: it could easily impact the 2022 and 2024 elections. Federal legislation must strengthen the power of secretaries of state to certify elections, and require them to certify the actual results unless credible evidence of fraud is present. It must sharply curtail the circumstances under which state legislatures can decide election results.

Most importantly, Democratic-controlled states must act immediately and in concert to enact the National Popular Vote compact to bypass the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a ticking time bomb hovering over American democracy and warping it in myriad ways: it has long overemphasized the power and collective interests of rural white conservatives while increasingly enabling the loser of the election to become president. But the loopholes in its administration now allow a radical conservative party to threaten to nullify elections entirely.

The persecution of Raffensperger in Georgia is another step toward that outcome. It will not be the last. Democrats and independents who want to preserve democracy must not stand by and allow it to happen uncontested.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.