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Sensemaker: American democracy

Sensemaker: American democracy

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A minister in Rishi Sunak’s new cabinet was accused in a formal complaint of sending “vile and threatening” messages (more below).
  • France’s National Assembly was suspended when a far-right delegate told an opponent to “go back to Africa”.
  • Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was shot in the leg in what his supporters said was an assassination attempt.

American democracy

Next week, Republicans who believe the last US presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump could be elected to positions that let them help him steal the next one. If that sounds alarmist, bear in mind that

  • 60 per cent of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot in Tuesday’s midterms;
  • nearly 30 per cent still believe Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 race was rigged against him; and
  • 147 House Republicans, most still members of Congress, voted against certifying the 2020 result the day after last year’s January 6th insurrection. 

In Iowa yesterday, Trump said he would “very, very, very probably” run again. On the hustings, Democrats say the fabric of the republic is at stake. Yesterday Barack Obama told a crowd in Phoenix if Republicans win in state and federal races next week, “democracy as we know it may not survive in Arizona”. Biden said election deniers put the country on “a path to chaos”.

How so? The offices that could help Trump pull off a steal in 2024 are:

  • Governors, who certify election results and send a list of electors to Congress. In theory a governor could refuse to certify the election result or support a list of “fake electors” like those drawn up by Trump and his team after the 2020 election. 
  • Secretaries of state, who supervise election administration in most states. They have the power to decide how and where ballots get cast and counted and they confirm the final tally of votes after election day. A secretary of state could choose to dispute the numbers, demand audits of the results and cast doubt on the integrity of the election. 

These are the state officials whom Trump tried to pressure in 2020 into overturning Biden’s victory. The worry is that, with more compliant officials, Trump could succeed – especially in states with close results last time.

In Arizona, where Trump lost by 0.3 per cent, the Republican candidate for secretary of state is Mark Finchem, a conspiracy theorist associated with the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia. Finchem has called the 2020 election a fraud, said he wouldn’t have certified Biden’s win and hinted that he may reject Democrat victories in the future. He was in the crowds outside the Capitol on 6 January 2021. 

The Republican candidate for governor in Arizona is Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor who also says she wouldn’t have certified the 2020 result.

Will they win? Of 20 gubernatorial candidates identified as “election deniers” by the Washington Post, eight are slated to win and six are in hotly contested races. Among the ten candidates for secretary of state, one is a likely winner, six are in tight contests with Democrats, and one, Chuck Gray, is running unopposed in Wyoming – a prospect even Gray’s fellow Republicans find alarming, spurring an attempt in the state legislature to remove some of his powers.

The 2024 election is likely to be close: if officials in even a single swing state refuse to certify the results that could “throw a major wrench” into the electoral process, says Dr Julie Norman, co-director of UCL’s US politics centre. “All you need is one.” 

Reality check. Refusals by Republican election officials to certify the legitimate winner in 2024 are unlikely to prevail. In such an instance “a court is likely to step in and just certify the election,” according to John Fortier, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

More likely: officials could change election laws and processes in ways that benefit the electoral chances of their own party. Election-denying candidates are calling for reforms they claim will improve election security – such as eliminating voting by mail and restricting early voting – but which Democrats claim disproportionately suppress their voters. Many deniers also subscribe to a bogus theory that states are entitled under the constitution to decide the outcome of federal elections. 

Even if they don’t manage to change the mechanics of the elections, deniers continue to undermine trust in them – and create the conditions for another January 6th. 


Rishi’s Gavin gamble

Forget Suella Braverman for a moment. Rishi Sunak’s political judgment is being questioned over another senior appointment to his team. Tortoise has learned that a formal complaint has been submitted to the Conservative Party regarding “threatening” behaviour by cabinet minister Gavin Williamson.

Wendy Morton, the former chief whip under Liz Truss, has passed on details of “vile and threatening messages” she received in the days before the former prime minister resigned, sources say. One MP said the submission included screen grabs of messages sent by Williamson, himself a former chief whip. He said there was “quite a bit of evidence”, and that a number of MPs were willing to back Morton up. Another suggested there was a misogynistic undertone to the content, with messages sent over the course of several weeks.

Williamson played a key role in Sunak’s leadership campaign during the summer, when fellow Conservative MPs alleged he was “lending votes” to tactically improve Sunak’s chances. He was made minister without portfolio in Sunak’s first Cabinet.

A former minister who had previously backed Sunak said his appointment of Williamson was “absurd” and had “surprised lots of people”. Williamson has been previously sacked twice: once as defence secretary, following a Cabinet Office investigation which concluded he had leaked confidential information about Huawei despite his denial, then as education secretary following the pandemic exams debacle. Morton confirmed she has submitted a complaint, but declined to comment further. A Conservative Party spokesperson said the party had “a robust complaints process in place.” A friend of Williamson, who has yet to be made aware of the complaint, said he “strongly refutes these allegations” and is “very happy to share all communications with the former chief whip with CCHQ if needed”. 


Twitter half-empty

Two questions arise from Elon Musk’s ruthless cull of about half Twitter’s staff a week into his ownership of the platform: where will they go, and what were they all doing if Twitter can manage without them? Musk’s own answer to the second is that there seemed to be “ten people ‘managing’ for every one coding” – although it’s far from clear that Twitter as its users came to know it can survive on a skeleton staff skewed heavily towards software engineers. One answer to the second could be: Mastodon. The Guardian’s Wilfred Chan says this left-leaning assortment of sites and servers attracted 70,000 new users on the day one of Musk’s takeover alone. 


Science of crowds

How did more than 150 people die while celebrating Halloween in Seoul? Failures in policing and crowd control were factors – but so was physics. In the aftermath it’s clear the police response, despite emergency calls from partygoers, was inadequate. But once a crowd of the density seen in Seoul begins to form, it can be hard to control. Martyn Amos, a professor who studies crowds, describes it to Wired as the difference between a gas (moving freely) and a liquid (at the mercy of others around you). Once a group becomes a “liquid” the sheer force of people pushing against each other can lead to asphyxiation and trampling. Even a small push at the back of the crowd can send a wave of building pressure. According to Amos, five people pushing on one person can produce enough force to break their ribs. At the 1989 Hillsborough disaster enough force was produced to break steel barriers. Strength in numbers can be fatal. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitic

Condemned glaciers

There are three remaining glacial regions in Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori mountains. But according to a study by Unesco and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, glaciers in all three places are on course to disappear before 2050, even if humanity manages to keep warming below 1.5C. The report predicts that a third of the world’s 50 most important glacial regions will be gone by 2050, including glaciers in Yosemite and Yellowstone in the United States, in the Dolomites and in parts of the Pyrenees. Emissions reductions targets will not save these glaciers but the remaining third can be protected from complete ice-loss if warming is limited to 1.5C or below. Failure to act could cause 8,000 gigatonnes of ice to melt, although by one estimate steep global emissions reductions would mean glacial regrowth in the Alps by 2100.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Oklahoma death penalty

Oklahoma is suing the Biden administration for its refusal to hand over a federal prisoner so he can be executed. John Fitzgerald Hanson – who has been serving a federal life sentence since 2000 but was also convicted and sentenced to death for a separate crime in 2001 – is one of 25 prisoners for whom the state announced execution dates in July. The federal Bureau of Prisons denied Oklahoma’s request that Hanson be transferred to state custody, saying it would not be “in the public interest”. Considering Oklahoma’s recent history, the BoP has a point. The state has only recently lifted an almost six-year moratorium on the death penalty caused by back-to-back botched executions in 2014 and 2015 in which the prisoners suffered excruciating pain before dying. Multiple eyewitnesses claim that the first execution after the moratorium was lifted was also mishandled. The Biden administration has so far shown no signs of backing down.

Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Ella Hill

James Wilson

Additional reporting by Catherine Neilan, Katie Riley, Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis. Graphic by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images

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