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The Election Sabotage Scheme and How Congress Can Stop It

The Freedom to Vote Act can halt this growing antidemocratic threat.

Three "I Voted" stickers are shown, with two crossed out
Paul Bersebach/Getty Images/BCJ

Over the past few months, the drive to allow partisan sabot­age of the elec­tion process had a series of fright­en­ing public successes. The Arizona State Senate concluded its partisan review of the 2020 elec­tion in Mari­copa County, a nakedly polit­ical bid to feed disin­form­a­tion and conspir­acy theor­ies. The Geor­gia legis­lature passed a bill along party lines to remove the elec­ted secret­ary of state — who stood up to requests to over­turn the 2020 elec­tion results — as chair of the State Elec­tions Board and replace him with a hand-picked chair­per­son. In Texas, the governor signed a law that targets local elec­tion offi­cials and poll work­ers with new penal­ties, empowers partisan poll watch­ers, and cuts down on access to voting. The Texas secret­ary of state also announced a dubi­ous elec­tion review, the day after former Pres­id­ent Donald Trump urged it. And in states like Missouri and Oklahoma, legis­lat­ors intro­duced even more extreme bills that would have allowed them to directly over­turn legit­im­ate elec­tion results. While these bills did not pass, their mere intro­duc­tion is a shock­ing affront to demo­cratic norms.

Follow­ing a legis­lat­ive season that saw many states increase barri­ers to voting, these laws and propos­als, often added quietly and late in the legis­lat­ive process, would change who runs elec­tions, who counts the votes, and how. They go beyond vote suppres­sion to enable direct elec­tion subver­sion. And they have a distinctly author­it­arian flavor. Joseph Stalin put it pungently: “I consider it completely unim­port­ant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordin­ar­ily import­ant is this — who will count the votes, and how.”

Legis­la­tion enabling partisan inter­fer­ence in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion is part of a broader “elec­tion sabot­age” or “elec­tion subver­sion” campaign, a national push to enable partis­ans to distort demo­cratic outcomes. foot­note1_juez­szl 1 The elec­tion subver­sion trend has been well docu­mented in several other reports in recent months. The States United Demo­cracy Center, Protect Demo­cracy, and Law Forward published a report describ­ing elements of the trend and analyz­ing import­ant bills to counter it. Another recent report by the Voting Rights Lab built upon this research and linked these bills to other devel­op­ments. And an analysis by the Center for Amer­ican Progress looked at partic­u­larly troub­ling subvers­ive legis­la­tion in Arizona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, and Texas. It includes partisan reviews of vote tallies to justify over­turn­ing elec­tion results and enact­ing new laws to subvert fair elec­tions in a grow­ing number of states. It includes attacks and pres­sure on state and local elec­tion offi­cials to subvert fair elec­tion rules or elec­tion outcomes. It includes the unpre­ced­en­ted push in the states to restrict access to voting. And finally, it includes a move­ment by major­ity parties in multiple state legis­latures to entrench them­selves in power through extreme gerry­man­der­ing and other discrim­in­at­ory tactics — an effort that could distort our demo­cracy for the next decade, just as maps drawn with partisan bias after the 2010 Census skewed elec­tions in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020.

While the partisan sabot­age bills have not been enacted into law at the same pace as vote suppres­sion bills, they are a new and danger­ous twist on the same legis­lat­ive agenda. Each is driven by the Big Lie that there is wide­spread voter fraud. And each is part of a broader ongo­ing partisan project to thwart demo­cratic elec­tions and rig elect­oral outcomes, espe­cially by under­min­ing or canceling the votes of people of color. Each is anti­demo­cratic and toxic to a free and fair soci­ety. And each demands urgent inter­ven­tion by Congress to prevent irre­par­able corrup­tion of our elect­oral system.

This paper briefly cata­logs recent elec­tion sabot­age legis­la­tion and the status of those efforts and explains how they threaten our demo­cratic system. Specific­ally, there are four categor­ies of legis­la­tion to sabot­age the elect­oral process: (1) legis­la­tion to give state offi­cials the power to change or reject elec­tion results; (2) legis­la­tion to give partisan state offi­cials the power to seize control of the elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and vote-count­ing processes; (3) legis­la­tion to restrict, control, or punish the conduct of local elec­tion offi­cials; and (4) legis­la­tion to make it harder to vote.

The paper then details the most signi­fic­ant legis­lat­ive solu­tion: the Free­dom to Vote Act (FTVA), a trans­form­at­ive voting rights and demo­cracy reform bill that would thwart most elec­tion sabot­age efforts. The Free­dom to Vote Act includes provi­sions targeted at specific elec­tion sabot­age threats. But its core voting rights provi­sions would also defang elec­tion sabot­age laws. By estab­lish­ing clear, enforce­able national stand­ards on issues such as early voting, vote by mail, and the count­ing of ballots, the Free­dom to Vote Act would deprive partis­ans of the discre­tion to suppress or discard legit­im­ate votes. It would also deprive partis­ans of the raw mater­ial that under­lies their phony claims of fraud whenever margin­al­ized communit­ies are given fair access to the ballot. Partisan elec­tion boards, for example, could not claim that counties had improp­erly allowed people to vote by mail if they were merely follow­ing unam­bigu­ous federal require­ments. The same is true for vote-count­ing stand­ards. Congress must act quickly and decis­ively to blunt the elec­tion sabot­age scheme before it gath­ers more momentum at the state level.

End Notes