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Business News/ Politics / The 2020 Election Fueled a Crisis of Democracy. Voters Fear a Repeat in 2024

Americans are worried there will be another electoral crisis in 2024 because the aftermath of 2020 continues to reverberate through the nation’s politics.

Many Republicans refuse to acknowledge Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, saying they have lost faith in the electoral system. They also have doubts that 2024 will deliver a legitimate winner, while Democrats worry that Republicans will contest an outcome that doesn’t go their way.

This week’s indictment of Donald Trump ensures that divisions over 2020 will become a central element of the next presidential contest. The Republican then-president was accused of violating the law by working with others to organize fraudulent slates of electors to the Electoral College in several states and to impede the work of Congress in certifying the vote. That happened on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. Trump pleaded not guilty to four charges at a hearing in a federal courthouse in Washington on Thursday.

Close to 70% of Republicans believe that President Biden didn’t legitimately win the election, several polls show, despite multiple federal and state investigations, as well as court decisions, finding no evidence of fraud extensive enough to have changed the result. Democrats are nearly uniform in believing Biden won fair and square.

“I’m totally prepared for a dishonest election in 2024," said Sharon Erickson, a 69-year-old Republican in the central Minnesota city of Willmar. She maintains, as many Republicans do, that Democrats changed voting machines in their favor, though there is no evidence of that.

“It was about 2 a.m. when all the results changed, and I don’t think that was a coincidence," Erickson said of her recollections of election night. “That was well planned out, and I still feel cheated as an American." Because mailed ballots are counted late in the process and often skew Democratic, it is common for the party to make gains in the small hours of election night.

Trump supporter Paul Brener of Fort Lee, N.J., said he believes prosecutors are trying to criminalize legitimate inquiries that the then-president was making into whether the ballots were counted correctly. “I think there’s a good chance there was some cheating," said Brener, 84, who has retired from his car-washing business. He said he has heard radio reports that officials in some places mishandled mail-in ballots.

There has been no evidence of widespread problems over the handling of mail-in ballots, which a number of states expanded as a way to vote in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a CNN poll taken in July, half of respondents, including roughly equal shares from each party, said they thought it was very or somewhat likely that elected officials in the next few years would successfully overturn an election that their party didn’t actually win. An AP-NORC poll in June found that only 44% of Americans were confident that the 2024 election result would be tallied accurately, though Democrats believed far more than Republicans that votes would be properly counted.

Michael Petraszko, a 72-year-old Democrat and semiretired pilot in Saline, Mich., said he believes Republicans have baselessly insisted that elections are stolen because they don’t legitimately have the votes to win—and that they might do so again. 

“They have to do what they continue to do to attempt to stay in power as a minority party," said Petraszko.

Petraszko said he is glad to see Trump indicted. “Part of what keeps the country on the straight and narrow is the norms and the customs and what we’re used to…and all he does is lie," he said.

Prosecutors have said that Trump, who began signaling months before the election that he may not accept any result that showed he lost, knew there was no widespread fraud in the election and had been told so by senior officials in his own government—at the Justice Department, within the intelligence community and the Homeland Security Department, among others. The indictment by a federal grand jury in Washington charges that Trump violated the law by working with others to organize fraudulent slates of electors to the Electoral College in several states and to impede the work of Congress in certifying the vote.

Trump’s lawyer John Lauro has said the case is emblematic of a long-running trend of prosecutors overcriminalizing legitimate behavior. In email appeals to supporters, Trump’s campaign has said the former president is an “innocent man" who acted “wholly under a constitutional obligation to secure the integrity of the 2020 presidential election."

Ezequiel Lopez, 27, a construction subcontractor in Georgetown, Del., said he thought the indictment was an effort to derail Trump’s presidential campaign and divert attention from the investigation by Republicans in Congress of Biden’s son, Hunter, and his business dealings. The White House has denied accusations of interfering in the Trump investigation, saying the Justice Department makes its own decisions about when or whether to bring charges.

“Leave the man alone and let him run for president, because we need something better than we have now," said Lopez, who plans to vote for Trump next year, partly out of ire regarding Biden-era inflation. He said he didn’t have enough information to know whether there was fraud in the 2020 election.

Jason Hanley, 51, a Democrat in Miami, said he thought the indictment was appropriate. “If it’s not done, it sends the wrong message," he said. “It sends the message that this guy is above the law."

While voters overall, including independents, tell pollsters that the 2020 election was fairly decided, Republicans overwhelmingly cry foul. Some 69% of Republicans in the CNN poll last month said they believed Biden didn’t win legitimately, as did 68% in a Monmouth University poll in May. Among all Americans, about 60% say Biden won fairly, many polls find.

Skepticism of the 2020 outcome has eroded confidence in democracy.

“We are exactly where we were when it comes to whether there was something wrong or illegal with the 2020 election. People are frozen in place," said Stan Barnes, a Republican and former Arizona state lawmaker. “We have a political fever that none of us has lived through in our lifetime, and we’re going to have the most contentious and un-American 2024 election because of it."

He added: “When the broad electorate of people—rich and poor, old and young—cannot agree together on the outcome of the election or muster the faith necessary in federal institutions to keep the American story going, when the belief goes out of that, then what happens? It hurts my brain to try to answer that."

Many local election officials say they have received threats from Republicans who believe officials skewed the election results. Some of the officials have quit their posts, while others have started public education campaigns to explain their work.

Ahead of 2024, battles are under way in many states over election rules, a sign that people lack faith that the current process is fair.

In North Dakota, an election official recently filed a lawsuit to block the counting of ballots received after Election Day, as allowed under state law if they are postmarked by Election Day.

GOP officials have filed lawsuits to invalidate Pennsylvania’s broad mail-in voting law, which has also become a political issue in elections this year for the state Supreme Court. In Arizona, some GOP lawmakers are trying to persuade county officials to forgo ballot-counting machines and to hand-count ballots instead, a process that one county has considered and rejected because of the cost.

Such fights over voting occurred in many states in 2022, yet the midterm elections went relatively smoothly. In several high-profile cases, the Republican candidates who echoed Trump’s false voter-fraud claims lost their races, suggesting many voters were tired of hearing about the topic.

Brener, the retired carwash owner, said the focus on voting issues might, in fact, bolster faith in the 2024 vote count. “I think everyone will be watching it closely, and they’ll be more careful in how the ballots will be handled," he said.

Bill Bretz, Republican chairman in Westmoreland County, in western Pennsylvania, said he is hearing less talk of concern regarding voter fraud than before, though he isn’t sure anyone’s opinion has changed about who won 2020. “Maybe it’s just that time has worn some of the emotion out of it, and there hasn’t been a smoking gun to validate the feelings people have," he said.

He noted the heavily Democratic skew of mail-in ballots in 2020, after Trump had railed against the process. Those ballots were counted later in the tally than Election Day votes in many places and allowed Biden to overtake Trump in the count. Now, Republican officials, including Trump himself, are saying the GOP should encourage voting early and by mail.

“It would suggest to me that people would become less suspicious" in the future, Bretz said.

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