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How Jan. 6 Enabled Greater Interference In Our Elections

For more coverage of the Jan. 6 attack, read our collection of essays and reflections examining where we are as a country one year later, including what has — and hasn’t — changed since a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Following the 2020 election, much of the Republican Party embraced Trump’s unfounded lie that the election was stolen from him. Not only did this help precipitate the Jan. 6 insurrection and the enactment of new voting restrictions, as Nathaniel wrote about, but it also encouraged Republicans to embrace greater partisan interference in elections that could lead GOP officials to subvert — or even overturn — future results.

In around a half dozen states under Republican control, new laws have reduced the authority of state election officers who haven’t backed Trump’s “Big Lie” and/or allowed GOP-controlled statewide boards to more easily override or threaten local election administrators in Democratic-leaning areas. And that could be just the tip of the iceberg, as bills to create similar laws have been proposed in other states, too, as well as even more extreme proposals that would make it easier for state legislatures to subvert or even ignore election results.

For instance, some Republican-controlled states have even targeted statewide officials to reduce their oversight over elections. In Arizona, for example, the GOP took away the authority over election-related litigation from the secretary of state – currently a Democrat – and shifted it to the state attorney general — a Republican. Tellingly, however, this change is set to expire in January 2023 at the same time the secretary of state’s term ends. Meanwhile in Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s refusal to help Trump interfere in Georgia’s 2020 election result not only earned him a Trump-endorsed primary challenger who supports the Big Lie, but it also led state Republicans to remove the secretary of state as a voting member of Georgia’s State Election Board and give the Republican-run state legislature control over appointing the board’s chair.

New laws in GOP-run states have also placed local election officials more overtly under the thumb of state authorities, enabling Republicans to target the election apparatuses of Democratic-leaning localities. In Georgia, for instance, the Republican majority on the State Election Board can suspend local officials and appoint temporary replacements. County boards have the power to decide challenges over voter eligibility and certify election results, so this law creates a conceivable path for Republicans to influence the results in heavily Democratic counties by disqualifying votes based on challenges to individual voters’ eligibility — or even by refusing to certify results.

Laws in some Republican-controlled states also now include heavy penalties for election officials who supposedly step out of line. Take Iowa, where officials can now face felony charges for failing to carry out election laws or failing to follow the guidance of the secretary of state, who is currently a Republican. They can also be fined $10,000 for “technical infractions” of their duties. Such rules could have a chilling effect whereby local officials may not govern as they see fit out of fear of being targeted.

In fact, faced with such legal changes, threats made by Trump supporters and the stress of the 2020 election, many local election officials have quit en masse — a loss of experience that could weaken the election system. This exodus has also created vacancies in state and local election administration that supporters of the Big Lie have sought to fill. Coupled with the far right’s concerted effort to recruit precinct officers who often decide poll worker assignments and choose local election boards, the likelihood of future election chicanery motivated by Republican electoral interests has undoubtedly increased.

And this may only be the beginning. Graver threats lurk, such as a Republican proposal before Arizona’s legislature that could permit the legislature, by simple majority vote, to ignore the state’s presidential vote and appoint the state’s electors in the Electoral College. Republicans in Wisconsin are also considering ways to upend the state’s bipartisan election agency and assert partisan control over Wisconsin’s election results.

Rather than ebbing, the movement on the right to threaten free and fair elections appears to be picking up speed. The nation’s small-d democratic backslide is already happening — the question now is just how far will it go?

Scenes from Jan. 6, 2021

Related: A collection of essays and reflections on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Read more. »

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.