Alarm bells rang nationwide when President Trump summoned Michigan’s Republican House speaker and Senate majority leader to Washington on Nov. 20 to make his case for the Legislature to overturn the state’s popular vote and award Michigan’s 16 Electoral College votes to Trump instead.
Almost two weeks after every network called the race for Joe Biden, the president, in a brazen effort to usurp the people’s will, wanted to arm-twist GOP-controlled legislatures in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to declare, without any evidence, that voter fraud and other irregularities made it impossible to certify Biden as the winner. The electors, he believed, belonged to him. Bigly!
There’s a reason why Trump focused on those states. Partisan gerrymandering has made Trump’s last-ditch, Constitution-busting stress test for American democracy possible. Republicans in each of these states owe their majorities to gerrymandered maps that stifle public opinion and entrench minority rule.
Republicans in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are the national experts at maintaining a hammer-lock on power despite winning fewer votes. Republicans drew themselves such extreme advantages that they have not lost control of a single chamber in those three states for a decade, even when they lose by hundreds of thousands of votes statewide.
Those Michigan leaders, courted at the White House, who then celebrated at the Trump Hotel bar with $795 bottles of Dom Perignon? Among them was Lee Chatfield, the Michigan House speaker willing to indulge Trump’s scheme. He also chairs the Republican State Leadership Committee, the organization that took the lead on the GOP’s 2010 gerrymandering strategy.
In Wisconsin, days after a recount affirmed Biden’s victory, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos ordered the elections subcommittee to immediately investigate “mail-in ballot dumps and voter fraud” and to assure that “any and all irregularities” were found. Vos and the GOP control the Wisconsin assembly with an unmerited 63-36 majority even though Democratic candidates won more than 200,000 more votes in 2018.
House Republicans in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, meanwhile, tasked a committee with compiling a report on election “inconsistencies” and developing an audit to guarantee “the accuracy of the votes.” The GOP controls that chamber even though its candidates won 381,000 fewer votes statewide in 2018. You could hardly describe it as a democracy: Democrats won 54 percent of the vote but just 44 percent of the seats.
Leaders of these rigged Republican majorities weren’t called on just to help with Trump’s efforts to subvert the results after the election. They were also crucial to enabling Trump’s narrative that he led on election night, then had his lead erased when “fraudulent” mail-in votes from Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee were added to the totals.
Trump had telegraphed the plan for months. Republican lawmakers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were begged by their secretaries of state and nonpartisan election officials to prevent this delegitimizing story line from taking hold. In part by getting a jump-start on vote-counting. Forty other states allow election workers a head start; nevertheless, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin refused. Michigan Republicans dragged their feet, then finally relented and allowed clerks to begin 10 hours early. Aided by these lawmakers and conservative media bubbles, Trump’s fantasy became fact among many Republicans.
But while Trump has shown that it could be possible to drive the election over too-shaky guardrails, he’s not actually going to get away with it. At least, not this time.
These gerrymandered legislatures — and others in Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina — must be watched closely until the next presidential election. In 2018, in Florida, 64 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to 1.4 million citizens who had completed time for a felony sentence. The state legislature gutted it and added a poll tax — requiring former prison inmates to pay all fines and fees before they can cast a ballot — making it all but impossible for those citizens to regain the franchise. Trump carried Florida by 370,000 votes.
Republicans maintained control of these swing state legislatures on Nov. 3 and will have the catbird seat for redistricting once again following the 2020 Census. Now we must also watch to be sure that these legislatures do not grant themselves new powers to intervene with Electoral College slates should this scenario repeat down the line — or gerrymander the Electoral College by awarding electors in blue-leaning states by congressional districts drawn bright red.
Trump’s efforts to overturn the election will not succeed. But the ground has been softened. In 2024, or some future year, our democracy may not be so lucky.
David Daley is the author of the “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” He is a senior fellow at FairVote.