Speaker of the House Mike Johnson is not just a casual election denier, a cynical pol winking at the MAGA mob. Johnson was the congressional architect of the effort to overturn the 2020 election, advocating an interpretation of the Constitution so outlandish that not even the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority could swallow it. Indeed, that was his only significant accomplishment in his few years in Congress. Johnson is a sharp-witted, bespectacled, smiling extremist.
Back in 2020, Donald Trump’s bid to cling to power had a problem. Recall that sweaty press conference where his attorneys Rudy Giuliani (now awaiting trial), Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis (both now criminally convicted) claimed that voting machines had changed votes, dead foreign dictators had manipulated the election, and so on. Proud Boys brawled on the streets of the capital. It was a dangerous farce.
In this maelstrom of conspiracy-mongering, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana had a plan — a legalistic-sounding claim that would enable his fellow Republicans to try to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
During the pandemic, state election officials and courts saved our democracy. They expanded access to mail ballots, increased the availability of early voting, and deployed drop boxes so citizens could cast ballots safely amid a public health crisis that killed 1 million Americans. In the end, we saw the highest voter turnout since 1900, and Trump’s Department of Homeland Security declared that the election was “the most secure in American history.” It was a civic miracle. Those involved in running such a smooth election during a pandemic deserved a medal.
Instead, Johnson accused them of breaking the law, based on an obscure idea on the far-right fringes of American legal thought. Many of you now know the name — the “independent state legislature theory.” Johnson argued that state legislators are the sole state-level decision-makers in federal elections,and that no one else can exercise any form of discretion, oversight, or agency to administer an election. It’s a baseless, ahistorical, dangerous, and completely bonkers reading of the Constitution. It had been repeatedly rejected by the courts when Johnson cited it, and the high court repudiated it by a 6–3 vote this past June in Moore v. Harper.
Johnson was the legal mastermind behind the doomed push to decertify the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He pressured colleagues to sign on to his effort, warning them ominously that Trump would be “anxiously awaiting the final list to review.
When Texas sued Pennsylvania, claiming it had not enforced its own election laws, the U.S. Supreme Court refused even to hear the case, with only one dissent. Johnson organized 125 colleagues to urge the Court to act. It would have upended elections in the United States.
Johnson’s election denial isn’t mere “one could argue” lawyerly guff. Johnson has ties to a movement that incorporates election denial into evangelical Christianity. Members of the movement held prayer sessions in which they asked for divine intervention to reverse the 2020 result.
Mild-mannered Mike Johnson is a no-holds-barred, hold-on-to-power-at-all-costs election denier.
How could this matter in 2024? It seems clear the election deniers won’t wait until the actual election this time. Their bid to subvert the results will start well before ballots are cast and counted. Johnson may preside over key proceedings. The bipartisan Electoral Count Reform Act, enacted last year, should curb his ability to make mischief. But one nightmare scenario is that a third-party run (such as one by No Labels) sends the proceedings to the House, where every state gets one vote, an outcome that last happened in 1837. More broadly, the most powerful Republican in Congress will be someone who has shown himself willing to subvert American democracy. He would be, in effect, a spokesperson for the end of American democracy.
In 2020, the institutions held. In 2024, Mike Johnson will hold the gavel. That should scare us all.