As if voters and election officials did not face enough challenges, add a new one: election vigilantes. Not long ago, we worried about the threat that politicians posed to free and fair elections. When a state conducted a voter purge or enacted restrictive voting laws, open records laws and public meetings meant that we generally knew who was doing what and when. If police were stationed outside a polling location in a manner that might discourage voting, we knew what police department they were from. We could call the police chief or mayor to voice concerns and change behavior.
Disappointed with the Republican Party’s performance in 2020 and distrustful of “Republicans in Name Only” (“RINOs”) in office, a new breed of conservative vigilantes has emerged that is premised on election deniers taking matters into their own hands. As they see it, why wait for a state to purge voters when individual citizens can file mass challenges to kick voters off the rolls on their own? Why ask the police to monitor drop boxes or voting sites when armed activists can don tactical gear and do it themselves?
If you think this is an exaggeration, look at the recent images outside of drop boxes in Arizona. Review the complaints filed by individual voters who were videotaped, stalked, harassed and intimidated over the simple act of putting a sealed ballot envelope in a secure metal container. Read the decision of a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump in which the judge ordered one right-wing group to stop photographing, doxxing or yelling at individual voters who are simply trying to drop off their ballots.
The judge also ordered the election vigilantes to stop lying. Indeed, he went so far as requiring them to post the truth — that it is not always illegal to drop off more than one ballot — on, of all places, the ironically named site Truth Social. I wish that the posting of the truth on a site that exists to spread lies would do the trick, but it won’t.
The famed author Hannah Arendt is best known for coining the term the “banality of evil” to describe the way ordinary Germans became willing leaders of the Nazi regime. But it was in her later work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” that she captured the moment in which we currently live: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
No matter how corrupt or dishonest, even a state controlled by MAGA Republicans must contend with some undeniable truths. In order to run elections, they cannot suggest that the ballots printed were secretly sent from China or that the Italian government sent false results to the state via a secret satellite. Yet these concessions are viewed by vigilantes as evidence that the “deep state” must be in charge and cannot be trusted to protect the security of elections.
The Republican Party may be able to peddle more lies than state officials, but even the party has a limit. After all, the GOP needs its supporters to trust election systems enough to show up and cast a ballot — something that is senseless if the entire election was rigged.
Organizations promoting election vigilantism, on the other hand, have no similar constraints. They exist solely to spread lies and exploit their consequences. They don’t need to run a government or even support any actual candidates. There is a reason the election denier movement that fuels these vigilantes is led by Steven Bannon, not Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
In advance of the 2020 election, an advisor to the Trump campaign was caught on tape bragging about the fact that “traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places” and advising Republicans to “start playing offense a little bit.” He promised his Republican audience that in 2020 they would see “a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.”
The RNC had waited 40 years to be able to run the right-wing’s voter suppression program due to a court-ordered consent decree from 1982 that prohibited the GOP from involving itself in so-called ballot security programs. In the interim, the job of voter suppression had to be outsourced to fringe groups that were often long on rhetoric and short on talent.
In 2016, the RNC stood back and watched as Roger Stone created and operated StopTheSteal.org. After he and others involved in the effort were sued for violating civil rights laws, their efforts never became anything bigger than a catchy website and a few dozen people holding signs.
With the legal impediments lifted, the RNC was ready to prove its mettle in 2020. Yet, despite their boasting, the Republican plan for a “bigger,” “more aggressive” and “much better-funded program” fizzled. In an election dominated by mail-in voting, the party’s bravado failed to materialize into a meaningful program on the ground.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis became objects of ridicule and scorn as they went from state to state peddling fanciful claims that were swiftly rejected by the courts.
For the radicalized election deniers, the humiliating performance by the establishment in 2020 was too much to bear. Predictably, those extremists have taken matters into their own hands and are deploying tactics in 2022 that may mirror those traditionally deployed by the state or the party, but in a bolder, nastier and more destructive manner.
I wish I could say that we have seen the worst — armed watchers at drop boxes and tens of thousands of frivolous challenges to remove lawful voters from the rolls in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. I fear we have not. The election is still days away. And the counting and certification process will take weeks, if not longer. At each stage, voters and election officials will not only have to contend with overworked staff, aggressive campaigns and a skeptical media, but also with election vigilantes whose only goal is sow doubt in the outcome while threatening the process.
The cost of election vigilantism to our democracy is incalculable. Every time a voter’s name is removed from the state’s voter rolls, a citizen’s right to participate in self-governance is diminished. Every time a voter is harassed, our elections become less deserving of the moniker “free and fair.” Every time the “Big Lie” grows, the truth loses. I wish I could say it will get better, that the fever will break and civil society will win out. Maybe it will. But, if it does, it will not be soon enough for 2022. And that is tragedy enough.