American Democracy Under Threat: The Battleground States



The 2022 midterm elections are shaping up to be the most dangerous and volatile of any in recent memory. In the last several months, we’ve seen white supremacists disrupting campaign events and armed activists showing up at election-related public events. Since 2020, a range of far-right and extremist organizations and individuals have become explicitly anti-democracy, rejecting the legitimacy of America’s elections regardless of a lack of proof of fraud or other electoral manipulation. Among these activists are members of militias and the white supremacist Proud Boys, often working hand-in-hand with far-right organizations to delegitimize election results and election infrastructure. In many cases, these organizations are spreading demonizing language against immigrants, such as the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, and other marginalized communities, in particular the LGBTQ+ community. As part of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism’s (GPAHE) work to protect inclusive democracy, GPAHE is publishing profiles of anti-democracy, bigoted activities and organizations in six battleground states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.

In 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. According to the Brennan Center, state legislatures enacted far more restrictive voting laws in 2021 than in any year since the organization began tracking voting legislation in 2011. More than a third of all restrictive voting laws enacted since 2011 were passed in 2021. Even more troubling, legislators in multiple states introduced bills to allow partisan actors to interfere with election processes or even reject election results entirely. This effort has gone far beyond measures such as harmful voter identification laws and into more fulsome attacks on how elections work and on election workers themselves. Furthermore, a Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) survey tells us that Americans’ fears are suppressing participation in the democratic process.

Click on the states in the table of contents to learn which organizations and far-right extremists are active in efforts to undermine free and fair elections in the battleground states and how they are attempting to destabilize or disrupt the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Far-right using Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ to gain control over elections
In many cases, these activists and officials work hand-in-glove with explicitly white supremacist organizations such as the Proud Boys and militia groups like the Oath Keepers. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, five Proud Boys are on the local GOP executive committee. In Texas, Allen West, a former Republican party chair, has held multiple events with militia members. For example, he appeared alongside other Republican state politicians at a rally with Stewart Rhodes, leader of the Oath Keepers militia, in March 2022, after Rhodes was under investigation for his involvement in the January 6 attack. In Arizona, Mark Finchem, a sitting member of the House, trumpets his membership in the Oath Keepers. The chairman of Wyoming’s GOP is a member of the Oath Keepers. 

These activists have also propagandized white supremacist ideas, such as the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which is now touted by many on the far right, including those running for office. Members of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), founded by an antigovernment extremist, also are creating distrust in the system by questioning the integrity of the vote. The organization falsely proclaims that the highest level of law enforcement authority is the county sheriff, not the federal government. Several members are now inserting themselves into the electoral process and may impede the work of election officials in the midterms.  

These efforts are no longer just activists advocating for more voting restrictions, but are now impacting electoral politics, with many candidates for office in the November midterm elections advocating for rejecting certified vote outcomes or manipulating the processes by which the voting will be held and certified. According to a Washington Post analysis of every election for federal and statewide office that has power over elections, in 41 states that have held primaries up to mid-August 2022, “more than half the GOP winners so far — about 250 candidates in 469 contests — have embraced Trump’s false claims about his defeat two years ago.” In six battleground states the Post looked at—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin–the proportion of election-denying nominees is even higher with more than 62 percent of nominees having embraced the former president’s false claims.

Instigators of this unacceptable behavior were first inspired to become involved in election denialism in 2020, buying into former President Donald’s Trump’s dangerous lies about the accuracy of that year’s election. They have continued to push the ‘Big Lie’ that the election was rigged and that further elections will also likely be rigged and are heavily involved in online “Stop the Steal” groups and more traditional forms of conservative politics, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Conservative allies of these efforts include Heritage Political Action and the Tea Party Patriots.

To gain greater control over elections, many conservatives are following Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon, who has advocated a “precinct strategy.” Far-right activists have inundated local precincts, signing up in large numbers to be poll workers and engaging in harassment of election management officials and volunteers, up to and including death threats. Since the 2020 election, county clerks, who often play a key role in election management but are often overlooked, have been on the receiving end of much of the harassment fueled by the ‘Big Lie.’

Much of the  GOP itself has aligned with ‘Big Lie’ supporters to “train” 15,000 poll workers. The Republican National Committee (RNC) is working with those peddling stolen election lies in a multi-state “election integrity” operation that is recruiting and coaching thousands of poll workers in battleground states. This rhetoric and action, as dishonest as it is, builds on the ungrounded fear of fraud in the electoral system.  The RNC is providing staff and resources to state-level coalitions led by Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who was a central figure in Trump’s legal strategy to overturn the 2020 election. RNC officials have been found to be speaking at Mitchell’s “Election Integrity Network” summits. At the events, Mitchell has talked openly about the need to challenge efforts by nonprofit groups aligned with Democrats to create a “new American majority” of young voters, people of color, and unmarried women.

Some localities have already attempted to interfere with free and fair elections. The Otero County, N.M., Commission refused to certify its June primary results after hearing from ‘Big Lie’ propagandist David Clements. It took a New Mexico Supreme Court order to stop their interference in the election. Clements and his wife, Erin, are now overseeing an election audit in Otero County, authorized by the County Commission. And in Nevada, the secretary of state’s office is developing new regulations for hand-counting ballots after two rural counties in the state indicated they plan to move away from ballot-tabulating machines, citing distrust of voting equipment, a common theme of election deniers. In a video posted earlier this year on his Telegram channel, which has 111,000 subscribers, Clements discussed the benefits of attacking the vote at the county-level with Jim Marchant – who is now the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state. “I articulated what we call the county commission strategy some time ago because we kept running into these bottlenecks, where you have to get an entire legislature to approve,” Clements said. Marchant, who has said he would not have certified Biden’s 2020 victory in Nevada, this year successfully lobbied county commissioners in Nye County to vote to end the use of ballot tabulators and revert to hand-counting, over the objection of the county’s longtime clerk, who decided to retire early.

As of mid-August according to FiveThirtyEight, at least 120 political candidates who deny the integrity of the 2020 elections are running for office in November. An additional 48 nominees have expressed doubt about the election’s integrity. And in four swing states, election deniers are in a position to oversee elections if they succeed in November.

GPAHE’s investigation into anti-democracy activities was non-partisan and included research into whether or not Democratic Party activities and activists engaged in election denialism and voter suppression activities. Though the Democrats are involved in some states in training poll workers in what it calls its “election protection” program, and in get out the vote campaigns that attempt to broaden participation, the party’s efforts do not involve restricting access or the right to vote or any propagandizing around the “Big Lie.” It also does not appear to have any candidates running for office who are election deniers. In fact, some democratic activists feel the party isn’t doing enough to engage voters or entice possible pro-democracy candidates to run for office. As a result, groups like So Run For Something are recruiting and training young people to run for state and local offices, especially often-obscure election positions across the country. So Run For Something’s election official recruitment program, called Clerk Work, has recruited nearly 300 people to run for local offices that oversee elections.

Election workers threatened
The harassment that election officials and volunteers have experienced has prompted a mass exodus from these jobs. According to a March survey by the Brennan Center for Justice, one in six election officials have received threats because of their job, and 77 percent believe threats against them have increased in recent years. And one in five of them say they’re “very” or “somewhat” unlikely to serve through 2024, and nearly one in three know another election worker who has left the field because of fears for their safety. Worryingly, more than half are concerned that new colleagues believe Trump’s lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, despite no evidence to substantiate that claim. The National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) reported it had “heard from state election offices in which every employee now has a concealed carry license and actively carries a weapon” and heard from “state election offices that have seen long-time employees abruptly give notice en masse with no jobs lined up, citing safety concerns; and we have heard from states that have lost 25 to 30 percent of their local election officials because those public servants no longer want to work in this environment.”

An August Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into violence directed at election workers revealed extremely troubling details. The Justice Department (DOJ) has reviewed more than 1,000 hostile threats against election workers over the past year, leading to federal charges in five cases and one conviction. During the hearing, a DOJ official described an increasingly rampant problem across the country, detailing for lawmakers repeated and often graphically violent threats that have targeted election officials in Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, and other states. Officials say these attacks increased sharply after President Donald Trump and his supporters falsely claimed that the results of the 2020 election were tainted. The DOJ reported that about 10 percent of the 1,000 or so complaints the DOJ task force received met the threshold for a criminal investigation. Their lone conviction came in June, when Travis Ford pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold on Instagram. A Massachusetts man was indicted in July by a grand jury for allegedly making a bomb threat in 2021 towards an election official in Arizona.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver testified that many people no longer want to be election workers and said she fears some states won’t have enough poll workers to run fair elections. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told the committee that her family has faced so many threats that her 6-year-old son recently picked up a stick in front of their home and said he would use it to protect his family.

Candidates and other political figures are also threatened
The harassment and threats of violence are not limited to election workers. In recent months, candidates for office and other political figures have faced significant threats of violence. Last year, the U.S. Capitol police reported 9,625 threats and concerning actions or statements of interest against members of Congress, three times as many as in 2017. The members of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection have frequently been the targets of violent threats, requiring them to get personal security details. One member of the committee, Republican Adam Kinzinger, recently shared a threatening letter sent to his wife last month. The sender vowed to execute Kinzinger, his wife, and their newborn son. 

In July, a man attacked Lee Zeldin, a New York congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate, with a sharp object during a campaign event. Two weeks before that, a man was arrested outside the home of Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, for allegedly shouting racist obscenities and threatening to kill her. Members of the House of Representatives will now receive additional funds to provide security for their homes. In Texas, a man armed with an AR-15 attended a town hall held by Beto O’Rourke and challenged him on his abortion stance saying “there are great men of God who are products of rape.” And another O’Rourke event was protested by members of the white supremacist Proud Boys. 

These threats have particularly targeted women and people of color. One study of online messages sent to 2020 congressional candidates found that women, particularly women of color, were more likely to be the target of abusive content. It is worth remembering that most acts of political violence today come from the far right. According to a study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, rightwing extremists have committed about 75 percent of the 450 political murders that occurred in the U.S. over the past decade. 

One in five adults believes political violence is justified 
These troubling developments are happening as Americans appear more supportive of political violence in general. According to a mega-survey released  by researchers at University of California, Davis, in July, one in five U.S. adults say political violence is justified at least in some circumstances. A much smaller portion of survey respondents, three percent, believe that political violence is usually or always justified. Other surveys have shown a similar rise in the number of Americans willing to use violence for political ends.  

At the same time, this volatile and dangerous environment is scaring voters. A July survey by GPAHE found that mass shootings, political and racial divisions, and extremist rhetoric and violence are all taking their toll on Americans’ sense of safety and security. Most significantly, these fears are causing Americans to be wary of involvement in the democratic process, including voting, as many now fear their polling places are unsafe. Young people as well as Black and Hispanic people feel the most afraid to participate and are the most likely to leave a polling place without voting if confronted with intimidation.

GPAHE is taking a closer look at how these actions are occurring in the likely presidential battleground states. In GPAHE’s state profiles, you will find detailed information about organizations and activists engaged in attempts to destabilize or disrupt the 2022 and 2024 electoral process. These profiles also include information on extremist groups active in electoral or other political activities in these states and document their ties to far-right activists.

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