Republican Governors Are a Threat to Democracy

Red background with ballot faded into background, 2 state seals on the left-hand side, and black and white images of Brad Raffensperger, Brian Kemp and Rusty Bowers

It has recently become fashionable in political circles to focus on the role that state officials play in protecting or subverting democracy. The events leading up to Jan. 6 highlighted the importance of state legislatures in selecting presidential electors. The explosion of election deniers running for secretaries of state and local election positions has focused attention on offices that ensure the fair administration of elections. Sometimes overlooked in these discussions, however, is the central and vital role that governors play in the administration and certification of elections.

When counting electors in a presidential election, a governor’s signature is required in order to submit his or her state’s slate of electors to the Electoral College. When a Senate candidate wins in a particular state, that state’s governor must sign a certificate of election before the candidate can be sworn in. A governor — and their signature — often has the final stamp of approval, a powerful tool that can be used nefariously if placed into the wrong hands. While submitting signatures to the Electoral College has historically been a routine practice, a governor who refuses to certify accurate election results can wield tremendous power to undermine the results of free and fair elections.

What should be most concerning about this executive authority is that Republicans have nominated unapologetic election deniers to be their next governors in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Each of these candidates has publicly doubted the legitimacy of the 2020 election results, and none of them can be trusted to accurately certify election results in 2024. 

It would be a mistake, however, to only focus on the risk posed by Republican election deniers. Since 2021, we have seen Republican governors be willing participants in changing the rules of voting in order to alter election outcomes. Though more subtle than the post-election mischief promised by Trump-backed candidates, these voter suppression laws can just as easily deny voters the ability to elect the candidates of their choice.

In Georgia, for example, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has been a champion for legislation that limits the right to vote and empowers Republicans to disenfranchise voters. Already, as a result of the law he backed, tens of thousands of voters have seen their ability to vote challenged by Republicans looking to affect the outcome of elections by reshaping the contours of the electorate. The fact that Kemp did not agree to commit sedition in 2020 does not make him a hero; it makes him a citizen. That he sponsored a voter suppression law that targets Black and brown voters and empowers Republican election vigilantism makes him a villain.

But voter suppression laws are not the only way for a clever Republican governor to use their legislative power to undermine the will of the voters. If Kemp is reelected this fall, for instance, Georgia could enact a law to allocate the state’s electoral votes based on congressional districts. In that scenario, the candidate who won the most votes in a particular congressional district would be allocated the elector for that district. Under this system, Republicans’ gerrymandering of congressional districts would guarantee a Republican presidential nominee a minimum of nine of the state’s 16 electoral votes regardless of the statewide result, while the Democratic nominee could win the state as a whole but receive only six of the 16 electoral votes.

It’s great that Georgia and Arizona have recently trended toward Democrats, a result of demographic shifts and the increasing voting clout of communities of color. However, it is not predestined that this trend will continue. For every state like Virginia that went from red to purple to blue, there are states that reverted to red after flirting with battleground status. There is a reason that the North Carolina GOP enacted a new voter suppression law that targeted Black voters with “near surgical precision” after former President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012.

It is true that people of color will likely make up a majority of Georgia’s population by the 2024 election and a majority of Arizona’s population by the end of the decade. But it is exactly for that reason that governors like Kemp in Georgia or Gov. Mike DeWine (R) in Ohio will be under such pressures to halt the 2024 electoral power of the Black, brown and Asian American and Pacific Islander voters packed into urban districts. 

While we certainly cannot count on election deniers in states like Arizona and Pennsylvania to moderate their GOP-controlled state legislatures, we shouldn’t count on voter suppressors like Kemp either. He didn’t go as far as overturning the election, but he openly admitted to enacting voter suppression laws after he was “frustrated” with the results. We can’t let governors like Kemp fall into the shadows as election deniers get their spotlight. Getting Republican governors out of office and electing Democrats in their place should be our number one priority.