Remarks by Timothy E. Wirth, July 2023
Fifty years ago I was first elected to Congress, a beneficiary of voter backlash against the chaos of the previous decade. Our country had just been through a significant stress test: could our governing structures withstand the pressures of an unpopular war, widespread anti-war protests, RFK and MLK assassinations, one President declining to run, and another about to be impeached? The greatest pressures since the Civil War.
We are undergoing enormous stress again, with urgent questions about our ability to survive as a Democratic Republic. The information culture of the country, so essential to shared self-government, is shattered, if not broken entirely.
For over 200 years we have had a peaceful transfer of power – acting in their ministerial role as Vice President, Dan Quayle symbolically passed power to Bill Clinton, and though he vigorously disagreed, Al Gore passed power to George W. Bush. But Donald Trump, fearing the moniker of “loser,” refused to concede the election of 2020 and continues to claim without evidence that the election was stolen. Late in his Administration, he signaled his intent to try to hold onto power by appointing a variety of questionable loyalists to high level appointments in the Pentagon, Homeland Security, Justice and even the Voice of America, laying the groundwork for a political coup.
In the wake of the Trump Administration, the politics of polarization have taken over the Republican party. A supine House of Representatives bends to the whim of this former President while he continues to attack “The Deep State” and makes the attack on “woke culture” central to his political campaigns. Distressingly, large numbers of Republican office holders, fearful of his wrath, just look away from this attempted heist of our government and by their votes applaud the loss of freedoms of healthcare, domestic relationships, and others.
The list of abuses of our government is long, familiar, and alarming. So what do we do now?
There are fewer than 500 days before the next Presidential election, and major efforts are underway to prepare Americans for the coming vote. Aggressive voter registration drives are being launched targeting new voters and those who seldom vote, especially in the so-called “swing states.” Huge war chests are being collected for what will certainly be the most expensive election in history. These are familiar pre-election activities, designed to get as many people as possible to polling booths, and ensuring that votes are secure and counted. Republicans are also undertaking efforts to suppress Democratic votes while preserving gerrymandered districts, as they are currently demonstrating in Alabama, where they are currently defying a Supreme Court ruling requiring them to draw two black majority districts instead of only one. The race is on.
These efforts, leading up to and including election day, consume the energy and resources of most of the civic groups that are focused on the election.
Only a scant number of organizations and experts are focused on what happens after election day, raising such critical questions as the certification of a state’s electoral votes in the period between November 5, 2024, through so-called “Safe Harbor Day” on December 10, on to the Vice President’s ministerial responsibilities on January 6 and the final act: the swearing in of the President on January 20, 2025.
During this period of time after the election there is room for a great deal of dangerous election mischief. Dealing with such post-election problems is the mission of my organization Keep Our Republic (keepourrepublic.com). Our small group of former high level government officials and lawyers was successful in predicting the pathway that would be chosen by Donald Trump after the last election, and we fear that events after the coming election in 2024 will be even more challenging. Founded in early 2020, Keep Our Republic (keepourrepublic.com) came together because a small group of former government officials believed that Donald Trump was desperately afraid of being a “loser” and would do anything to stay in power. Early in 2020, despite almost universal skepticism from political pundits and the press that our worries were misplaced, we persisted in playing our Paul Revere role. We were right, with consequences (January 6th) that were even more dire than we could have predicted.
The worries of Keep Our Republic flow in particular out of the strange way we elect our Presidents. We do not count the votes and then determine the victor by the highest vote count. Rather, we determine President through the vote of electors chosen by each state. Each state has the number of electoral votes as it has members in its Congressional delegation. My state of Colorado has ten, some large states have many more (California – 54; Texas – 40; Florida – 30), and so on down to Wyoming which has three electors, the same as Alaska. There are a total of 538 electoral votes, and it takes 270 to win the election.
The electoral vote outcome is predictable in almost all states: California, New York and Illinois are predictably blue as Florida and the deep South is red. But the predictable votes and predictable electors would not give either party’s candidate enough to get to 270. Each falls short and will depend on the unpredictable “Swing States” to add to their totals. Both parties battle for those swing states: Pennsylvania (19), Georgia (16), Michigan (15), Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), North Carolina (16), and Nevada (6).
As noted above, almost all of civil society’s efforts are focused on the days up to and including election day – registering the voters, getting voters to the polls, and ensuring that election results are counted fully and fairly. Almost no effort has gone into assessing and addressing the election risks that will surely arise in the days following the election.
By law each state must certify its votes and select its electors by what’s called the “Safe Harbor” day of December 10. The resultant Electoral College – all the chosen electors – meet on December 16 to report the results and cast their votes for President. These in turn are sent to the newly elected Congress. On January 6, the Vice President from the ‘old’ administration is required to fulfill his ministerial function, report the results state by state, and declare a winner. It was this process that was attacked by President Trump and led to the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In all the years since the troubled election of 1876 this process proceeded peacefully and power was transferred in a ceremonious but routine way to the elected President on the date set for his inauguration. In 2020, Donald Trump changed all of that. We are still living with the consequences, which include great uncertainties about what could happen in 2024.
So, let’s back up to the period between election day November 5, 2024, and Safe Harbor Day on December 10. What are the risks to completing the election? For example, how might the certification of a state’s electors be compromised, delayed or otherwise frustrated? What if a state or significant number of its counties insisted on the hand processing of all ballots, slowing down the results? Or insisted on recounts, or ask for full statewide audits or challenge voting machines? What if election administration is manipulated by partisan election officials, dedicated to slowing down or stopping the vote certification? What if election volunteers are threatened and leave the polls, or if outside demonstrations stimulated by conspiracy rhetoric and disinformation, throw polling places or counties into chaos? Or what if back-up paper ballots, key to insuring a fair, complete and eventually auditable vote, are burned up or otherwise disappeared? If some of this mischief occurs, do we know what emergency authorities are held in each state to deal with such contingences? Our organization, Keep Our Republic, is focused on this critical post-election day period.
This period continues all the way to Inauguration Day. In 2020, we saw efforts to interfere with the counting of the electoral votes on January 6 through the creation and deployment of a mob of rioters, determined to stop it. This time, we could see new variations on the idea of preventing electoral votes from being counted on January 6, 2025. If no one gets to a majority, due to, for example, a third-party candidate getting a small number of strategically placed electoral votes, we could see the selection of President go to the House of Representatives.. Notably, the House could not even convene to select a President under the 12th Amendment until a Speaker is selected. We got a taste of what a mess that process could be with the fifteen rounds it took to elect Kevin McCarthy as Speaker in 2022. Imagine that process with the ultimate prize being the selection of the President. Now imagine the chaos could well accompany it.
The risks are not small. The authoritarians learned their lessons last time and they are coming back better organized and more focused than before. They have laid out a remarkably detailed roadmap for how to centralize power in the Presidency if they win it. Their publicly-announced plans include eliminating independent agencies, destroying the civil service, and setting up unchecked executive power.
Two further observations are important here.
First, the autocrats have learned to be expert in using facsimiles of democracy against democracy itself.
Their fascination with and support for the government of Victor Orbán in Hungary is instructive, and demonstrate the central themes of a fascist state:
- Rejection of the rule of law and equal rights under the law in favor of a strongman who “interprets” the popular will;
- Dismissal of the established checks and balances of legislative and judicial branches of government;
- Galvanizing popular rage against cultural elites for supposedly displacing the values of average people, and seeking revenge, often encouraging violence;
- Establishing a form of nationalism based on the theory of a dominant superior race and historic bloodlines. “Getting critical race theory out of our schools is a matter of national survival.”
- Gaining and advancing state power by legitimizing use of force: “you’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
- Subjugating women, gender identity and sexual orientation in the cause of male dominance.
These are the ingredients of control and are basic elements of fascism. Donald Trump reflected these ingredients when he stated at his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco, Texas: “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” This sounds like the drift of Germany in the 1930’s from democracy to fascism. Beware!
Given the ongoing prosecutorial response to the January 6 insurrection, some of them may fear that if they lose, they will go to jail. We know that if we lose this election, it may well be our country’s last. Yes, the stakes are existential ones for our entire country.
The second, and more hopeful, observation is that 2024 can be the last gasp of these authoritarians – but only if Donald Trump is defeated at the polls. His victory would likely destroy our 225-year-old experiment in self-government, along with checks against the abuse of power, the spread of economic power through a well-regulated capitalist system, the protection of the environment, and the commitment to equal rights. The stakes of this election are exceedingly high, especially since Trump told the world how he hopes to upend our governmental systems and centralize power in his hands.
Their mayhem strategy of fouling up the certification and reporting of the electoral votes post-election process is already underway. Six or seven “swing states” will decide who is President in 2024.
KOR is heavily invested in three: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In each one we have established non-partisan statewide advisory councils (working groups), each chaired by senior experienced former local or state officials. The leadership in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is Republican, with a Democrat leading the Michigan effort. Each of the state groups is recruiting membership from chambers of commerce, bar associations, local universities, retired political leaders, non-governmental groups and other political allies. These groups, decentralized and targeted on counties with particularly complicated histories of election challenges, are hosting roundtables, fireside chats, and other events, designed by local leadership to identify threats, barriers to vote counting, particularly egregious disinformation issues, and solutions that can be useful in their communities and may be exportable elsewhere.
We are focused on helping to restore a sense of civic engagement at the community level, operating on the theory that this is the source of strength of our society – the actions of local citizens. Since we really do not have national elections – we have them in 50 states at the same time – we want to help to engage civic leaders, activists, and concerned citizens in a discussion in their localities. We also help to link these communities with thinkers from around the country to share experience and compare notes.
We want to be prepared for problems and contingencies that might arise. What would citizens do if certain events unfolded, e.g., power outages, random violence, demonstrations, or especially recalcitrant officials tying up the process of counting and certifying votes? What legal remedies are available, and how can such events and risks be minimized?
As Mark Medish, one of our co-chairs, has written, “this is a very Tocquevillian point – we’re good at transparency and we’re good at neighborhood activism.” Governor Corbett, our Pennsylvania chair, said “we need hyper-localized dialogues about democracy.”
The people who want to sow mistrust in our communities are often our neighbors, and we have to fight complacency in our communities. To quote Medish again, “We don’t want to sleepwalk into the loss of our vibrant democracy. The only thing groups like Keep Our Republic can do is serve as wake-up callers. We want to empower people and for people to sense their democratic agency. That is really the brilliance of our system. That’s the Republic we’re trying to keep.”
Our democratic operating system is extremely localized, complex, and fragile. Our localism has been a major strength – people work to make democracy work in their own backyards. Because we are so big and diverse, the operating system is complex and very different from one community or one state to another; one size does not fit all. And it is fragile because there is no central authority nor set of common rules designed to anticipate all problems and risks, so it is often easy to find wedges for attacking the system. Perhaps the greatest source of fragility is failing to recognize there is ultimately nothing to ensure the future of democracy but the faith and vigilance of the American people.
This system has weathered challenges in the past, has been the course of our success, and is the foundation for our prosperity as a nation. Keep Our Republic is determined to keep alive our 225-year experiment in self-government, depending as we do on our self-awareness, on our democratic action, and our engagement as citizens.
If with any urgency at all, most civic groups and experts are focused on election day, not thinking beyond it. Because the off-year election of 2022 was successful beyond almost anyone’s projections, many believe the fever in the electoral system has passed. They find further proof in the successful amending of the Electoral Count Act, and the successes of the Biden presidency, proof that we are settling into a more normal if more polarized world.
For those of us focused on the dangerous post-election days ahead of us, however, this alarming lack of urgency is very disturbing. Americans have to wake up and again get their democratic juices running hot – there are fewer than 500 days until the election.
Once again, we who are concerned for the future of our democracy are apprehensive and once again are shifting into Paul Revere mode to warn of dangerous days ahead for our political system. We believe that a strategy of electoral mayhem has been embraced by the authoritarian opposition, designed to undermine and destroy the prospects of completing a traditional election in 2024. The opposition is not interested in governing; it has no platform beyond various indicated attacks on “woke” institutions, no plan for strengthening or advancing our democratic institutions. Rather it is bent upon creating an autocratic, top-down system, controlled by a few, with power centralized in the Presidency and held together by fear and occasional violence and by the unrestrained platforms of the internet.