Democracy Stress Test: Clarke Forum Speakers Analyze Attempts to Overturn 2020 Election

 Photo courtesy of the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues

Photo courtesy of the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues

Over a year since the election of President Joe Biden and the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the ideas and beliefs that drove election denial are still prevalent in American politics. As part of the Winfield C. Cook Constitution Day Program, the Clarke Forum held a lecture on the attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and what can be done to push back against the anti-democratic values that led to it.

Mary McCord, Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, and a member of the advisory council to Keep Our Republic, opened the lecture looking into the seeds of the Stop the Steal movement, associated with the political violence and threats from the far-right throughout 2020. 

According to McCord, it began with armed militias protesting emergency COVID-19 restrictions in the state capitals of Michigan, Idaho, Kentucky, and others. There was also an increase in the spread of armed militias during the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd. 

As these far-right groups pushed with threats of violence, McCord explained how these groups  had a “call and response” relationship with then-President Donald Trump. This includes tweets where he pushed for states like Michigan to be “liberated” from coronavirus restrictions during armed protests, a term often used to describe occupation by an illegitimate government. Trump previously spread conspiracy theories stating that if he lost the 2020 election, it was because of fraud in the voting system rather than a legitimate loss. He also pushed for pressure against election officials nationwide, most notably Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, who continues to be investigated by the Atlanta District Attorney’s Office.

McCord then explained how the election results held up due to the persistence of voters and election officials who kept their integrity during every step of the process. Finally, she raised the point of where we are now, with election officials even down to the precinct level quitting in droves due to threats against their lives, while some states push for legislation to make election rules stricter, and some even want the legislature to overturn the popular vote on their own whim.

David Thornbugh, a senior advisor to Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan organization that pushes for civic engagement and effective government and politics, then focused the discussion on Pennsylvania. Thornburgh, the son of former Governor Dick Thornburgh, views the state as the “quintessential center-left, center-right state.” Thornburgh discussed how Trump’s claim of fraud started in 2016, when the then president-elect claimed Philadelphia was a hotspot for fraudulent votes, despite a lack of evidence. He then went on to explain attempts by the state legislature to change election laws, including an attempted Arizona-style audit headed by state Senator and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, and the attempt to strike down no excuse mail-in voting, allowed by Act 77.

Act 77 was a compromise between Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania, with more members of the GOP voting in favor of the legislation than Democrats. Some state legislators then took the 2019 act to court after Trump lost in 2020, despite their previous support of the bill. No excuse mail-in voting was struck down by the Commonwealth Court, but has been appealed to the state Supreme Court, and will stay in effect until the Supreme Court makes a decision. Thornburgh then went on to discuss how Pennsylvania is one of the few states with closed primaries and unlimited campaign contributions, assuring the audience that the 2022 midterm elections will be decided by the character and integrity of candidates and voters.

The final speaker was Jonathan Winer, another member of Keep Our Republic’s advisory council. He previously served as U.S. Special Envoy to Libya and as an advisor to U.S. Senator John Kerry. Winer discussed the attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn the election, including the insinuation of fraud by the opposing party, disqualifying certain means of voting after the fact, and investigating baseless claims of fraud under the guise of due process.

He discussed the various ways in which former President Trump supported the insurrection, including Tweets saying that Washington would be wild on January 6th and attacks against Vice President Mike Pence. 

Winer closed his remarks with a discussion of draft executive orders created after the election, which would have employed various means of disrupting the election results, such as declaring a national emergency to seize voting machines and halt counting, or using the National Guard or Department of Homeland Security to seize the machines and conduct a recount led by one of Trump’s lawyers. While it is unknown if the president saw these executive orders, these ideas were still privately discussed by his lawyers.

Despite the end of the Trump administration, it is clear that his rhetoric and beliefs still have a grip on the modern Republican party. Being able to understand the lead up to this point, and how to fight back against attacks on democracy, is pivotal for the future.