In 2022’s general election, the most consequential results were not just the defeat of Trump Republicans and continuing reaffirmation of abortion rights. It was what those choices by majorities of voters said about their expectations for American democracy. The electoral system did not sabotage the clear will of voters, but, instead, aided turnout by offering many options to vote, including mail ballots.
There is no single explanation for the still-emerging outcomes in blue and red states. Indeed, some red states saw Trump Republicans whose 2022 candidacies were launched by the U.S. Capitol insurrection win – or at least stay ahead as votes were being counted at the weekend.
But the rejection of Trump-backed candidates, support for core freedoms like abortion rights, record turnouts in key states – lifted by convenient mailed-out ballots, and civil servants’ ability to handle turnout and run an orderly process -- was not what many polls and pundits were forecasting before Election Day.
Indeed, the same outlets that on Veterans Day were reporting that “vote integrity and abortion” shaped the midterms were, for weeks, citing polls that said 2022’s voters mostly cared about the price of gas, food, and inflation. Democracy and freedom were not on the ballot, apparently, until it was discovered they were.
“The polls were telling us that people didn’t care about democracy or abortion. In fact, that’s what they cared about,” said one analyst in a Thursday briefing. “Our interest [is not] in who won this election, but that this country continued to have free and fair elections and that our freedoms continued to be protected… Any other narrative about what happened is going to leave us vulnerable again.”
Election Deniers Rejected
It’s easy to overlook that these outcomes were possible because the nation’s election infrastructure – the multitude of election officials and poll workers, and the technologies they use to verify voters and count ballots – did the job that most Americans have expected over the years. That assumption changed, of course, during the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Trump started attacking the accuracy of the system before he was elected, and especially after he was defeated in 2020. Millions of Republicans believed him and still do.
For the past two years, Trump and his allies hoped to create a path for a 2024 comeback by pushing national and state GOP organizations to back candidates for state constitutional offices that had varying degrees of authority to alter the rules surrounding access to a ballot, how votes are counted, and winners are certified. Many of those same candidates also embraced Trump’s belligerent attitude and vowed to revive culture wars – led by banning abortion.
That unofficial Republican Party platform, where many current GOP candidates claimed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, expressed little reluctance to tilting voting rules for the GOP’s benefit, and assailed many civil rights, became known as “election denialism” in the press and political circles.
The earliest returns on Tuesday night showed election deniers losing key state and federal races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. By midday Thursday, only five new election-denying candidates out of 94 seeking statewide office had been elected, according to the States United Democracy Center, a bipartisan pro-democracy organization that has been monitoring these candidates.
“Election Denial as a platform was a new tactic we saw this year, and the results show that it didn’t work,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, its advocacy arm. “So far, most of the Election Deniers who have won statewide office were already sitting elected officials in states that voted for Trump.”
“We’re still waiting on results from Arizona, Nevada, and a few other states,” she said. “But Americans have already sent a clear message: They believe in our free and fair elections. And they don’t want Election Deniers to have power over their vote.”
The rebuke was even wider than States United’s tally. In Michigan, voters passed a ballot measure with a slate of election reforms to make voting more accessible and transparent. Nevada voters passed an expansive equal rights clause to their state constitution. Voters in Michigan, like California and Vermont, opted to add abortion rights to their state constitutions. Voters in red Kentucky, like Kansas this past summer, rejected proposed constitutional limits on abortion.
Many pre-election polls missed these pro-democracy and freedom sentiments. That conventional wisdom began to crack on Election Day, when the Associated Press’ Election Day poll of 94,000 voters – a much bigger sample than most pre-election polls – reported “about half of voters say inflation factored significantly in their vote,” but “slightly fewer voters — 44% — say the future of democracy was their primary consideration.”
The economy, of course, always matters. But democracy was on the ballot.
Still, The Election Isn’t Over
Meanwhile, anti-democratic threats from Trump Republicans remain.
While Democrats have preserved their U.S. Senate majority, the U.S. House, which President Joe Biden said on Wednesday may have a slim GOP majority, will have a GOP caucus filled with election deniers, including scores of representatives who voted against certifying the 2020 Electoral College after the insurrection.
In other battlegrounds, such as Nevada and Arizona, by Saturday evening it appeared that Democrats had defeated or were positioned to defeat most Trump Republicans. Nevada’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, was projected by the Associated Press to win her contest, preserving the body’s Democrat’s majority. Another Democrat, Cisco Aguilar, was projected to win the race for secretary of state. In Arizona, Democrat Adrian Fontes was projected to win the secretary of state race.
Masto, Aguilar and Fontes all defeated Trump Republicans who were among their state’s most vocal election deniers. However, some election deniers were winning high office. In Nevada, Joe Lombardo, a Las Vegas area sheriff endorsed by Trump, was elected governor. In Florida, Gov. Rick DeSantis, an authoritarian Republican, was returned to office. In deep red Wyoming, an election denier was elected as secretary of state.
As 2022’s election continues toward the process of officially certifying winners, it will be intriguing to see how the pro-democracy messages sent by voters will play out. In Arizona and Nevada, where the GOP ticket is led by candidates who not only rejected Biden’s victory, but also colluded with rogue county boards to take over counting ballots and declaring winners, some chaos is stewing.
These frays may be sideshows when compared to state and nationwide trends. But Trump and his allies have used local fights over election results and voting technology in a handful of counties to perpetuate his stolen election narrative and to sustain doubts about 2020, and to fundraise.
On Thursday, the Trump Republican-led board of supervisors in Cochise County, Arizona, announced it will meet next week to start a hand count that was blocked by a state court on Monday. The supervisors did not want to use a state-approved voting system, which reflects their distrust of computers that tally votes.
Initially, they wanted to hand count ballots and use those figures as the results – which a non-Trump Republican lawyer told me would let them create whatever totals they wanted. The hand count, which is likely to be stopped by the Arizona Supreme Court, is led by the former lawyer for the Cyber Ninjas, the Florida firm that oversaw the discredited post-2020 review sanctioned by state senators.
Voting rights lawyers are following these antics. In 2020’s post-election period, Trump and his allies filed more than 60 lawsuits filled with false claims but lacking in factual evidence – the basis of judicial rulings. He lost every suit except one. But they were a bonanza for creating stolen election propaganda in right-wing media.
In 2022, Trump Republicans claim they are better organized. They have recruited volunteers to gather evidence of malfeasance. If and how those reports are cited in future court filings, or surface in pro-Trump media, remains to be seen.
Most Conspiracists Sidelined
But what hovers over these ongoing developments in the 2022 general election is wide rejection of Trump Republican candidates and other signs that voters were moved by democracy issues and voted to protect elections and abortion rights.
The list of election deniers and rightwing culture warriors who lost bids for state office keeps growing, as tracked by States United Action.
Nationally, at least 42 million voters, a third of the electorate, cast mailed-out ballots, according to The National Vote at Home Institute, a non-profit that assists officials with this option. That usage will set a record for a midterm election and affirms that voters welcome flexible voting options and want to be heard.
Moreover, Election Day voting did not see widespread incidents of threats to election officials, or disputes among election workers and partisan observers, as many election insiders had feared. Nationally, officials administered an orderly process, even though some locales experienced glitches that delayed voters.
What stood out in the final Election Day briefing by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, were singular incidents where individuals with right-wing sympathies bullied or hurled “racial slurs” at voters waiting in line, and problems with voting sites near universities that were impeding students (which isn’t new). Such intolerance, which predates Trump, still lingers in his base.
But mostly, voters opted for candidates that did not want to subvert elections and to protect personal freedom. And today’s voting rules and infrastructure allowed record numbers of voters cast ballots and accurately recorded their choices.
“So far, new Election Denier candidates have only won around five percent of all races for statewide office,” said Thania Sanchez, State United Action’s senior vice president of research and policy development. “And there aren’t enough uncalled races left for that trend to shift much.”
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.
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