Despite fears of political violence and deepening societal divisions, the United States appears to have avoided the worst-case scenarios in the lead-up to and immediately following the midterm elections. Election officials and local law enforcement showed a united front around the country to deter threats of violence against election workers. Many candidates who made election denialism a central campaign theme lost and conceded their races without calling into question the veracity of the results. All of the election deniers vying for positions that would have seen them run future elections in four key swing states lost. And while foreign state-sponsored actors either claimed to be interfering in the elections or had their malign influence campaigns exposed by government, industry, and civil society, no evidence has emerged to suggest authoritarian regimes successfully affected the outcomes.
However, a celebration of the health of democracy in the United States would be premature when there is so much work to do to avoid backsliding ahead of the 2024 presidential election campaign. The information space is complicated and getting more so every day, and it is too early to know which narratives will develop and catch on once all results have been announced.
The main concern is that a failure to accept results or calling into question the integrity of the electoral process can deepen distrust of the system and demonize the officials and volunteers who run it. So far, the Midterm Monitor—a joint project from the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF and the Brennan Center for Justice that tracks media, candidates, and foreign state-backed actors across social media platforms—has seen relatively little of this. However, in Arizona, where all of the statewide election-denying candidates lost, there has been an explosion of conspiracy theories over the past few days—many pushed by prominent candidates. And there is a question as to whether Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake will concede, so far having only tweeted that “Arizonans know BS when they see it” after the race was called for her opponent Katie Hobbs.
Second, election administration remains in the crosshairs. Errors did occur in the midterms but officials identified and fixed the problems. They then worked diligently to ensure every vote was properly counted. But the fact that errors occurred in polarized Maricopa County, Arizona—one of the best-funded and most heavily scrutinized election districts—has provided fodder for prominent voices who spread distrust in the integrity of the electoral system. The Midterm Monitor shows that completely unfounded claims have again surfaced that ballots were “harvested,” the ballot chain of custody was broken, and voting machines were rigged to favor Democrats. Thus, the potential remains for certain states to adopt more restrictive and politicized election procedures in the next couple of years, which could impact the next elections.
Finally, polarization is still alive and well, and the United States’ foreign adversaries stand ready to use it to their geopolitical advantage. Government assessments of foreign efforts to interfere in the midterms show a change in strategy, particularly on the part of China. For the first time, China was labeled a primary actor of interference in US elections, after having considered doing so in 2020 before deciding against it. The assessments allege that it targeted specific candidates and races. Meanwhile, Russia continued its strategy of confusion and division. The most prominent example was the declaration from Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin, that his business entities were interfering in the midterms. Additionally, the Washington Post detailed a years-long effort by the United Arab Emirates to manipulate the US political system using legal and illegal tactics. While there is no evidence that foreign actors impacted the midterms’ outcomes, they will continue to exploit the United States’ vulnerabilities and find new ways or perfect old ones to exacerbate the fissures in its democratic foundation.
Americans must be vigilant to uphold and protect their democracy. The United States still is dealing with a fragmented information space challenges to established election administration procedures, and foreign actors who seize on these vulnerabilities. Yet, the midterms have provided reason to believe that voters value democracy and stability. Looking ahead to 2024, the hope is that the poor showing of election deniers in particular could lead to more democracy-affirming actions and statements from candidates and citizens alike. If that happens, the United States will have taken a critical step toward fending off the numerous challenges to democracy.