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U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, speaks alongside Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) during a panel meeting on March 28, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

January 6 Hearings: Examin­ing the Elec­tion Sabot­age and Ongoing Damage to Democracy

Legislation is necessary to protect our democratic system and stop future attacks.

On Monday, the House Select Commit­tee to Invest­ig­ate the Janu­ary 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol holds the second of several public hear­ings to reveal a detailed account of the insur­rec­tion and the indi­vidu­als behind it. These hear­ings mark a pivotal first step in repu­di­at­ing the attack and hold­ing its perpet­rat­ors account­able for one of the most alarm­ing assaults on Amer­ican demo­cracy in history. Today's hear­ing also serves an addi­tional crit­ical purpose: examin­ing the elec­tion sabot­age scheme that fueled the insur­rec­tion and its ongo­ing damage to our demo­cracy.

Passing legis­la­tion will require rally­ing sustained polit­ical pres­sure, and the commit­tee's hear­ings provide a crit­ical oppor­tun­ity to do exactly that.

The damage, detailed in Bren­nan Center testi­mony submit­ted to the commit­tee in April, is strik­ing. By track­ing the Big Lie that Donald Trump actu­ally won reelec­tion, our research demon­strates that a direct through line exists between 2020 elec­tion denial, the elec­tion sabot­age scheme behind the insur­rec­tion, and ongo­ing efforts to thwart the demo­cratic process. In other words, the same Big Lie that fueled the insur­rec­tion contin­ues to rever­ber­ate across the coun­try, driv­ing bids to under­mine voting rights, inter­fere with elect­oral processes, and attack impar­tial elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors.

Of course, it bears repeat­ing that the Big Lie is, in fact, a lie. Its theory of a "stolen" elec­tion relies on racially charged alleg­a­tions of voter fraud, ballot irreg­u­lar­it­ies, and conspir­acies to other­wise "rig" the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Each of these claims has been thor­oughly disproven. None of the more than 60 lawsuits chal­len­ging the results of the 2020 elec­tion succeeded in prov­ing fraud, and Pres­id­ent Trump's own offi­cials deemed the 2020 elec­tion "the most secure in Amer­ican history." Nonethe­less, these false claims drove the brazen scheme to over­turn the elec­tion results through vote suppres­sionbase­less litig­a­tion, and even outright attempts to over­ride legit­im­ate votes. Together, these efforts spiraled into the Janu­ary 6 attack. But while this plot may have failed, the Big Lie is far from over.

Take, for example, aggress­ive devel­op­ments in state legis­latures. Efforts to pass restrict­ive voting laws hit unpre­ced­en­ted heights follow­ing the 2020 elec­tion and continue at a rapid pace this year. States also face a new, burgeon­ing trend in the form of legis­la­tion that enables partisan actors to meddle in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and vote-count­ing processes—other­wise known as elec­tion inter­fer­ence legis­la­tion.

These attacks are not coin­cid­ental. Bren­nan Center research found that in 2021, the vast major­ity of these bills were sponsored by the same state legis­lat­ors who publicly ques­tioned the valid­ity of the 2020 elec­tion. And in many cases, these spon­sors justi­fied their legis­la­tion using the same discred­ited claims of wide­spread voter fraud and a stolen elec­tion that fueled the insur­rec­tion.

Our research also compared the text of new restrict­ive voting and elec­tion inter­fer­ence legis­la­tion with false alleg­a­tions made in lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies to over­turn the 2020 elec­tion. Like clock­work, the same disproven theor­ies of wide­spread voter fraud, ballot irreg­u­lar­it­ies, and conspir­acies made in those lawsuits resur­faced with remark­able specificity in legis­la­tion intro­duced in 2021. Indeed, of the 17 states in which courts reviewed lawsuits chal­len­ging the 2020 elec­tion, 15 saw legis­la­tion that directly incor­por­ated false claims from those suits.

Make no mistake—these legis­lat­ive attacks work as inten­ded. Mount­ing evid­ence shows that new voting restric­tions already are disen­fran­chising voters, partic­u­larly voters of color, in post-2020 elec­tions.

Beyond legis­la­tion, the Big Lie's damage also extends to attacks on impar­tial elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. Across the coun­try, vigil­antes (and in some cases, other state offi­cials) are invok­ing false claims of voter fraud and a stolen elec­tion to threaten offi­cials from both parties for simply doing their job. These attacks—which range from racist and gendered harass­ment and death threats to threats of crim­inal prosec­u­tion — risk creat­ing a reten­tion crisis among exper­i­enced elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. Dozens of offi­cials in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wiscon­sin, and Nevada already left their posi­tions. Nation­wide, one in five local elec­tion offi­cials surveyed by the Bren­nan Center plan to leave their posi­tion before 2024.

As many elec­tion offi­cials prepare to resign, elec­tion denial also threatens to upend the races by which many of them are chosen. This year, for example, 27 states will hold elec­tions for secret­ary of state—the offi­cial who typic­ally serves as a state's chief elec­tion officer. At least 21 current candid­ates in these races espouse the Big Lie's theory of a stolen elec­tion. And as this disin­form­a­tion prolif­er­ates, campaigns are rais­ing more money, from more donors, with greater reli­ance than ever before on out-of-state dona­tions. In other words, as Big Lie–driven onslaughts push exper­i­enced elec­tion offi­cials out of their posi­tions, their replace­ments will in many instances emerge from polit­ic­ally charged, nation­al­ized races featur­ing elec­tion deniers. Look no further than last month's primary elec­tions to see this phenomenon in action.

The insur­rec­tion made one thing clear: our exist­ing guard­rails cannot protect us from anti­demo­cratic attacks. As the Big Lie contin­ues to wreak havoc on our demo­cracy, and with the 2024 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion around the corner, inac­tion is not an option.

In the short term, Amer­ic­ans and our insti­tu­tions must mobil­ize to stave off the current wave of attacks. Many sectors of soci­ety and govern­ment have a role to play in thwart­ing Big Lie–driven efforts to sabot­age future elec­tions. And we know that this mobil­iz­a­tion works. Even when confron­ted with a global pandemic and disin­form­a­tion-fueled assaults on voters and the elect­oral process, 2020 saw a wide range of forces—includ­ing elec­tion offi­cials, other state govern­ment entit­ies, courts, community groups, busi­nesses, and journ­al­ists—mobil­ize to safe­guard the elec­tion with great success.

Ulti­mately, Congress also must act to strengthen our demo­cratic guard­rails. The push to outrun or out-organ­ize vote suppres­sion and elec­tion inter­fer­ence, while essen­tial, can only go so far and last for so long. The narrowly defeated Free­dom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would address many of these prob­lems by, for example, estab­lish­ing national stand­ards for cast­ing and count­ing ballots in federal elec­tions and revital­iz­ing the Voting Rights Act's protec­tions against racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting. It also would limit oppor­tun­it­ies for partisan inter­fer­ence in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, increase protec­tions for elec­tion offi­cials, and curb disin­form­a­tion in elec­tions.

Passing legis­la­tion will require rally­ing sustained polit­ical pres­sure, and the commit­tee's hear­ings provide a crit­ical oppor­tun­ity to do exactly that. The multi­pronged plot to over­turn the elec­tion and the viol­ent events of Janu­ary 6 must never happen again, and legis­la­tion remains the best and only way to ensure that history never repeats itself. We must demand it.

© 2021 Brennan Center for Justice

Lauren Miller

Lauren Miller serves as counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where she focuses on voting rights and elections. 

Wendy Weiser

Wendy Weiser

Wendy R. Weiser directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a non-partisan think tank and public interest law center that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice.

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