The Problem With ‘Guarding’ the Vote
How the push for “election integrity” can lead to election subversion.
DURING A MARATHON SESSION of a Wisconsin legislative committee last week, Jeff Smith, a Democratic state senator, had a pointed question for one of the speakers, Chad Ennis of the Honest Elections Project.
“Where did you fly in from today?” Smith asked. Ennis replied that he flew in the day before, from Austin, Texas. “There we go,” Smith said. “I’m just curious, and I know you’re paid to be here, you’re paid to do this. I’ve got your group up here on my computer right now, and all the things that Honest Elections Project does.” He continued: “What is the benefit of someone from Texas flying into Wisconsin, or someone from Maine flying into Wisconsin, or anyone else, to interfere with how we manage our elections?” Was it because Wisconsin is considered a battleground state?
Ennis, the group’s vice president, said this was a “great question,” going on to explain: “We’re a group that’s for transparent and accurate elections, and we’re going to be in that fight anywhere.”
The issue that Ennis flew into Wisconsin to address before the Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection was proposed legislation, Senate Bill 528, which would establish a practice of instant-runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, for the state’s U.S. Senate and House elections. The bill, which Smith is cosponsoring, has bipartisan support but little chance of passage, given the various objections that are often raised about it. Chief among these is the idea that allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference—so that winners are picked based on cumulative levels of support—is just too darn confusing.
“RCV is a convoluted process that turns elections into a black box that many voters don’t understand or trust, significantly hurting voter confidence in the outcome of elections,” said Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, in a statement regarding Ennis’s Wisconsin testimony. “Rather than being adopted, RCV should be banned in states across the country.” (On this same day, December 12, Snead was in Ohio, testifying against ranked-choice voting there.)
Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin who are opposed to ranked-choice voting circulated a proposed constitutional amendment to bar the practice, as the Honest Elections Project advocates doing.
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Also on the senate committee’s agenda for what ended up being an eight-hour hearing was a proposed bill, Assembly Bill 567, to allow clerks to begin processing absentee ballots the day before an election, to expedite the process of counting them on Election Day. The bill, which was authored by Republicans and has already passed the state assembly, aims to prevent the distrust and conspiracy theorizing that comes when large numbers of ballots are processed later in the day, sometimes changing which candidate is ahead. It was one of several bills now before the Wisconsin state legislature (also including Senate Bill 291, which would hike the penalties for attacks on elections workers) that count as non-crazy, election-related things to do.
Yet the hearing on AB 567 nonetheless brought out the crazies.
“You’re opening the door to election fraud, leaving those ballots opened, and no one’s standing there watching them,” said one speaker. “If you pass this bill,” warned another, “you are giving the bad guys an additional 24 hours to make their calculations based on where and how many ballots have come in, and how many more additional ballots are needed to win the election, without drawing attention to their activity.” “Citizens in this state already feel election integrity is severely compromised,” chimed in another. “This law is only going to add to the list of grievances. And who knows all the creative ways that this law, if passed, could be abused?” Who, indeed?
Yet another speaker declared he was “pro hand-counted paper ballots, one-day elections, no machines, and doing it the right way,” while at the same time denying that clerks need to get any sort of a head start on the processing of sometimes thousands of absentee ballots. He pointed out a method for running secure elections he had seen work swimmingly when he was in Baghdad: “They put their finger in a thing of ink.” He concluded by telling the committee, “You’re feeding a line of bullshit to people and it’s not right.” This drew applause.
Concerns about the integrity of elections, though largely unfounded, are coming to represent a genuine threat to American democracy. The doubts that have been aroused over whether election results are valid are corrosive and paralyzing. Even a Republican-backed bill to allow election workers in Wisconsin to get a head start on processing absentee ballots, as is allowed in most other states, is viewed with alarm.
Worse, this distrust in the process, a suspicion former President Donald Trump exploited to set off the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, is now being turned by Trump and his acolytes into a nascent movement in advance of the 2024 presidential election.
DURING A RALLY ON DECEMBER 2 IN ANKENY, IOWA, Trump exhorted his followers to “guard the vote” in the upcoming election. He named three cities in battleground states—Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta—saying, with typically tortured syntax, “you should go into some of these places and we’ve got to watch those votes when they come in.” Later that same day, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump made it clear what exactly needed looking out for, as he pegged President Joe Biden as “the destroyer of American democracy”—a characterization destined for the “Look Who’s Talking” Hall of Fame.
According to a recent eye-opening report by the Associated Press, the phrase “guard the vote” is coming into parlance among members of the far right as a way to signal approval of “extreme measures that could intimidate voters and threaten election workers.” AP reporters Ali Swenson and Michelle R. Smith noted that “pro-democracy advocates” worry that Trump’s use of this term “primes his supporters to not only expect fraud in diverse Democratic cities next year, but to intervene to ensure Trump wins.”
The article quoted Susan Benesch, founder and executive director of the Dangerous Speech Project, wondering about the purpose behind this messaging: “Is it actually guarding the election against fraud, or is it guarding the election against a result in which Trump is not declared the winner?”
Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, used the term “guard the vote” on at least eight occasions after Trump trotted it out at an event last June, the AP reported. “I know from my military experience, what gets checked is what gets done,” Flynn wrote in a post on Telegram in July. “So #WeThePeople are going to be checking on all of you and the entire election system from top to bottom, start to finish, sunup to sundown.” He made similar comments to conservative radio host Eric Metaxas that same month.
The AP article noted that Flynn associate Victor Mellor, a former Marine who proudly posted a photo of himself and his son outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, is forming a group called Guard the Vote, headquartered in a building he owns in Venice, Florida, which also houses Flynn’s offices. Mellor shared with the AP a video of the group’s command center. On the walls were maps of nearly a dozen battleground states, including Wisconsin. On a whiteboard were the words “Fraud Detection,” followed by the admonition, “Don’t use word fraud use election security.” On a conference table in the center of the room was a handgun, which Mellor said he never leaves home without but hadn’t realized was on the video.
Mellor of course denied there is anything untoward about “Guard the Vote,” saying it would “absolutely not” encourage violence and insisting “there will be no weapons” (except for the one on the conference table). “This isn’t a militant movement. This is an educational movement.”
That’s the same line being sounded, albeit with a bit more credibility, by the Honest Elections Project, which purports to support “the right of every lawful voter to participate in free and honest elections.” The problem with this entirely sensible proclamation is the group’s means to this end, suggesting that the current elections apparatus is a mess. It laments: “Election laws that protect against fraud and corruption are being challenged in court and denigrated in public. Politicians are questioning the legitimacy of the elections they lose. And activists are advocating radical plans to reshape elections for partisan gain.”
To learn more about this, I spoke with the group’s head, Jason Snead.
FIRST OF ALL, SNEAD TOLD ME in our phone interview, he knows “practically nothing” about Guard the Vote, and I have no reason to doubt him. The term and the movement are just starting to become a thing. But his group’s mission to pass more restrictive voting laws taps into the same well of distrust that Trump has worked so hard to create.
The Honest Elections Project was founded in 2020 by conservative activist Leonard Leo, chief architect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rightward lurch. The group is said to have received funding from the Koch network.
In addition to opposing ranked-choice voting, the group’s commitment to “election integrity” includes requiring voters to show a photo ID, “reject[ing] left-wing mail voting policies,” and disallowing private funding for elections. (In April, Wisconsin voters will be asked to give final approval to a state constitutional amendment to bar the acceptance of outside funding, which the state’s elections commission and the courts have deemed proper. Snead said his group will seek to play an active role in that effort.)
Moreover, the Honest Elections Project filed multiple briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to embrace the so-called independent state legislature theory, which would give state legislatures unchecked power to decide how federal elections are run. The idea was so extreme and fraught with constitutional peril that the court rejected it in June on a 6-3 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joining the court’s liberals in saying no.
I asked Snead about the Wisconsin bill to allow earlier processing of absentee ballots, which Ennis did not weigh in on but which was discussed at the same hearing. “Conceptually speaking, we have no objection to the pre-processing of absentee ballots. In fact, that can be very helpful,” he said, adding “the Devil is in the details with these sorts of things.”
And yet the people who flocked to the hearing were persuaded that even the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature couldn’t be trusted to make this change without opening the door to wholesale election fraud. Doesn’t Snead’s group foster that sort of reaction by pushing the idea that there is something fundamentally flawed with the current process and that things are bad enough citizens have to get involved to keep the election result from being corrupted?
“I don’t look at it quite that way,” said Snead, who prior to his role at the Honest Elections Project worked at the Heritage Foundation. “I think that citizen engagement in elections is essential to the democratic process. And I think that you have to always be thinking about the impact of various laws and policies on public confidence in the elections.” He made the point that not all debate over the integrity of elections comes down to people alleging that they are being stolen. There are also legitimate concerns about “laws that promote opacity, that lead to delays, that make the voting process more complicated, or lead to kind of muddy results.”
I wrote recently about an official with the Milwaukee County Republican Party who went on a podcast hosted by a supporter of QAnon theories to urge viewers to become poll workers to help “just shave off a small percentage of liberal votes.” Isn’t there a risk, I asked Snead, in recruiting poll workers who believe the process is rigged and are committed to a particular outcome? Snead, in response, said he believes most poll workers, however they are recruited, are “there to provide transparency, to ensure that rules are being followed.” Fair enough.
Without embracing the “extreme argument” that the 2020 election was stolen, contends Snead, things did happen in the course of that election that “most people would call objectively unfair.” He said “the courts were essentially weaponized in various ways to try to rewrite voting laws.”
Snead went on to argue that the election denialism of the Trump era is nothing new. “If you look at 2000, the Bush v. Gore election, voices on the left said that was an illegitimate election,” he said, adding that the “same thing” happened again in 2004. It didn’t end there. “Hillary Clinton has insisted that her 2016 election against Donald Trump was stolen through Russian interference,” he related. “In 2018, Stacey Abrams said that her race was stolen through voter suppression, and refused to concede.”
But in those cases, nobody stormed the Capitol in an effort to overturn the result. Isn’t there some danger in casting Trump’s maniacal insistence that he won an election he lost as the sort of thing that happens all the time?
Snead, to his credit, said he has believed from the start that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and is rightfully the president. But, he said, that doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory with how the election played out:
Now again, there is some nuance here. The election was not stolen, but it is impossible to ignore that there were hundreds of lawsuits filed between March and November of 2020 that were designed to change voting rules, and so laws were amended. Processes were changed, election integrity safeguards were eliminated, courts interjected themselves into the legislative process and rewrote voting laws, in many cases in key swing states, and that’s problematic from my perspective.
But, in fact, most people who will heed Trump’s call to “guard the vote” aren’t pondering nuances. They believe the election was stolen, as the former president has told them time and again. And they believe their personal intervention is required to keep the election from being stolen again, despite overwhelming evidence that the nation’s electoral apparatus is already admirably free and fair.
And it’s this deliberately planted, unfounded distrust in the electoral process, ironically enough, that creates a danger to our democracy.
Correction (Dec. 19, 11:30 a.m. EST): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that on Dec. 12, Honest Elections Project executive director Jason Snead was in Ohio testifying against a ranked-choice voting bill there; he was actually testifying in favor of a bill banning ranked-choice voting.