Bad Losers

Election deniers are a threat to democracy. The midterms could be the last chance to stop them.

illustration of a voting booth in a corner surrounded and trapped by red paint
Danielle Del Plato

Chris Thomas has made democracy his life’s work. A 73-year-old attorney, Thomas spent nearly four decades leading the elections division in the office of Michigan’s secretary of state. He served under Republicans and Democrats alike, and his mandate was always the same: protect the ballot box. He trained local election workers; sought out and fixed weaknesses in the voting system; investigated errors committed while ballots were collected and tabulated; and, ultimately, ensured the accuracy of the count. Thomas was one of 10 people named to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2013. He earned a reputation as a nonpartisan authority on all things elections, and took pride in supervising a system that was stable and widely trusted.

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Which is why 2020 shook him so badly. Thomas had retired from the secretary of state’s office a few years earlier, confident that Michigan’s elections were in good hands. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, prompting changes to election protocols nationwide, and President Donald Trump began warning of a Democratic plot to steal the election. As Michigan rolled out new voting rules—some that had been decided prior to 2020, others that were implemented on the fly during the pandemic—rumors and misinformation spread. Wanting to help, Thomas accepted a special assignment to supervise Election Day activities in Detroit, the state’s largest voting jurisdiction.

What followed was surreal—a scene that Thomas could scarcely believe was playing out in the United States. Michigan had recently expanded absentee voting, allowing any resident to vote by mail for any reason. Because Democrats are likelier than Republicans to vote absentee—and because Detroit is predominantly Democratic—Thomas and his colleagues had to process an unprecedented number of absentee ballots. Complicating matters further, Republican lawmakers in Michigan refused to let election workers start counting absentee ballots until Election Day.

The effect was predictable. Because of the backlog of absentee ballots, Trump took a big lead on Election Night. As Thomas and his team worked into the early hours, Trump’s lead shrank. By Wednesday afternoon, it was clear that Joe Biden would overtake him. “That’s when things got out of hand,” Thomas told me.

Incited by Trump’s acolytes in the state party, hundreds of Republican voters swarmed the event center in Detroit where Thomas and his workers were tabulating votes. Republicans had their allotted number of poll watchers already inside the counting room, but party officials lied to the public, saying they had been locked out. So people busted into the event center, banging on the windows, filming the election workers, demanding to be let into the counting room. Fearing for their safety—and for the integrity of the ballots—the people inside covered the windows. Thomas says the decision was necessary. But within minutes, video was circulating on social media of the windows being covered, and before long, it was airing on Fox News with commentary about a cover-up.

Trump was alleging a national plot to steal the election, and now Detroit—and Chris Thomas—were right in the middle of it.

The GOP assault on the legitimacy of Biden’s victory has led to death threats against election workers and a lethal siege of the United States Capitol. But perhaps the gravest consequence is the erosion of confidence in our system. Late this summer, a Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of both Republicans and Democrats believe that American democracy “is in danger of collapse.” They hold this view for somewhat different reasons. Republicans believe that Democrats already rigged an election against them and will do so again if given the chance; Democrats believe that Republicans, convinced that 2020 was stolen despite all evidence to the contrary, are now readying to rig future elections. It’s hard to see how this ends well. By the presidential election of 2024, a constitutional crisis might be unavoidable.

I’ve met men and women like Thomas in small towns and big counties, public servants who have devoted their career to safeguarding the infrastructure of our democracy. Over the past two years, they have been harassed, intimidated, and in many cases driven out of office, some replaced by right-wing activists who are more loyal to the Republican Party than to the rule of law. The old guard—the people who, like Thomas, committed their career to free and fair elections—are witnessing their life’s work being undone. They are watching the rise of Trump-mimicking candidates in this year’s midterm elections and wondering if anything can stop the collapse of our most essential institution. “This election,” Thomas said, “feels like a last stand.”

The irony is that America’s voting system is far more advanced and secure than it was just two decades ago.

The 2000 election was a catalyst for reform. Mass confusion surrounding the showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush in Florida—butterfly ballots, punch cards, hanging chads—demonstrated that murky processes and obsolete technology could undermine public confidence in the system. Recognizing the threat, Congress passed a law to help local administrators modernize their voting machines and better train their workers and volunteers. Elections officials from around the country began collaborating on best practices. Several states introduced wholesale changes to their systems that allowed ballots to be cast more easily, tracked more accurately, and counted more efficiently.

There were hiccups, but the results were overwhelmingly positive. One study conducted by MIT and Caltech showed that the number of “lost” votes—ballots that because of some combination of clerical rejection and human error went unrecorded—had been cut in half from 2000 to 2004. Florida, once synonymous with electoral dysfunction, now has arguably the most efficient vote-reporting program in the U.S.

At the same time, the machinations that Americans observed—poll workers studying ballots through a magnifying glass, teams of party lawyers and CNN camera crews looking on—bred a public skepticism that never quite went away. In the years following Bush v. Gore, the number of cases of election litigation soared. The small chorus of congressional Democrats who objected to the certification of Bush’s 2000 victory swelled to several dozen following the president’s reelection in 2004, with 31 House Democrats (and one Democratic senator) voting to effectively disenfranchise the people of Ohio. Republicans could not return the favor in 2008—Obama’s margin of victory was too wide—so they sought to delegitimize his presidency with talk of birth certificates and mass voter fraud, introducing measures to restrict voting access despite never producing evidence that cheating was taking place at any meaningful scale.

Much of this can be attributed to what Richard Hasen, a law professor and an elections expert, has called “the loser’s effect”: Studies have shown that voters report more confidence in our elections after their party or candidate has won. But partisan outcomes are no longer the decisive factor: In October 2020—weeks before Trump lost his bid for reelection—Gallup reported that just 44 percent of Republicans trusted that votes would be cast and counted accurately, “a record low for either party.”

This isn’t entirely surprising, given Trump’s crusade to undermine our democratic institutions, which began well before he was ever elected. In 2012, he called Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney “a total sham,” adding: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty.” In early 2016, after losing the Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz, Trump called the chair of the Iowa GOP and pressured him to disavow the result; when that failed, he took to Twitter, denouncing the “fraud” in Iowa and calling for a new election to be held.

By the time November 3, 2020, arrived, Trump had already constructed his elaborate narrative of a rigged election. Republican leaders did little to keep their voters from falling for the president’s deception. In fact, most of them enabled and even participated in it. What began as a fringe movement after Bush v. Gore has spread into the GOP mainstream: Polls continue to show that more than half of all Republican voters believe that the 2020 election was stolen.

They are acting on Trump’s lies, flooding into local party offices, demanding to be stationed on the front lines of the next election so they can prevent it from being stolen. They have nominated scores of candidates who deny the legitimacy of Biden’s victory; seven are running to become the chief elections official in their state. Several of these Republicans—Mark Finchem in Arizona, Kristina Karamo in Michigan—are hinting at administrative actions that would reverse decades of progress in making elections more transparent and accessible, in turn leaving our system more vulnerable.

The great threat is no longer machines malfunctioning or ballots being spoiled. It is the actual theft of an election; it is the brazen abuse of power that requires not only bad actors in high places but the tacit consent of the voters who put them there.

This makes for a terrifying scenario in 2024—but first, a crucial test in 2022.

In August, when Michigan held its primary elections, all eyes were on the Republican race for governor. It had been a volatile contest; two of the perceived front-runners had been disqualified for failing to reach signature thresholds. Most of the remaining candidates were champions of Trump’s Big Lie, but none more so than Ryan Kelley, who participated in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and was arrested this past June by the FBI on misdemeanor charges. (Kelley pleaded not guilty in July.)

When the returns came in and Kelley lost, he refused to concede. Instead, he called for a “publicly supervised hand recount to uphold election integrity.” But Kelley had a problem: He had finished in fourth place, capturing just 15 percent of the vote and losing to the Republican nominee by 25 points.

It was a similar story in another closely watched Michigan race. State Senator Lana Theis, a Republican who’d co-written a committee report debunking Trump’s voter-fraud allegations after the 2020 election, defeated a MAGA conspiracy theorist, Mike Detmer, by 15 points in their primary contest. Detmer’s response? “When we have full, independent, unfettered forensic audits of 2020 and 2022 I’ll consider the results,” he wrote on his Facebook page. This pattern has played out in races all across the country, with sore Republican losers doing their best Trump impressions, alleging fraud to explain a drubbing at the ballot box.

“This gives me real hope,” Thomas told me in early September. “Because people understand, when there’s a margin like that, you lost. And if you’re going to insist you didn’t lose, well, now people are going to be skeptical of what you’ve been telling them all along. Is the sky really falling? You can only tell a lie so many times before people stop listening to you.”

His optimism struck me as misplaced. For one thing, these were just primary elections. Tudor Dixon, the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in Michigan, is herself a 2020 conspiracy theorist. In fact, all three Republicans on top of the statewide ticket this fall—Dixon, as well as the nominees for attorney general and secretary of state—have claimed that Democrats stole the election. Michigan’s GOP lawmakers have not allowed changes to vote-processing laws despite the chaos of 2020. In the event of close Democratic victories in November, we can expect another “red mirage,” in which the Republican nominee jumps out to a big lead soon after the polls close, only to fall behind as the backlog of absentee ballots is counted. The conspiracy theories will practically spread themselves.

Sensing my skepticism, Thomas told me there was additional cause for hope. Two years ago, the Republican volunteers who monitored the vote-counting in Detroit on behalf of the party were completely out of their depth; most had never worked an election, and thus confused standard protocols for what they swore in affidavits were violations of the law. Following the grassroots outcry of November 2020, the Michigan GOP recruited hordes of new volunteers who have since received enhanced training. Thomas says his first encounter with this new class of Republican poll watchers came this summer, on primary day in Detroit, where he was once again tasked with overseeing the count. “It was night and day from 2020. They were respectful,” he said. “There were no issues.”

Hours after I finished speaking with Thomas, CNN published a report exposing a Zoom training seminar in which Republican leaders in Wayne County, Michigan—home to Detroit—instructed poll watchers to ignore election rules and smuggle in pens, paper, and cellphones to document Democratic cheating. That seminar was held on August 1—the day before Michigan’s primary.

I want to believe our system of self-government is durable enough to withstand all of this; I want to believe Thomas, that everything will be all right. But as we spoke, it struck me that, despite his expertise, and despite his ringside seat to the unraveling of our democracy, Thomas is like millions of other Americans who can’t quite bring themselves to face what’s happening. Like so many of them, he clings to fleeting hints of a return to normalcy and ignores the flood of evidence suggesting it will not come. He still trusts a system that is actively being sabotaged.

Thomas has never belonged to a party. He remains proudly nonpartisan. But he acknowledges what must happen in 2022 for America to swerve off the road to national calamity. The Republicans who have made election denying the centerpiece of their campaign must lose, and lose badly. They will cry fraud and demand recounts and refuse to concede. They will throw tantrums sufficient to draw attention to their margins of defeat. At that point, Thomas says, maybe a critical mass of GOP voters—the very people who supported these candidates in the first place—will finally realize that they’ve been duped. Maybe they will abandon the lies and choose a different path before it is too late.

But based on the number of candidates who sold a lie to earn their spot on the November ballot, in Michigan and beyond, I fear it may already be.

This article appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “Bad Losers.”