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An Election About Elections
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An Election About Elections

The war is on over what real disenfranchisement looks like.

President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Emanuel AME Church on January 8, 2024 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The saying goes that “elections are about the future,” meaning that voters have short memories and tilt toward self-interested pragmatism. Winning candidates build coalitions around what’s next, not what happened before.

And that’s true enough. The past does matter, but typically as something to be left behind. Enough of that, now onto something else. 

The 2024 election has been unusually focused on the past. Both major party frontrunners are fixated on the 2020 election and its aftermath. One warns that his likely opponent will repeat his constitutional abuses if given the chance. Conveniently for the incumbent, the object of the warning basically agrees with the premise. President Joe Biden says the past will repeat itself if former President Donald Trump is returned to power and Trump says, “Yes, and …”

The sanctity of democracy isn’t exactly a stirring argument to convince self-interested pragmatists, especially those who—like many Americans—already have dim views about the fairness and functionality of our system. As much as painfully earned wisdom forbids the statement “it couldn’t get any worse,” rallying people to a tattered banner is a hard thing to do. 

Democrats, understanding that, have also been trying to make arguments about the future, both positive and negative. 

Under pressure from former President Barack Obama and other party leaders, the Biden campaign is trying to make a stronger case to the political and economic middle, notably with the elevation of Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans-mayor-turned-infrastructure czar, to be a top talker for the president. Landrieu, a favorite of moderate Dems, will have the task of selling Biden as an engine for more projects like the much-lauded bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Biden is also trying to deny House Republicans a scorched earth fight, quickly coming to terms on the outlines of a spending deal, even as GOP leaders plow ahead with Biden’s impeachment, that of one of his Cabinet secretaries, and contempt proceedings against Biden’s son

Lots of congressional Democrats would no doubt like to have seen the president take a more bellicose posture on a government shutdown, but Biden needs to show Landrieu-like moderation and avoid the economic consequences of a lengthy shutdown battle in an election year. Plus, it’s a safe bet that fratricidal Republicans—their majority now down to two—will mostly defeat themselves

The negative argument from Democrats about the future hinges on convincing voters that a Trump restoration wouldn’t be a return to the old model, but a new, scarier version. In this telling, Trump, embittered by his defeat and now in absolute control of a Republican Party purged of dissenters, would be free to seek revenge against his enemies and impose radical new policies. Again, here, Trump is obliging the incumbent by basically agreeing with the premise. Enthusiastically, even.

Similarly, Republicans’ negative vision of the future is centered on Biden’s greatest vulnerability, his age and feebleness. In this version, Biden, like Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, is being propped up by his puppeteers and will soon die, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris in charge. This reinforces Biden’s infirmity and is a rebuttal to Biden’s outreach to the middle: Just you wait until they have another term and the radical left will take the reins.

So we can expect the 2024 election to be typical in that it will offer a conflict of visions about the past and future, even if those visions are dark ones. But what about the present?

To a degree maybe not seen since the 1960s, the campaign will be about elections themselves. Then, it was voting rights for black Americans; now, it will be about the casting and counting of votes—about the process itself.

The Supreme Court will soon consider whether state officials can bar Trump from office for his efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in 2021. Republicans, tired of being on the receiving end of jeremiads about being a threat to democracy, have embraced enthusiastically, at least for the time being, the idea of people power.   

But we are only at the beginning of a long battle over who votes and how, and the reliability of results. The first skirmish will take place six days hence when Iowa Republicans go to caucus.

They will do so at 1,670 precinct locations ranging in size from a recreation room with a dozen or so voters to a convention center with 700 souls milling around. Temperatures will probably be well below zero outside when folks gather at 7 p.m. CT and face the first controversy: Who will be allowed in.

Party rules hold that while the caucuses are just for Republicans, party switchers can make the change that night, and unregistered voters can sign up at the scene. An all-volunteer team spread out across 99 counties will have to process the petitioners and resolve their own disputes.

Then after speeches from campaign representatives, in most places voters will be given only blank slips of paper on which to record their preferences which are then interpreted and tallied, precinct by precinct. All told, the process can take three hours or more. Then the state party tabulates the results and, sometime late in the night, declares a winner. Gee, what could go wrong? If Trump underperforms by any significant margin, which would mean getting a plurality of the vote rather than an outright majority, things will surely get ugly.

Both parties believe strongly that the other is anti-democratic, but even within their own ranks, the war is on over what real disenfranchisement looks like. And as Republicans plunge into a primary fight of still unknown duration, it seems certain that, at least to some degree, Trump will be rehearsing his general election claims about a rigged system and massive fraud.

Biden is already in that fight, framing the contest as one between democracy and “semi-fascism,” and we can expect the fight to play out endlessly in courtrooms, state legislatures, and eventually, Congress. The two parties are already engaged in a bare-knuckle fight over the process of elections, and things are only getting started. Both sides will emphatically claim that the other is trying to usher in dictatorship and usurp the will of the people.

Our system will be sorely tested. And those volunteers and civil servants who make the whole thing run will be under sustained attack, starting in frigid Iowa. The pressure will come mostly from Trump and his supporters, but Democrats will array themselves against the system, too, with claims of disenfranchisement or in opposition to rules established by the other side.

Save a prayer for the men and women who from Monday night in Iowa until January 6, 2025, will have to endure it and find the calm and courage to do their work anyway.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.