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In State Capitols and County Courthouses, the Crisis of American Democracy Rages On
From California to Tennessee, state and local officials are dealing serious blows to American democracy
California and The Big Lie
Shasta County, California no longer has voting machines. As a result of embracing The Big Lie, which has imprinted itself on elected officials and local citizens alike in this deep-red part of rural Northern California, the county’s board of supervisors has moved to end the use of Dominion voting machines and taken steps to put a hand-count system in place until a new option can be vetted and selected.
But the reasoning behind this move doesn’t make any sense. After all, the Dominion machines were in place when the county supervisors now claiming they can’t be trusted were elected. Chairman of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, Patrick Jones, told Vice News, “I have questions about electronic voting machines … you know there’s a serious trust issue throughout the United States on electronic voting machines. It exists.”
This decision affirms baseless lies and sows division. It will also cost the county, as hand counting will require more space, time, and expensive human labor. The first test will come in November, in a school district special election.
Shasta County is unwittingly demonstrating the real, practical costs to ongoing election denialism. And the county may find it hard to land on a replacement machine, with one speaker at a recent public comment session arguing that moving on to another product approved by the government in Sacramento would be “akin to changing heroin dealers.”
The Shasta County Clerk eloquently summed up the problem:
We have a very serious foundational trust issue with elections administration. And the really hard part for those of us who conduct elections is we didn’t break trust with the voters. We didn’t break trust with the vendors or the candidates. Somebody decided to start lying, and those lies caught fire. We are now being asked, ‘how can you regain the trust of the voters?’ Well, I didn’t break trust with the voters.
Foxes in the Statehouse
On Thursday, Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives took the brazenly anti-democratic step of trying to expel three members who participated in anti-gun violence protests at the state capitol in the wake of the Nashville shooting.
The expulsion resolutions cited breaches of House decorum. Reps. Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson, and Justin Jones—respectively of Memphis, Knoxville, and Nashville—were accused of violating Tennessee House rules. Jones was expelled by a vote of 72-25. Johnson retained her seat by a single vote. Pearson was expelled by a vote of 69-26. It’s worth noting that Jones received two more yes votes for his expulsion than the last member to be removed—Representative Jeremy Durham in 2016, who was under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct with 22 different women. Besides Durham, there have been many objectively more scandalous activities that didn’t seem to warrant an expulsion resolution at all.
There is little dressing that can be put on this shameful display in Tennessee. The expulsion of these members reads as little more than an anti-democratic exercise in power. It is an attempt to intimidate and subordinate an already weak Democratic minority, and it needlessly and irresponsibly strips the representatives’ constituents of their voices. For this to be done as retaliation for an understandably heated protest in the wake of a tragic mass shooting is all the more reprehensible.
During Thursday’s votes, Tennessee lawmakers repeatedly made their contempt for minority dissent clear. Representative Andrew Farmer referred to their actions as “an adolescent temper tantrum” and told about-to-be-expelled Representative Pearson, “This is what you wanted; you’re getting it now.” It should be shocking to hear such comments directed toward a young man of color, who was still in that moment Farmer’s colleague and the representative of tens of thousands of constituents in Tennessee’s blackest city. Representative Gino Bulso offered a glaringly sanctimonious justification for why the members’ alleged breach of decorum couldn’t be excused: “Forgiveness follows contrition; it follows penance. We have neither.” The sense of superiority was palpable. The collective, if unspoken, “boy” being directed at Jones and Pearson was also hard to ignore.
It was a contemptible display of loutish thuggery dressed up as a rules vote. It was a gangland assault smugly delivered with piety and disdain. Tennessee Republicans took it upon themselves to browbeat and then expel two young, progressive men of color from the House for being “disorderly.”
In Wisconsin, the state Senate’s Republican supermajority—secured through one of the most egregious gerrymanders in the country—is already aflutter with talk of impeaching Janet Protasiewicz, the newly-elected state Supreme Court justice. Protasiewicz, who won in an 11-pt victory unheard of in Wisconsin’s contemporary era of bitterly partisan competition, now provides the liberal swing vote needed to strike down laws like the state’s abortion ban.
Dan Knodl, whose victory the same night as Protosiewiscz secured Republicans’ veto-proof supermajority in the Wisconsin Senate, stated during the campaign that he would be open to impeaching the liberal judge. While no imminent threat of impeachment has been made, the mere talk of removing a legitimately elected official, presumably for the infraction of holding to different political convictions, is chilling. And it reflects a wider problem in Wisconsin politics when it comes to Republicans’ attitudes about the right of their Democratic opponents and colleagues to govern.
Dan Kelly, the candidate who lost to Protasiewicz, is a MAGA-fied election denier who was involved in the fake elector scheme to keep Trump in the White House. In his concession speech, if one can really call it that, he lambasted Protasiewicz as “beneath contempt” and “a serial liar.” Kelly also complained, “I wish that in a circumstance like this I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent. But I do not have a worthy opponent.”
Kelly’s comments are anti-democratic, dangerous, and morally bankrupt. But they are not at all out of step with trends in many parts of the country. We only need to look to the legacy of Trump’s 2020 defeat to know that. Election deniers now abound. But more fundamentally, the Republican Party in its many state and local forms no longer seems to view their Democratic opponents as having the same legitimate right to govern. The Tennessee and Wisconsin examples speak to this, as do many others.
I’ll add one more. In Montana, the state Senate recently passed a bill that would alter the 2024 primary, in which lone statewide Democrat Jon Tester will be seeking reelection, to a nonpartisan, top-two system. To be clear, a top-two primary system is not by itself anti-democratic, and such systems have been shown to be helpful in reducing the hyper-partisan politics that have come to dominate American elections. But this move is explicitly, intrinsically partisan in nature because the legislation only affects the 2024 primary and, as such, acts as a laser target on Jon Tester. Rewriting the election process for the sole purpose of bringing down the opposition is nakedly partisan. Doing so in a state where your own party already controls every other statewide office mocks the very idea of popular government.
Montana is, generally speaking, a red state. A majority of its voters are moderates or conservatives. But none of that gives the GOP license to treat every elected office as if it is a birthright.
These anti-democratic measures matter because they mean that, at the state and local levels, many Americans are already experiencing serious assaults on the quality of the democracies in which they live. I say democracies because city, county, and state governments have a broad capacity to shape the civic lives of their residents. And these assaults on electoral and representational issues are doubly important because many of these local governments are also enacting restrictions on basic freedoms, from crackdowns on LGBTQ rights to expansive bans on abortion access.
To be clear, the cases I’ve described are largely ones where the conservative majority reflects a substantially conservative electorate—Wisconsin’s highly distortive gerrymander being the main exception. But even sustained electoral power isn’t a free pass to run roughshod over individual freedoms or to treat state legislatures and election systems like the personal property of one party.
I find it hard not to think of what someone might say if I were to detail the goings on in the state of Tennessee over the last 18 months without saying exactly what polity I’m describing. How would you react to the general news that a supposedly liberal democratic government had enacted one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the Western world, passed legislation restricting public drag performances, banned gender-affirming care for trans youth, and had just voted to expel two of its own members for participating in a protest against the lax gun regulations that contributed to a mass shooting at a school in the capital city? Would you think of such a place as a full, healthy democracy?
What if I said that residents in a nearly 4,000 square mile area were without approved voting machines because the local government believed the previously contracted devices to be untrustworthy thanks to the proliferation of extremist conspiracy theories? What if I described a place where, despite close elections that regularly deliver statewide popular vote majorities under 55 percent, one party has locked in two thirds of the Senate seats and over 60 percent of House seats? And, further, what if I told you that that party was threatening to use this lopsided power to unseat duly elected opponents?
Perhaps I could tell you about the detainment by police of opposition lawmakers engaged in peaceful protests. You could also consider the widespread issuance of public resolutions condemning “LGBTQ ideology.” Or I could cite highly-restrictive abortion laws leading to the deaths of pregnant women and activists who fear legal prosecution for helping to secure procedures for terminating unwanted pregnancies.
Ok, those last few things happened in Hungary and Poland, respectively. And that is exactly my point. Has American democracy fallen off a cliff? I do not believe so. But we need to face the reality that the spread of hard right political ideology, combined with a rising authoritarian approach to policy-making and a toxically partisan and conspiratorial cultural environment means that many Americans are now experiencing forceful, sustained assaults on liberal democratic principles from their state and local governments.