Fredreka reached out to Rick to get his views on the problems of democracy and how we can fix it.
Q: For years, you’ve talked about the threats to American democracy, whether it’s the corrosive impact of unlimited foreign money on elections or the potential for election subversion.
What keeps you up at night when you think about the state of our country and its elections?
The threats to American democracy have changed over time and have become more serious. Whereas in the past the issues were about whether we had a fair representation system (things like partisan manipulation, spending by ultra-rich donors on political campaigns, and concerns about vote-suppressing efforts), today’s concerns are more existential. It is no exaggeration to say that the United States came much closer to losing our democracy in the events following the 2020 election than most people realize. Had the January 6 insurgents succeeded in capturing or killing members of the congressional leadership before Congress declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential contest, we might have seen the imposition of martial law and not a peaceful transition of power. I am concerned about what will happen in 2024 and beyond, particularly given the fact that millions of people now believe the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, and some people who accept this false claim will be the ones running elections in 2024. .
Q: You say that democracy is based on the consent of the loser. What do you mean by that?
A democracy depends on election losers being willing to accept election results as legitimate. Of course, election losers are disappointed every time they lose, but most people complain and move on, acknowledging that they are on the short end of a fair vote count. If, on the other hand, he believes that an election has been stolen from him, he will not accept that the winner is in power in his own right and might take steps to try to “take back” the election next time. He creates a volatile situation come the 2024 election, particularly if Donald Trump becomes a candidate again and makes the false claims that he is stealing the election as the centerpiece of his campaign. There is every reason to believe that he would, given his recent public pronouncements.
Q: Earlier this year, a Democratic-led effort to reform election laws failed and burned out in the US Senate. Now, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working on revising the Electoral Count Act, an obscure and confusing 19th-century law that establishes procedures for counting electoral votes after a presidential election.
What do lawmakers need to get any rewrite right?
There are a number of things Congress needs to do to minimize the risk of electoral subversion next time around, and fixing the Electoral Count Law is a key part. The law must be rewritten so that no one can claim that the vice president, who presides over the ceremonial counting of votes in the state electoral college, can unilaterally decide to accept or reject state proposals. The law should be explicit that state legislatures cannot simply submit alternative lists of voters once people have been able to vote in the election if they don’t like the result, pointing to unproven irregularities or fraud. It should also raise the threshold for members of Congress to challenge the electoral college results.
Beyond ECA reform, we should require everyone to vote in voting machines that produce a paper ballot that can be recounted in a close race. That’s better than fully electronic machines that someone can claim were hacked and without any physical evidence to verify the vote. We should require states to conduct post-election audits to ensure their results are accurate. We need stronger protections for election officials, poll workers, and voters from intimidation, and tougher penalties for those who try to rig election results.
Q: In your latest book, you argue that “cheap talk,” the spread of information through social media platforms, is eroding democracy by exposing voters to massive amounts of misinformation and disinformation. What are the best remedies for this problem?
I refer to the term “cheap talk” in two ways. First, it’s about how much easier it is to spread information (and disinformation) not only on social platforms, but also through podcasts, cable TV, and many other ways. Second, it is about how our information system facilitates the spread of lesser value narratives such as misinformation about quality investigative journalism. The latter is more expensive to produce, but the economic model for producing it locally has collapsed as advertising has moved from newspapers to the web. Journalists have lost jobs faster than coal miners.
As I argue in my book, we need both legal and political changes to deal with the rise of cheap talk in order to give voters tools to make good decisions about how to vote according to their interests and values. For example, we should have better disclosure laws, so voters know if someone on social media trying to influence their votes is really who they say they are. In 2017, some Democrats in Alabama posed as Baptist teetotalers calling for an end to alcohol sales in the state of Alabama in an effort to convince moderate Republicans not to vote for Roy Moore, the GOP candidate for the United States Senate. And in 2016, Russian government agents posed as black voters trying to convince other blacks not to vote for Hillary Clinton.
In addition to things like enhanced disclosure laws, we should make it a crime to lie about when and how people vote, like sending bogus messages to voters and telling them they can text vote (they can’t).
In addition to legal change, we need political changes, such as public pressure on platforms to refrain from speaking out and individuals lying about stolen and rigged elections in an effort to diminish trust in our democratic system.
Q: We need to give people some hope here before we close. What can individual Americans do to help save our democracy?
Now is not the time to be complacent. Because the US election administration is so decentralized, one can participate in the conduct of elections at the local level, either by acting as a poll worker or observer, or simply by making sure that those in charge of the elections are transparent and Justice. People should also be prepared to organize in the event of political efforts to deprive people of the right to vote or a fair count of votes.
Now is the time for people on the left, right and center to come together to ensure that we continue to have fair elections and elections that people can believe are fair. There is a lot of work to do and no time to waste.
Flurry of new laws
State lawmakers across the country have passed a raft of new election laws in recent days as legislative sessions draw to a close. Here’s a look at recent action in two battleground states:
Voting rights advocates say the measure could result in thousands of Arizonans being removed from voting rolls, primarily affecting older and lifelong residents who registered to vote before the first requirement went into effect. state citizenship test in 2005.
Arizona currently allows people without the necessary documents to vote only in federal elections, but the new law will extend that requirement to so-called federal voters once it takes effect later this year.
The goal, sponsors say, is to prevent voter intimidation.
you have to read
- This analysis from the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice examines the history of Arizona’s citizenship testing efforts and why it may be difficult for some voters to obtain the necessary documents.
- A look at how Trump supporters, fueled by false claims about rigging voting machines during the 2020 election, are now pushing for hand-counted ballots in the Washington Post.
- CNN’s Tierney Sneed on how a federal judge struck down parts of the Florida election bill that the GOP passed last year.