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Analysis

January 6 Hearings and the Big Lie’s Ongoing Damage to Democracy

Legislation is necessary to protect our democratic system and stop future attacks.

On Monday, the House Select Commit­tee to Invest­ig­ate the Janu­ary 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol holds the second of several public hear­ings to reveal a detailed account of the insur­rec­tion and the indi­vidu­als behind it. These hear­ings mark a pivotal first step in repu­di­at­ing the attack and hold­ing its perpet­rat­ors account­able for one of the most alarm­ing assaults on Amer­ican demo­cracy in history. Today’s hear­ing also serves an addi­tional crit­ical purpose: examin­ing the elec­tion sabot­age scheme that fueled the insur­rec­tion and its ongo­ing damage to our demo­cracy.

The damage, detailed in testi­mony that the Bren­nan Center was invited to submit­ to the commit­tee in April, is strik­ing. By track­ing the Big Lie that Donald Trump actu­ally won reelec­tion, our research demon­strates that a direct through line exists between 2020 elec­tion denial, the elec­tion sabot­age scheme behind the insur­rec­tion, and ongo­ing efforts to thwart the demo­cratic process. In other words, the same Big Lie that fueled the insur­rec­tion contin­ues to rever­ber­ate across the coun­try, driv­ing bids to under­mine voting rights, inter­fere with elect­oral processes, and attack impar­tial elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors.

Of course, it bears repeat­ing that the Big Lie is, in fact, a lie. Its theory of a “stolen” elec­tion relies on racially charged alleg­a­tions of voter fraud, ballot irreg­u­lar­it­ies, and conspir­acies to other­wise “rig” the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Each of these claims has been thor­oughly disproven. None of the more than 60 lawsuits chal­len­ging the results of the 2020 elec­tion succeeded in prov­ing fraud, and Pres­id­ent Trump’s own offi­cials deemed the 2020 elec­tion “the most secure in Amer­ican history.” Nonethe­less, these false claims drove the brazen scheme to over­turn the elec­tion results through vote suppres­sionbase­less litig­a­tion, and even outright attempts to over­ride legit­im­ate votes. Together, these efforts spiraled into the Janu­ary 6 attack. But while this plot may have failed, the Big Lie is far from over.

Take, for example, aggress­ive devel­op­ments in state legis­latures. Efforts to pass restrict­ive voting laws hit unpre­ced­en­ted heights follow­ing the 2020 elec­tion and continue at a rapid pace this year. States also face a new, burgeon­ing trend in the form of legis­la­tion that enables partisan actors to meddle in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and vote-count­ing processes — other­wise known as elec­tion inter­fer­ence legis­la­tion.

These attacks are not coin­cid­ental. Bren­nan Center research found that in 2021, the vast major­ity of these bills were sponsored by the same state legis­lat­ors who publicly ques­tioned the valid­ity of the 2020 elec­tion. And in many cases, these spon­sors justi­fied their legis­la­tion using the same discred­ited claims of wide­spread voter fraud and a stolen elec­tion that fueled the insur­rec­tion.

Our research also compared the text of new restrict­ive voting and elec­tion inter­fer­ence legis­la­tion with false alleg­a­tions made in lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies to over­turn the 2020 elec­tion. Like clock­work, the same disproven theor­ies of wide­spread voter fraud, ballot irreg­u­lar­it­ies, and conspir­acies made in those lawsuits resur­faced with remark­able specificity in legis­la­tion intro­duced in 2021. Indeed, of the 17 states in which courts reviewed lawsuits chal­len­ging the 2020 elec­tion, 15 saw legis­la­tion that directly incor­por­ated false claims from those suits.

Make no mistake — these legis­lat­ive attacks work as inten­ded. Mount­ing evid­ence shows that new voting restric­tions already are disen­fran­chising voters, partic­u­larly voters of color, in post-2020 elec­tions.

Beyond legis­la­tion, the Big Lie’s damage also extends to attacks on impar­tial elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. Across the coun­try, vigil­antes (and in some cases, other state offi­cials) are invok­ing false claims of voter fraud and a stolen elec­tion to threaten offi­cials from both parties for simply doing their job. These attacks — which range from racist and gendered harass­ment and death threats to threats of crim­inal prosec­u­tion — risk creat­ing a reten­tion crisis among exper­i­enced elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. Dozens of offi­cials in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wiscon­sin, and Nevada already left their posi­tions. Nation­wide, one in five local elec­tion offi­cials surveyed by the Bren­nan Center plan to leave their posi­tion before 2024.

As many elec­tion offi­cials prepare to resign, elec­tion denial also threatens to upend the races by which many of them are chosen. This year, for example, 27 states will hold elec­tions for secret­ary of state — the offi­cial who typic­ally serves as a state’s chief elec­tion officer. At least 21 current candid­ates in these races espouse the Big Lie’s theory of a stolen elec­tion. And as this disin­form­a­tion prolif­er­ates, campaigns are rais­ing more money, from more donors, with greater reli­ance than ever before on out-of-state dona­tions. In other words, as Big Lie–driven onslaughts push exper­i­enced elec­tion offi­cials out of their posi­tions, their replace­ments will in many instances emerge from polit­ic­ally charged, nation­al­ized races featur­ing elec­tion deniers. Look no further than last month’s primary elec­tions to see this phenomenon in action.

The insur­rec­tion made one thing clear: our exist­ing guard­rails cannot protect us from anti­demo­cratic attacks. As the Big Lie contin­ues to wreak havoc on our demo­cracy, and with the 2024 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion around the corner, inac­tion is not an option.

In the short term, Amer­ic­ans and our insti­tu­tions must mobil­ize to stave off the current wave of attacks. Many sectors of soci­ety and govern­ment have a role to play in thwart­ing Big Lie–driven efforts to sabot­age future elec­tions. And we know that this mobil­iz­a­tion works. Even when confron­ted with a global pandemic and disin­form­a­tion-fueled assaults on voters and the elect­oral process, 2020 saw a wide range of forces — includ­ing elec­tion offi­cials, other state govern­ment entit­ies, courts, community groups, busi­nesses, and journ­al­ists — mobil­ize to safe­guard the elec­tion with great success.

Ulti­mately, Congress also must act to strengthen our demo­cratic guard­rails. The push to outrun or out-organ­ize vote suppres­sion and elec­tion inter­fer­ence, while essen­tial, can only go so far and last for so long. The narrowly defeated Free­dom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would address many of these prob­lems by, for example, estab­lish­ing national stand­ards for cast­ing and count­ing ballots in federal elec­tions and revital­iz­ing the Voting Rights Act’s protec­tions against racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting. It also would limit oppor­tun­it­ies for partisan inter­fer­ence in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, increase protec­tions for elec­tion offi­cials, and curb disin­form­a­tion in elec­tions.

Passing legis­la­tion will require rally­ing sustained polit­ical pres­sure, and the commit­tee’s hear­ings provide a crit­ical oppor­tun­ity to do exactly that. The multi­pronged plot to over­turn the elec­tion and the viol­ent events of Janu­ary 6 must never happen again, and legis­la­tion remains the best and only way to ensure that history never repeats itself. We must demand it.