By Greg Varner
If your anxiety level rises as Election Day approaches, GW Law Professor Spencer Overton may be able to help. Though democracy in the United States (and other countries) is facing serious threats, Overton inspires confidence with his calm demeanor and expertise. He clearly sees the threats and offers policy solutions as well as sensible advice for voters.
President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a racial equity think tank founded in 1970, Overton is the author of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression and several academic articles and popular commentaries on voting rights, race and public policy.
The first step in confronting a threat is to understand it. While political tensions surrounding voting rights, overlapping with race, are not new in U.S politics, Overton sees a fundamental difference between now and the past: the emergence of a popular movement built around election denialism. This movement threatens not only the upcoming midterm elections, he said, but the future as well.
About 30 percent of Americans believe the “big lie” that Joe Biden was not the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, Overton points out. A majority of Republicans—about 60 percent—share that belief, despite the fact that dozens of courts and election administrators nationwide found no widespread irregularities.
“There are some real consequences for the 2022 election and beyond because of these unfounded allegations of fraud,” Overton said. “We’ve seen barriers erected that make it harder to vote, as well as restrictions on voter registration, vote by mail and drop boxes. We’ve also seen a push to move from machine counting of ballots to hand counting, which research shows is more prone to error and slower. There has been an uptick in violence and threats against office holders and election administrators, and also real potential for voter intimidation at the polls.”
Another problem, he added, is the large number of candidates who are election deniers. If they win, they could overhaul election rules to shut out voters; they could stack election administration offices with partisans; they could refuse to certify legitimate elections simply because they don’t like the results.
“There’s a real question about the future of democracy and the rule of law if Americans don’t have confidence in election results,” Overton said.
As the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse and calls for racial equity increase, he said, cultural anxiety prompts some to question the legitimacy of elections. He points to the observation made by sociologist Theda Skocpol that the cry to “stop the steal” is a metaphor for “the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone.”
"We need to have structures in place so that everyone has a real voice in the future, people who’ve been historically advantaged as well as people who’ve been historically disadvantaged.”
Spencer Overton, GW Law Professor
“We need to have structures in place so that everyone has a real voice in the future, people who’ve been historically advantaged as well as people who’ve been historically disadvantaged,” Overton said. “We’ve got to be frank about this cultural change and set up systems to ensure that everyone has a place at the table.”
Unless an electoral contest results in a blowout, we may see delays in the announcement of official results, Overton said, because of the volume of votes received by mail, for which the counting process often does not start until Election Day (this is to ensure that a reporting of vote-by-mail totals do not have an unfair impact on subsequent voters). He also expects there will be significant lawsuits and challenges, particularly in close elections.
Counting mail-in votes as they are received would be a good reform, he added, but some states have prevented that. Political parties should use their policy positions to compete for voters, as opposed to merely trying to boost turnout on one side or discouraging participation on the other.
Policy goals and advice
On the federal level, Overton said, reforms are needed to standardize U.S. voting laws, which currently result in a “patchwork democracy” in which where you live can affect your access to the ballot. In some jurisdictions, ostensibly “antifraud” measures actually make it harder for legitimate voters to vote than for fraudulent ones.
On the state and local levels, election officials play an important role in a democracy, he said.
“They’ve got to anticipate that there will be some subversive poll workers and unruly observers, and they’ve got to take proactive steps. For example, they should publish and enforce clear standards of conduct for poll workers to prevent subversion; they should train poll workers on deescalating confrontation, so that they can keep voting moving and prevent long lines and prevent violence.”
But election officials aren’t the only important actors in the political system, he added. Tech companies should remove and deprioritize election disinformation. The Department of Justice should deploy election observers and prioritize investigations and countering threats to election workers and voting rights.
“We’ve got to recognize that election denialism should not continue to be mainstreamed in our politics. It needs to be relegated to the fringe,” Overton said.
In terms of long-term solutions, he added, “Some of the proposals that we’ve seen to protect voting rights and update the Voting Rights Act are important. Provisions like ensuring automatic registration and putting restrictions on gerrymandering are all important policy prescriptions.”
There are additional goals we should work to achieve, Overton said: “We need to recognize that our existing electoral institutions were not originally designed to facilitate people of different racial and cultural backgrounds coming together to solve our most pressing problems. We need to create laws and institutions that allow us to have a well-functioning, multiracial democracy to take our country into the future.”
The challenges that confront us are more obvious than the ways to overcome them, Overton said.
“There’s not a silver bullet, not one policy prescription that’s going to solve this. We need institutions that can stand up to some of the stress that we’re seeing and can allow and encourage people to debate and discuss policy issues, and form new coalitions based on common interests.”
Overton is clear that our challenges are bigger than election denialism.
“The inability of our existing electoral practices to constructively facilitate multiracial democracy were also reflected in derogatory remarks about Black and Indigenous communities by former L.A. City Council president Nury Martinez during the redistricting process,” Overton said. “We need to create democratic systems that incentivize people from different communities and cultures to come together to solve our problems. An election should not simply be a winner-take-all zero-sum game that is an affirmation of one community and a rejection of a different community. That’s not healthy, and it’s not going to allow us to develop policies to spur widespread economic growth and provide leadership and stability worldwide.”
Overton said he will continue to grapple with these challenges in the future, working to develop solutions and build the field of multiracial democracy through research and convenings of scholars, students, policymakers and community leaders at GW’s Equity Institute Initiative.
Beyond Election Day, Overton added, citizens must maintain their commitment to democracy and should strive to avoid spreading disinformation. Accept the disappointing results of an election and work on doing things better next time. Have a healthy skepticism about election denialism and avoid rewarding its use as a political tactic.
According to the web page of GW Votes, a nonpartisan coalition of students, faculty and staff that promotes voter participation, GW is home to “one of the most politically active student bodies in the nation.” Those with questions about how to vote may find the group helpful.