Quiet Plans to Steal the Election

by Mark Harvey

“I consider it completely unimportant who in the party vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this–who will count the votes and how.” –Joseph Stalin

In the game of chess, there are dramatic moves such as when a knight puts the king in check while at the same time attacking the queen from the same square. Such a move is called a fork, and it’s always a delicious feeling to watch your opponent purse his lips and shake his head when you manage a good fork. The most dramatic move is obviously checkmate, when you capture the king, hide your delight, and put the pieces back in the box. But getting to either the fork or checkmate involves what’s known in chess as positioning, and for the masters, often involves quiet moves long in advance of the victory.

I wouldn’t compare Republican operators to a Garry Kasparov or Magnus Carlsen, but in several swing states that could determine the 2024 presidential elections, they are playing their own version of a quiet game and positioning to win the election by hook or by rook. As opposed to a Kasparov or a Carlsen, there’s nothing elegant about their strategy, and what they’re attempting to do is really an end-around any form of democracy. It involves the chess equivalent of mid-level pieces—bishops, knights, and even pawns–and in some cases, political positions you’ve probably never heard of.

The Republicans have taken a clinical look at the demographics, the voting trends, and the results of the 2020 election and concluded that a traditional play of just big money and ugly ads won’t do it next time. Yes, there will be a lot of ads with dark music, photoshopped images (using the darkening and contrast feature), and the menacing voice-over saying, “Candidate X wants to free all the criminals, raise your taxes to Venezuelan levels, and concede Texas to Russia.”

But to win in 2024, Republicans are working to change basic electoral rules, install vote counters and election judges, and make it much more difficult for those who would vote against their candidate to vote. You don’t have to be a grandmaster of politics to understand the plan and to see it happening in plain sight. But I fear that the average American voter, due to either the hazards of having a real life or lacking interest, is missing the beat.

Ideally, American politics work like this: Our political parties choose candidates, those candidates get a chance to share their message, an election is held, the votes are counted by scrupulously honest people, the person who gets the most votes wins, everyone shakes hands, and moves on with life. Obviously, our elections have been adulterated with big money and nefarious advertising. Still, Americans have had reasonable confidence in final vote tallies, and the allowance of mail-in voting has helped enfranchise millions of Americans who might not otherwise vote.

The last presidential election shook Americans when the legitimacy of the vote count was challenged right up to the final certification in the Senate on January 6th. Of course January 6th was the most violent and disturbing act by those who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the electoral count delivered by the several states. But even before January 6th, election judges, secretaries of state, attorneys general, and even volunteers were threatened and defamed as they worked to oversee the ballot boxes.

Having failed at seeing their candidate win the presidential election of 2020, Republicans in many states have taken a page from Joseph Stalin’s book and are working to make sure that in 2024 their hand-selected people supervise the election, count the votes, and do whatever is necessary to deliver a win for their choice of president. Putting it bluntly, Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic, “With tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft.”

In a paper titled The Election Sabotage Scheme and how Congress can Stop it, authors at The Brennan Center for Justice outline the mechanics of a quiet coup. The strategy involves four basic components: 1) Suppress the vote and make it harder for your opponent’s constituency to get to the ballot box; 2) In case voter suppression doesn’t work, install your own cadre of vote counters; 3) If voter suppression AND picking vote counters doesn’t work, install officials who can declare the election results you want; 4) create laws that make it a criminal offense for officials not to follow your other rules.

Voter suppression is nothing new in the United States. At its most extreme, southern states made it nearly impossible for blacks to vote, with bizarre literacy tests at the polling places, intimidation and scrubbing voter lists. It’s more difficult these days to do the blatant style of voter suppression, so some states have taken to a more refined form. The favorite method is by limiting mail-in voting. By shortening application periods to apply for a mail-in ballot, reducing the number of mail-in ballot boxes, and shortening the periods in which voters can send in their ballots, states are lopping off hundreds of thousands if not millions of potential voters.

And the strategy to limit mail-in ballots has nothing to do with eliminating voter fraud. It has everything to do with the cross-section of voters who send their votes in using the postal service or dropping them in ballot boxes before election day: they are overwhelmingly Democrats. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Biden voters in the 2020 election used mail-in or absentee ballots, while only 32 percent of Trump voters did. It doesn’t take a Karl Rove to figure out that severely constricting the time frame and ease of mail-in voting disproportionately cuts into the Democratic votes.

According to the Brennan Center, in 2021, states introduced more than 400 bills aimed at voter suppression. A Texan law, SB 1, signed by the governor last September, is an example of the brazen legislation aimed at winning elections by restricting voters. SB 1 introduces a slew of rules ranging from the number of voters allowed to carpool to a polling place (no more than four without signing a form unless all are family members), bans drive-through voting, bans 24-hour voting, bans sending out unsolicited vote-by-mail applications, etc. The text of the bill cites “election integrity and security.” The bill will discourage thousands of otherwise perfectly legitimate voters from voting. This brings us to the second strategy, installing hand-selected vote counters.

The second prong of the quiet coup involves state canvassing boards. Their job is to certify election results after thousands of volunteers do the tedious and arduous work of tallying votes, county by county. State canvassing boards are meant to simply certify the results submitted by counties and present those to the secretary of state. They are intended to be like the umpires who write down the number of runs scored per team at the end of a baseball game.

By law, most states have the same board members per party and there is rarely a controversy—the job is clerical or ministerial. But various Republican parties from swing states are appointing board members who vehemently deny that Biden won the last election. So if there is a deadlock vote in 2024 on the election’s legitimacy, the certification will fall to the secretary of state in some states. Obviously, this makes control of that office extremely important.

And in swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, the 2022 races for Secretary of State are being filled by candidates who still think the last election was fraudulent. With their supervision of elections, and in some cases, their power to cast the swing votes to certify an election, the position of secretary of state across the nation has become a key piece on the board.

The third prong of the quiet coup is to install and empower officials at the state legislature level who can say yay or nay to election results without any scientific, forensic, or statistical standards for making those judgments. A recently introduced bill in the Arizona legislature illustrates this strategy. House Bill 2596, submitted by Rep. John Fillmore, is so half-baked and poorly constructed that it has little chance of passing (I assume). Still, Fillmore has included a section that allows the state legislature to approve or disapprove election results based on…nothing. Under his bill, once the ballots are tallied, the legislature is required to hold a special session and vote whether the results are legitimate or not. If they decide the election is unfair, any voter can sue the state to hold new elections. Fillmore’s bill is so incredibly vague, problematic, and filled with unanswered questions that, if passed, would create absolute chaos in Arizona.

In the same bill, Fillmore has proposed eliminating mail-in voting entirely (except for absentee voters), eliminating any machine counting, and requiring the hand-counters to have results within 24 hours of polls closing. Given the millions of voters in Arizona, the 24-hour requirement for the hand count alone shows that Fillmore really hasn’t thought this one through.

In an interview with the Arizona Republic, Fillmore said, “We need to get back to 1958-style voting.” Judging by his anti-democratic instincts, I wonder if he meant to say, “We need to get back to 1658-style voting.”

The fourth prong of the quiet coup is to introduce criminal punishment into the election process with the threat of felony prosecutions for violating election laws. There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to hold fair elections, but the measures to create election police that are being introduced by various states have a Gestapo quality to them (or gazpacho quality if you represent Georgia’s 14th District).

Florida has proposed a bill to create an “Office of Election Crimes and Security” to investigate and curb election fraud. If there were widespread evidence of election fraud in Florida, such an office might be warranted. But even Governor DeSantis tweeted in January of 2021, “Florida’s 2020 election season was a resounding success and model for the nation.” The NAACP considers Florida’s proposal to create an Office of Election Crimes and Security a transparent effort at voter intimidation.

In a February 3rd letter to the Florida House of Representatives, the NAACP’s legal counsel reminds the legislature of past intimidation tactics in Florida elections, such as being questioned about criminal records on their way to polling places and being subjected to checkpoints placed between black neighborhoods and polling places by the highway patrol. The letter states, “…nothing in the bill precludes this new office’s investigators from showing up at voters’ homes to interrogate them about their voting practices or facts underlying their voting eligibility, which could have a threatening, intimidating, or chilling effect on their future participation.”

Gubernatorial candidate David Perdue has proposed a similar office in Georgia to be called The Election Law Enforcement Division. Perdue tweeted, “This is about transparency and accountability. Georgians deserve confidence that only legal votes will be counted, and that anyone who tries to interfere with our elections will be arrested and prosecuted.”

The thing about these various proposals to spend millions of dollars on election police is that despite tens of thousands of hours recently spent by lawyers, election officials, and even partisans looking for widespread voter fraud, very few cases have ever been found. But creating new rules obstructing the basics of democracy—mail-in voting, longer polling hours, more ballot boxes, etc.—would give these election police far more opportunities for investigations and criminal prosecutions. The combination of arcane rules along with a new ballot-box police force would, in essence, make voting daunting, difficult, and intimidating.

It is a transparent strategy that is singularly undemocratic and adverse to everything written in the preamble to the Constitution, especially the first three words.

I used to play a lot of racquet sports and there was this one guy I played with who would cheat without shame. He would call shots that were clearly in, out, and would do it unconscionably and with regularity. For a long time, I assumed he just had poor eyesight or that if he was cheating, his conscience would get to him and he would come around. But the cheating never stopped and I finally realized that I was playing with a loathsome guy who considered our game scores –two amateurs who played a couple of times a week—important enough to lie about. I finally quit playing with him.

We have some cheaters in this country who are as unscrupulous as my former sports partner, but the stakes are much higher, and we can’t just walk off the court and find a different game. The stakes are democracy as we know it. Those of us who still believe in free and fair elections have to raise our game and beat those who would break the rules without compunction.

The chess grandmaster Emanuel Lasker said, “When you see a good move, look for a better one.” This weird unstable moment in the American journey calls for entirely new moves and new coalitions. Last month I cut a hefty check for Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney even though she stands for almost everything I oppose. Given Cheney’s lineage, I suspect she would happily drill for methane gas in the Wyoming State Capitol building if a petroleum geologist gave her the thumbs up.

But there’s little doubting Cheney’s dedication to the spirit of democracy as she risks her entire political career co-chairing the January 6th committee in an effort to see that another defiling attack on the capitol doesn’t happen again. So my check to Cheney is kind of like sacrificing a chess piece—in this case, many of my principles—hoping for an outcome worthy of that sacrifice.

I’ve also sent a check to reelect Colorado’s Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who is about as far from Cheney’s politics as Boulder is from Cheyenne. But, like Cheney, Griswold is fiercely defending legitimate elections in Colorado—and across the nation—even as she and her staff receive death threats on a weekly basis. And as we’ve seen, secretaries of state across the nation will play a crucial role in seeing that elections are done fairly.

Unless we pay attention to the ugly game already in motion and motivate ourselves in these next two elections with the clear understanding of what’s at stake, we will witness a coup by mediocre men and women with authoritarian instincts. With its dramatic beginnings, American democracy was not meant to be lost to gaslighting operators, to those who made fortunes on manufacturing pillows or insider trading, to those who frequent the gun ranges in toy-soldier fashion while wearing loafers, and to those who are, to borrow from Winston Churchill, sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A nation founded by men and women seeking to escape a tyrannical king was not meant to be returned to the tyranny of a cult.