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Democracy Wins the 2022 Midterms

Our election systems performed well under the undeserved spotlight of election denial.

November 9, 2022

Democracy had a good day on Tuesday. Our election systems faced extraordinary pressure and held up well. The elections were free, fair, and emphatically calm. Elections like this teach lessons and shape narratives. This year the health of our democracy was a central topic for the first time in years – and the public made clear what it thought.   

Dozens of Brennan Center experts worked intensely all day in three war rooms in our offices monitoring elections across the country and working with local and state voting rights groups. (Yes, in person! Lots of food.) Here is some of what they found:  

The inevitable glitches were minor, short-lived, and did not prevent anyone from voting 

Collecting and counting more than 100 million votes, many of them on a single day, is a monumental task. It cannot be done without hiccups.  Overall, there were minimal disruptions, quickly addressed.  

For example, printers malfunctioned in Arizona. Within a few hours, technicians fixed the problem, and all votes will be counted. In Detroit, computers stopped working properly. Officials quickly switched paper ballots, and again, votes were counted. Donald Trump decried that snafu as “REALLY BAD” and urged his followers to “Protest, Protest, Protest!” And yet, by day’s end, the election deniers had been largely drowned out by the indisputable competence of our election officials.  

Americans don’t want election deniers administering elections  

Politicians who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen ran for offices with authority over election administration in several states. Voters made clear they did not want the machinery of democracy run by conspiracy theorists. Candidates for secretary of state in Michigan and for governor in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were defeated. (Doug Mastriano, who helped organize the January 6th insurrection before running for PA governor, lost by double digits.) In Arizona and Nevada, while votes are still being tallied, election deniers ran behind other Republican candidates.  

Voters were not intimidated 

Voters had a calm and safe experience. In one publicized example before election day, armed men intimidated voters at drop-boxes in Maricopa County, Arizona. A federal court made clear that was illegal. Such intimidation is, in fact, illegal across the country — as well as intimidation of election workers. This year as in other years, vigilante threats proved little more than braggadocio. In most cases, well trained election officials effectively de-escalated. Other cases of voter or poll worker intimidation were referred to law enforcement. 

At the same time, while it’s too early to tell for sure, the wave of restrictive voting laws passed in 2021 and 2022 appears to have had a meaningful impact — especially on voters of color. In Georgia, for example, primary turnout was high this year, but the gap in participation rates between Black and white voters was wider than before. In Texas, some 25,000 ballots in the primaries were returned due to arcane administrative requirements, disproportionately Latino and Black.

Redistricting commissions worked 

When it came to the election districts this year, we saw a tale of two countries. In much of the country, especially single-party red states in the South and Southwest, there were egregious gerrymanders. This was, after all, the first election where district lines were drawn after the Supreme Court gutted most of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County and Brnovich. Racial gerrymandering and partisan abuse abounded.

In other parts of the country, though, this year’s election was much better than before. In Pennsylvania, for example, divided government led to a fairer set of district lines, since neither party could gerrymander at will. In Michigan, a ballot initiative produced notably fair maps. Brennan Center redistricting expert Michael Li refers to Michigan as a “jump ball state.” But, due to gerrymandering, it hasn’t behaved that way. Democrats haven’t controlled the state legislature for 40 years. Now control of the legislature has flipped, and Democrats appear to control 20 of 38 seats, which means Republicans have a fighting chance to take back control next time around. That’s how it should work: close-run competitions that force candidates to respond to the needs of the majority of voters, including reflecting the racial diversity of the state.  

Money still talks

Billionaires had spent $880 million on the midterm elections as of last week. That means roughly 735 people (0.0002 percent of the U.S. population) represented more than five percent of election spending.

As a topline number, the political spending of billionaires is worrisome. But look at individual cases, and it only gets worse. In the primary alone, venture capitalist Peter Thiel spent $15 million supporting a single candidate, Ohio’s new Senator-elect J.D. Vance. It isn’t healthy for a U.S. senator to owe so much of his success to one contributor. It isn’t healthy for candidates across the political spectrum to owe so much to so few contributors. The U.S. government is not an investment vehicle for the ultra-wealthy. It’s a problem we must address, sooner rather than later.