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Democrats and some Republicans fear how Trump's election lies may affect democracy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the past year, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans have become alarmed about the future of democracy. They are concerned about Trump's efforts to delegitimize the last election and about new state laws passed by Republicans, which make it easier to subvert elections. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, all this has left Democrats and their allies searching for solutions

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: When it comes to the future of American democracy, Democrats' hair is on fire. Here's Maine Senator Angus King on the floor of the Senate, arguing in favor of a voting rights bill that was ultimately defeated by a Republican filibuster. King says we are in the midst of a Constitutional crisis right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGUS KING: One of our great political parties has embraced the idea that our last election was fraudulent, that our current president is illegitimate, that they must move legislatures across the country to fix the results - to fix the results - of future elections.

LIASSON: The fix King is talking about are laws passed by Republican state legislatures that could make it harder to cast a ballot and would give partisan Republicans a greater role in certifying elections. But Rick Hasen, co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center at UC Irvine, says state legislatures can determine the outcome of the 2024 election without changing any laws.

RICK HASEN: I don't think there needs to be one law that needs to be passed in any state. You would just need state legislatures to come together or members of Congress to come together and decide that they're going to not follow the rules.

LIASSON: This is Hasen's nightmare scenario - that in 2024, in key battleground states, legislators who, according to the Constitution, are responsible for certifying Electoral College results, say something like this.

HASEN: There were irregularities in the election. We can't be sure who the winner is. We've got to appoint an alternative slate of electors. It gets sent in, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, in 2025 says, yeah, we're going to count those votes for the Republicans, right? That's what Trump was trying to get to happen. That's why the question is whether 2020 was a failed coup or a dress rehearsal for 2024.

LIASSON: So what can Democrats do about this? They're fighting these laws in court. They'd like to pass federal legislation. But that means convincing Joe Manchin to agree to an exception to the filibuster - highly unlikely.

SARAH LONGWELL: If there's not going to be an actual policy solution to a lot of the subversion elements, then the only option available to you is a political one.

LIASSON: That's Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican who started the group Defending Democracy Together.

LONGWELL: So right now, Trump is going around endorsing candidates who, for the most part, bolster and repeat his claims that the election were stolen. They also say openly that they would potentially not certify the 2024 elections, depending on how they turn out. And so you have to beat candidates like that.

LIASSON: Longwell is talking about candidates for secretary of state, state legislature, county clerks - the kinds of races, says former Ohio State Democratic Party Chair David Pepper, that Republicans tend to pay a lot more attention to than Democrats.

DAVID PEPPER: So much of the problem is at the state House level. And most people - they cannot name their state House member. They have no idea what those people's power is. Individual citizens have to really, you know, get involved. If one side is relentlessly attacking democracy and the other side runs out of gas, the attacks on democracy will succeed.

LIASSON: Democrats have another problem. Even after January 6, election subversion is not an animating issue for most voters, as Longwell discovered in her focus groups.

LONGWELL: It's what I would call a low-salience issue.

LIASSON: Most people in Longwell's groups are like Farah (ph), a swing voter from Georgia.

FARAH: I think if a candidate says that they did, you know, certify and support the results or not, it's just a non-issue for me.

LIASSON: Democratic strategist Doug Thornell says the issue does matter to key parts of the Democratic base - young voters and people of color. But...

DOUG THORNELL: It's complicated. It's not that easy. It can have a boomerang effect, where it, you know, ends up sort of causing people to be frustrated and stay home. You don't want that.

LIASSON: While the idea of future election subversion is a complicated one for Democrats to message, for Republicans, says Longwell, the false charge that the last election was stolen is actually a big motivator. When Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney wouldn't accept Trump's big lie, she was kicked out of House Republican leadership.

LONGWELL: When Kevin McCarthy said that Liz Cheney could no longer be in leadership because she was off-message, what he meant was, our message going into 2022 is that the election was stolen. That is a turnout mechanism for us in 2022.

LIASSON: As this week's elections show, Republicans don't have to cheat to win. The election in Virginia was high-turnout and free of fraud. But what Democrats and their allies worry about is what happens if, in 2024, Republican legislatures in states like Arizona and Georgia erect enough barriers to the ballot and destroy enough democratic norms so that their party simply cannot lose a close race.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.