Inevitably, one of the major political stories of 2018 will be the midterm elections, scheduled for November 6th. On that day, the entire House of Representatives and one third of the US Senate will be elected. A big Democratic victory on that day will bring an end to the impunity that has defined the first year of the Trump era. Although the poll numbers look good for the Democrats at this very early stage, the relatively low number of competitive House seats, and the much higher number of Democratic incumbents, rather than Republicans, who are up for reelection this year in the Senate, means that translating a Democratic wave at the polls into control of both houses of Congress, will be more difficult than it seems.
The punditry will turn increasing amounts of their attention to the election in the coming months. Key races, vulnerable incumbents, strong candidates, wacky candidates, projections and predictions about the outcome will dominate coverage of the election. However, some important stories about the election have already begun to emerge and have not received as much attention. For example, while the role Russia played in the 2016 election, and the relationship between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign are at the center of several investigations, there has been almost no effort made to ensure that the US is not similarly vulnerable in 2018. It is true that many Americans are more aware of Russia backed fake news stories and, presumably, candidates and party organizations will have better internet security than they did two years ago, but not much else has been done. There have been no blue ribbon committees appointed to study the problem and make recommendations, no laws have been passed aimed at limiting foreign meddling in our elections and no large scale security upgrades have been made to election machines or processes. Thus, somewhat amazingly, the US remains vulnerable to the kind of Russian mischief that has already had an enormous impact on our politics.
Another significant issue framing this election is that for several years now Republican legislators at the state level have responded to demographic changes by erecting barriers primarily for non-white citizens seeking to vote. These efforts have accelerated since Donald Trump, who believes, against all empirical evidence, that widespread voter fraud is a problem, became President. In some of the 2017 elections, these new laws made it more difficult for Democrats to win, a trend that will likely continue in 2018. The motivations behind most of these voter suppression laws are partisan and racist, but they have a larger impact on that. Equal access to voting is a central tenet of fair elections around the world, but is now imperiled in the US. Each voter suppression law that is passed makes it harder to defend American elections on the grounds that they genuinely democratic. This is a death by a thousand cuts approach to democratic elections, but it is nonetheless very potent.
This year’s election will also be the first major election to occur since the Trump administration’s war on truth and reality in the media. This election will differ from previous elections in many ways. One of them will be that stories that are bad for Republican candidates will be dismissed as fake news by the President, his cheerleaders at Fox News and many other Republican aligned institutions and individuals. This will further concretize the harsh partisanship and division that defines American politics, exacerbate rancor between Trump’s base and the majority of America and make it almost impossible to have any fact based substantive discussion during the campaign. This too will raise questions about the democratic nature of our elections.
Election outcomes may be the next target of Trump’s relentless effort to define anything he doesn’t like as fake news. This could take the form of Republican candidates, particularly those with strong support from the President, refusing to accept defeat in close races. This may sound extreme and unlikely-and it would have even three years ago, but this is a different America. Donald Trump himself made it clear during the 2016 election, that he would not simply accept the election outcome if he were to lose.
More recently, in the highest profile election of 2017, Roy Moore a candidate who is very much in the Trump mold, lost the race for US Senator from usually Republican Alabama, by about 1.5%, or 21,000 votes. Moore than spent several weeks contesting the outcome and asserting there had been widespread election fraud. The major piece of evidence he presented for this was that African American voter turnout was very high. Given the enthusiasm many African Americans had for keeping the racist Moore out office, that turnout is easily explained.
It is very possible that there will be more of these cases in November of this year of Republicans, with support from the President, refusing to accept election outcomes they do not like. It is more likely that Republicans who lose close races will concoct stories of fake news and imaginary fraud so that even if they have to accept defeat, a large proportion of the electorate will believe they were cheated. 2018 will be another very trying year for American democracy. A big Democratic win in November could help restore democracy, but an election that includes possible Russian interference, claims of fake news and reluctance to accept defeat from one of the parties is not going to solve any of these problems.