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US midterms could endanger global democracy

Michaela Küfner Washington
October 16, 2022

Donald Trump's MAGA Republicans are trying to get election deniers into office in time for the 2024 presidential election. If they succeed, who declares the results could soon matter more than who Americans vote for.

Sunset behind the Capitol
Is the sun setting on democracy in the US?Image: Tayfun Coskun/AA/picture alliance

There are few things US President Joe Biden and Donald Trump have in common. Currently, both agree that US democracy is under attack. And each says that he is the one to save it.

Only one can be telling the truth as Americans go to the polls on November 8 to elect a third of their Senate and all House of Representative seats in Congress. While former President Trump warned in a recent speech in the swing state of Pennsylvania that "the danger to democracy comes from the radical left" and "not the right," President Biden promised Americans he "will not stand by and watch" while attempts are made to take "the freedom to vote and have your vote counted."

Both see the upcoming midterm elections as a referendum on what path democracy will take in the US. Depending on the outcome, this vote could mark the beginning of election results being seen as a basis for negotiation, rather than an outcome that must be respected.

With Trump eager to make a "deal" at the ballot box, the strategy of placing election deniers on tickets for offices relating to elections in 27 states now sees him taking this to the next level.

Election denial strategy 

The January 6 attack on the Capitol in 2021 marked a violent escalation of Donald Trump's "election denial" narrative. Now, almost two years after he lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, in a recent post on his TruthSocial network, Trump continues to call for a "new election, immediately" as the "minimal solution." 

Screenshot of recent post by Donald Trump on his TruthSocial platform
Image: Twitter

That's despite an investigation by Republican election attorneys who concluded that the election was "lost, not stolen." Their report also warned that Americans "will lose our democracy" if they "lose trust that our elections are free and fair."

What was intended as a warning to fellow Republicans is now at the core of a new strategy by the Trump camp of Republicans who don't seem to fear that loss of trust. Even the person seen as most likely to beat Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, recently described the 2020 elections as "corrupt as hell."

Regardless of what happens with Trump, the strategy of sowing doubt in voters' minds about US democracy seems here to stay, as his "big steal" narrative has gone mainstream within the conservative camp. In fact, Trump has made it mandatory for candidates seeking his support.

Electing election deniers  

In this midterm race, Donald Trump only endorsed candidates who deny that Joe Biden is the rightfully elected president.

One of them is Kari Lake, a charismatic former TV host who, buoyed by Trump's support, won in the Republican primaries for governor of Arizona. Lake has said that Joe Biden "should not be in the White House."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake
Even in the primary race, Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake said if she lost, it would have been due to fraudImage: Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP

On stage at the annual CPAC gathering of right-wing Republicans in Texas, she went so far as to say that "God" had chosen her as governor and that she doesn't "believe for one second that God makes mistakes." It's only the latest of several hints that she is likely to follow Trump's playbook in not accepting an election defeat, period.

While Lake may be the most glamorous election denier running for office in a position important for election processes in Arizona, she is certainly not the only one. 

The Republican nominee for the Arizona secretary of state was spotted on video footage of the January 6 attack. Mark Finchem is a self-professed member of the far-right Oath Keepers; several of the group's members are currently on trial over the Capitol attack.

A third election denier is running as the Republican candidate for Arizona attorney general — the very man or woman who would launch and oversee proceedings around whether fraud is present when the 2024 presidential election results are announced.

If all three are elected, Arizona could end up with election deniers overseeing vote casting and counting, along with certifying and potentially challenging election results in a key swing state.

Donald Trump and his followers are repeating this pattern across the country. Having failed to convince secretaries of state in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere to change the outcomes and certify a Trump win in 2020, Trump is now focusing on changing the secretaries of state — typically a key officer in charge of organizing elections and crucially, certifying election results.

Intimidating election officials — and poll workers

Former Vice President Mike Pence was only able to certify Joe Biden's victory after the riots on January 6 because these officials had stood their ground.

Famously, Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stood up to Trump when the then-president personally called him and told him to "find" some 11,000 votes to swing the state in his favor.

This followed protests outside vote-counting centers across the country. One such protest took place at Philadelphia's Convention Hall in Pennsylvania. This is where postal ballots were counted that turned the trend against Trump, sparking the anger of his supporters. 

Lisa Deeley, chairwoman of the Philadelphia Board of Elections, stayed on despite receiving threats after refusing to "stop the count" on election night in 2020.

Lisa Deeley, chairwoman of Philadelphia’s Election Board, in Philadelphia
Lisa Deeley, who chairs Philadelphia's Election Board, says she received threats on election night 2020Image: Michaela Küfner/DW

"My circle is a lot smaller," Deeley says of the impact that night has had on her life. She warns that what is happening now "really cuts right into the heart of the foundation of this country."

Philadelphia, along with other cities, has stepped up security for its voting facilities ahead of this year's midterms. The poll workers that have stayed on now worry what these elections will bring.

Stress test for global democracy

Against this backdrop of intimidated poll workers and election deniers on many regional tickets, experts believe that whether US voters retain trust in the integrity of their elections will also have an impact on democracies around the world.

"The weight of the United States is enormous," says Staffan Lindberg, a professor and the director of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gotheburg, which analyses global democracy levels.

Its latest Democracy Report comes to the sobering conclusion that democracy worldwide has receded to 1989 levels.

While democracy is in decline, the proportion of people living in autocracies has jumped from 49% to 70% in the past decade alone.

Lindberg is convinced that whether US democracy stays strong during these midterm elections and beyond will act as a "signal" to autocrats around the world

"It's not only Trump," Lindberg says, pointing to autocratic leaders in Hungary, Turkey, India and the Philippines. Any slip in democratic standards in the US, he warns, could be seen as free license to other leaders eager to shake off democratic constraints proscribed by their own constitutions (and often enforced via US foreign policy).

Brazil's presidential election runoff between President Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva could become the next test. Bolsonaro has already publicly stated that he will not accept defeat.

If the US midterms see election denial turn into more anti-democratic action, this will matter for the future in the "land of the free" — and beyond.

Voters in Wyoming weigh in on path of GOP

Edited by: Sonya Diehn