As the hearings of the special House Committee investigating the insurrection on Jan 6, 2021 get under way this week, a wide array of organizations and experts are weighing in on the importance of these hearings, and their potential impact on the public’s understanding of the events surrounding the insurrection. These are important points because too many of us have a warped view of what actually happened that day. But opinion about the past is going to be hard to change.
The hearings need to look ahead and lay out, in clear terms, what we have learned about the threat of future election violence—and exactly how the same groups involved in the insurrection are now poised to instigate violence in future elections. Because our democracy is under far graver threat than most people realize, the hearings must show it, allowing voters to see how they can prepare themselves and protect our democracy.
My hope for the hearings
I am fairly confident that the hearings will provide a comprehensive account of what Protect Democracy’s Grant Tudor has aptly described as the “bracing” scope of the attempt to subvert the 2020 presidential election, including:
“using government resources to promote the president’s reelection; soliciting state and local officials to commit election fraud; pressuring the vice president to delay or block the counting of electoral votes; enlisting the Justice Department to sanction the overturning of election results; refusing to officially green-light the operational transition of administrations; devising plans to employ the military to seize ballots and voting machines; strategizing with members of Congress to assemble fake slates of electors; and then inciting a lethal riot at the eleventh hour.”
I am less confident, but hopeful, that the hearings will clearly articulate, and produce some consensus about, what Congress must do over the next several months to keep the law itself from being used as a weapon to bludgeon our democracy, especially in 2024.
For example, UCLA’s Rick Hasen recently articulated how revising the Electoral Count Act could go a long way toward resolving the legal ambiguities that anti-democratic politicians may use as justification for choosing which votes get certified. Hasen and others have repeatedly pointed out that federal requirements regarding paper ballots and other procedural safeguards could greatly strengthen the integrity of our elections.
The need for federal election protections are a necessary, but insufficient, focus of the hearings. Professor Hasen is not overstating the matter when he concludes, “If these hearings don’t spur action by this summer or fall, expect Congress to do nothing before the 2024 elections, at which point American democracy will be in great danger.”
But, whether Congress takes action or not—and they may not—the public needs to understand the nature of the threat we face in the coming elections.
Congressional action is needed
The evidence is increasingly clear that we are likely to face attempts to subvert the next election through voter intimidation, violence, and the induced chaos that ensues. As POLITICO recently reported, Trump loyalists and partisan operatives are amassing an “army” of “volunteers prepared to challenge voters at Democratic-majority polling places, developing a website to connect those workers to local lawyers and establishing a network of party-friendly district attorneys who could intervene to block vote counts at certain precincts.” Targeting large cities in battleground states such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Atlanta (cities with a high concentration of voters of color), people are reportedly now being trained to initiate legal conflicts at the polling place that can disrupt voting and then use those actions “as a vehicle for rejecting vote counts from that precinct.”
What are the odds that “legal conflict” initiated by trained subversives, hopped up on “stop the steal” conspiracy theories, might result in physical conflict? The US has a long history of partisan “observers” intimidating marginalized groups to weaken their political power, but we have not seen anything on this scale in recent memory.
The Department of Homeland Security has already warned that “those harboring grievances over the 2020 election and fueled by misinformation may feel compelled to respond to the election season using violence.” There is a heightened threat that voters will be terrorized in 2022 and 2024, and the Congressional hearings need to be clear on this point.
In this regard, even a revision of Electoral Count Act would come too late to protect against violence because it would be primarily focused instead on shutting down the legal strategy to subvert elections. Violence and intimidation are likely to come before the lawsuits, brought to us by the foot soldiers of the election subversion army.
Additional federal legislation could help prevent outbreaks of election-related violence. The US House of Representatives passed the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022 on May 18th with a vote of 222 to 203, largely along party lines. The Act requires federal law enforcement agencies (Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI) to set up the infrastructure to combat domestic terrorism and, in particular, white supremacy-based hate crimes and acts of terror.
The Union of Concerned Scientists supports the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022, as do many of the nation’s leading voting rights organizations, such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Congress should also provide greater resources for the groundwork efforts of these groups to prevent voter intimidation, coercion, and violence. For example, the Election Protection coalition is among the largest organizations nationwide working to ensure that every voter can cast a vote and have it counted. Americans need to learn more about election protection from the hearings.
Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, and other relevant federal agencies also need to provide greater resources for emergency preparations, including violence and attacks on election administration. Local election agencies should be incorporating best practices and lessons learned from international experiences with election-related violence.
Finally, the hearings need to inform the public about how to enforce their rights as voters. We need public deliberation about what limits should be placed on the actions of military officers, law enforcement, militia members, and armed vigilantes around polling places. Most battleground states do not explicitly ban firearms at polling places, but existing federal protections against intimidation can be enforced by a vigilant public.
The evidence strongly suggests that voters and communities are being targeted for political violence and it is imperative that they understand what is coming and how to prepare for it. The House Committee hearings provide a unique opportunity for the public to see how the failed insurrection on January 6th set in motion a series of events that is likely to result in coordinated violence and disruption in upcoming elections.
The insurrection isn’t over. Being better informed about future threats can help protect voters from intimidation and violence.