Election deniers lost several high-profile races in the midterms and Democrats performed better than expected, but democracy remains in jeopardy. Indeed, these positive outcomes occurred in spite of gerrymandering, voter suppression and other policies that biased election results against left-leaning and historically marginalized voters. Ignoring the ways in which anti-democratic policies influenced the midterm outcomes leaves us with an inaccurately rosy view of our democracy and prevents us from recognizing the urgency of reform.
The stakes of this year’s midterms were particularly high as election deniers ran to take over top election official roles and governorships in key swing states like Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. The widespread fear was that these “Big Lie” proponents, if elected, would go along with (or even lead) efforts to subvert the 2024 presidential election. These subversion attempts might be overt, such as a GOP-controlled legislature in a pivotal swing state sending Congress an alternative slate of pro-Republican electors, despite most voters in the state supporting the Democratic nominee, or they could be hidden from public view, with key election officials manipulating enough votes to guarantee their side wins.
When nearly all of these secretary of state and gubernatorial candidates lost, it was completely appropriate to celebrate their defeat as a victory for democracy. But some pundits went even further, claiming that democracy was now safe, or even that it had never actually been in jeopardy in the first place.
Make no mistake: Election subversion is still a real threat for 2024 and beyond. Over the past year, both Georgia and Oklahoma passed extreme election interference laws that injected partisan actors into election administration.
In recent years, GOP leaders have begun interfering with longstanding election procedures in order to ensure that their preferred candidates end up holding power, regardless of the will of voters.
Congress has yet to reform the Electoral Count Act, election denialism is still spreading, former President Donald Trump is willing to adopt extreme policies and even incite violence to gain and retain power and future anti-democratic actors may be even more successful at subverting the public will than Trump has been thus far.
But subversion is only one of several serious threats facing our democracy. In recent decades, the Republican Party has made a choice: Rather than win elections by attracting more voters with popular policy positions, it will win by keeping left-leaning voters out of the electorate and, to be safe, limiting how much impact Democrats’ votes have on electoral outcomes.
Voter suppression, gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement are all alive and well, and the GOP’s reliance on them to win elections will only increase if subversion is less of an option. All three share the same goal of preventing marginalized groups from gaining political power. Disenfranchisement is the most direct approach in that it bars people outright from voting. To see it in action, look no further than criminal disenfranchisement laws across the country, or Republicans’ continued refusal to allow Washington, D.C. residents (almost half of whom are Black) to elect their own members of Congress.
By contrast, modern voter suppression often amounts to death by a thousand cuts. Since 2021, anti-democratic lawmakers in more than 20 states have adopted 42 restrictive voting laws. In 2022 alone, they proposed more than 400 bills that would make voting more difficult. There are the cumbersome voter registration requirements and restrictions; the voter ID laws that disproportionately harm people of color; the cuts to same-day registration and early voting options; the mass purges of voter registration rolls; the polling place closures and relocations and so on. Carefully crafted to target certain groups — most often people of color, but increasingly also young Americans — voting becomes hard enough to not be worth the effort.
Then there’s gerrymandering, which Republicans first embraced on a wide scale in 2010. Ahead of that year’s midterm elections, the GOP embraced a new strategy called the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, that funneled more than $30 million into state legislative races in states where they expected to redraw the most district boundaries following new census data. REDMAP worked extremely well, handing Republicans control of 56 state legislative bodies — up from 36 prior. As a result, in the next redistricting cycle, Republicans controlled the redistricting process for a full 210 House districts, compared to just 44 for Democrats — and the GOP was far more willing to draw district lines in ways that heavily favored Republican candidates.
In the most recent redistricting cycle after the 2020 census, the GOP successfully gerrymandered enough districts in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas to secure a winning margin in the House of Representatives. In some districts, like-minded voters were packed together to limit how many politicians they could elect. In others, they were “cracked” across several districts to prevent them from collectively electing a preferred candidate.
It is easy to see how subversion fits into this playbook. It’s the GOP’s missing failsafe — a way of ensuring that, even if liberal voters successfully navigate around voting restrictions and elect Democrats in districts biased against them, Republican leaders can still ensure their preferred candidates win.
But it is also clear that subversion is not necessary for democracy to be deeply degraded and for elections to be neither truly free nor truly fair. Moreover, just because voters overcame some of these obstacles in the midterms doesn’t mean we can ignore the harms inflicted by anti-democratic policies. America’s voter turnout, while relatively high in recent elections, still lags far behind that of other countries. A full half of young people do not find voting convenient. In a 2018 poll, about 15% of people who planned to vote expected it to be difficult; among Black voters, the number jumped to 29%.
An evaluation of the state of our democracy must take into account whether voters can easily cast meaningful, equally important votes, no matter which party they support or which jurisdiction they vote in — not simply look at whether the most outspoken authoritarians are defeated at the ballot box. By this measure, American democracy is on very shaky ground indeed.
Charlotte Hill is the director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. She recently sat on the national boards of FairVote and RepresentUs.