COLUMN: Stopping the next steal, by Trump

Steven Roberts

"Stop the Steal" has a new and critical meaning.

That slogan has energized Donald Trump and his supporters as they promote their totally baseless claim that the 2020 election was rigged against them. But "Stop the Steal" now must animate Trump opponents, not acolytes. Those words describe the challenges of the future, not just the past – of 2024, not 2020.

Trumpists are plotting to undermine the integrity of the next election, to make sure their hero doesn't lose again. Those who cried fraud the loudest are preparing to become felons themselves.

Richard Hasen, a leading authority on election law who teaches at the University of California's Irvine campus, sounded this alarm on CNN: "The reason I'm so scared is because you could look at 2020 as the nadir of American democratic processes, or you could look at it as a dress rehearsal ... Donald Trump's false claims that the last election was stolen, and the claims that are now believed by millions of people, have greatly increased the chances that the next time around, one way or another, we could see a stolen election in 2024."

Public attention has focused, with good reason, on malicious attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to suppress the votes of groups that trend Democratic – the young, the poor and minorities. Nonwhite voters, who comprise one-third of the electorate, backed Biden by 71 to 26. Almost two-thirds of voters under 25 also supported Biden, as did more than three-quarters of those who said their financial situation is worse today than four years ago. So it's obvious why Republicans are desperate to diminish the political impact of these cohorts.

But that battle is only part of the threat. The next election could be pilfered not just through voter suppression, but through subversion of the system itself – not just in altering how votes are cast, but how they are counted.

"Election subversion is not about making it harder for people to vote, but about manipulating the outcome of the election so that the loser is declared the winner or put in power," Hasen told Politico. "It's the kind of thing that I never expected we would worry about in the United States. I never thought that in this country, at this point in our democracy, we would worry about the fairness of the actual vote counting. But we have to worry about that now."

"Election subversion" takes many forms. In some cases, officials who stood up to Trump's Big Lie – including a number of courageous Republicans – are being hounded from office. To take one example from Michigan: Aaron Van Langevelde, a Republican member of the state elections board who voted with Democrats to certify Biden's victory, was vilified by critics and denied reappointment.

In Georgia, Trump has conducted a fierce campaign against Gov. Brian Kemp, another Republican who refused to upend Biden's clear victory in his state. During a recent rally in the town of Perry, Trump called Kemp a "complete disaster on election integrity" and added, "I'm ashamed that I endorsed him."

Trump has promoted a primary challenger to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who also resisted his pressures to overturn the election results. At the rally, Trump denounced him as "incompetent and strange," adding, "there's something wrong with this guy."

Even more insidiously, Republican legislators are altering state laws to give themselves more power to influence and even overrule independent election officials like Raffensperger. As Robert Kagan wrote recently in The Washington Post: "As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature."

This subversion strategy is bolstered by an incessant campaign to convince Trump supporters that he cannot possibly lose except through fraud – a blatant attempt to sow seeds of distrust in not just the last election, but the next one. "In my opinion, there is no way they win elections without cheating. There's no way. There's no way," the ex-president told a rally in Arizona.

His campaign of confusion and disinformation is working. In a recent CNN poll, 36 percent of all Americans and 78 percent of Republicans say Biden did not legitimately win last year.

The danger is clear. When it comes to the next election, Trump is planning to be the violator, not the victim; the robber, not the cop. Friends of democracy – Republicans and Democrats alike – must mobilize. Stopping the next steal is imperative.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.

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