Maeve Higgins: As US gets ready to vote, the stakes have never felt higher
On Tuesday, US voters are deciding who to represent them in The Senate, The House of Representatives, and dozens of State governorships are on the ballot too. The stakes feel high; are they higher than ever before? Is it something politicians say every election?
Maybe it seems so crucial because I live here and am paying attention during the run-up. But the truth is many Republican candidates are running because they want to overturn the results of the 2020 general election.
Some 291 Republican nominees — a majority of those running — have denied or questioned the election results, according to a Washington Post analysis. It seems unhinged, and the anxiety is ubiquitous.
The Democrats barely have a majority in Congress, with the Senate an exact 50-50 split, meaning just vice president Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote gives them the advantage.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s control of the House is razor-thin too. This week, all 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats are on the ballot. And 36 out of 50 states will elect governors as well. But it’s not just the tight race for power that electrifies the voters this time; treating it like another hum-drum election means detaching yourself from reality.
On Wednesday evening, during a speech in Washington DC, President Biden stated: “We can’t take democracy for granted any longer.”
He was speaking within a mile of the US Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters tried to stop the certification of the 2020 election. In January 2021, that mob believed, or claimed to believe, the lie that Trump had somehow won that election and it was stolen from him. Many still believe that today and have threatened that they will not accept the results of the midterm election if it doesn’t go their way — a dark scenario Biden referenced in his speech.
“As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America — for governor, for Congress, for attorney general, for secretary of state who won’t commit to accepting the results of the elections they’re in,” Biden said. “That is the path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it is un-American.”
The thing is, of course, that the path to chaos is not un-American. There have been moments like this in the past, contested elections before, elections that set the country’s direction long ago. The anniversary of one such election happens to be this week, just one day before the midterms.
On November 7, 2000, the American presidential election was held. It took weeks to codify, following a long wait for the results from Florida, whose then-governor Jeb Bush was George W Bush’s brother and a decision by the Supreme Court.
I spoke to Andrew Rice, author of the book The Year That Broke America, in which he writes about the toxic fallout of that election and the other crises that befell the US that fateful year. Curiously, he explained that there wasn’t much consternation in the lead-up.
“It certainly wasn’t the way it is today in which every election feels as if the stakes are existential,” Rice continued. “It used to be that both parties were able to live with the result rather than feel as if the very fate of the nation was at stake.”
All was calm; the two leading candidates were not wildly far apart, ideologically speaking. Republican George W Bush sold himself as a “compassionate Conservative” and Democrat Al Gore was similarly centrist. However, there was voter suppression, particularly of black voters. That has only worsened in the years since, with gerrymandering and several states passing legislation that makes it more difficult to vote than in previous years.
In 2000, there were all types of mayhem with the ballots and the count itself. But there were no election deniers. People waited weeks to find out who the next elected president was, and while many were impatient and angry, many seemed fine with either decision.
Today, one side feels like the other side winning is a threat to democracy, and the other side thinks any victory is a steal. In 2000, the frenetic media environment magnified errors. TV networks and newspapers declared victory for Bush before all the votes were included. Network executives were even sent to explain themselves in Congress the following year.
Twenty years ago, the media was just a mouse compared to the lion it’s become today. Cable news, social media, and podcasts, particularly on the right, provide a wraparound narrative every minute of the day and night.
As we know, Bush lost the popular vote, but ultimately it was decided that he had defeated Gore in the electoral college — and so he became president. It’s not hyperbole to say this changed the world’s trajectory. So perhaps we should be freaking out about the midterms.
Voter fraud is barely an issue today, but there are more severe and real threats to ensuring the midterms go smoothly. Vigilantes mobilised by misinformation have been intimidating voters.
Bloomberg reported that two people armed with handguns and wearing tactical military gear, balaclavas masking their faces, and the licence plates on their cars covered, stood watch over a ballot drop box during early voting in Mesa, Arizona.
Following the 2020 election, election workers have been threatened and harassed to the point that the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that one third of them felt unsafe because of their job. So many left their jobs that there could be a real gap in institutional knowledge this year.
“There have been episodes in history that mirror or at least echo the times that we’re living through now.
There have been scary moments in American history and scary moments in world history. That’s not to say that this one isn’t scary. It certainly is,” Rice clarifies, giving me a glimmer of hope that American democracy will make it through, whatever happens on Tuesday. “It’s just to say that we’ve been here before and somehow muddled through it. And we can hopefully muddle through it again.
“And maybe, if we’re lucky, we can go back to having boring elections like the election of 2000, at least until the moment it got interesting.”