By Adam Pritzker & Daniel Squadron
It’s no secret that the rightwing is currently riding a conspiracy-fueled train with a one-way ticket to the destruction of American democracy. The evidence has piled up to the point that it’s impossible to ignore.
In the last two years alone, we’ve seen relentless attacks on Americans’ fundamental right to vote; widespread gerrymandering that lets politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around; and of course, a brazen (and fortunately, unsuccessful) attempt to overturn the lawful results of a fair and free election via desperate political arm-twisting, unhinged legal shenanigans, and a violent insurrection to boot.
But they’re not done yet. In fact, the rightwing campaign to undermine our democracy for their own gain is just picking up steam.
This week, The New York Times filed an essential front-page report on the next frontier in this troubling trend: the very real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court’s extremist supermajority could soon hand state legislatures “nearly absolute power over federal elections” — including the ability to potentially disregard the will of their state’s voters in presidential contests — via a fringe legal theory known as the “Independent State Legislature doctrine.”
It’s undoubtedly scary stuff. But here’s the thing: A new survey conducted by Data For Progress on behalf of The States Project reveals that this next step in the rightwing’s unending assault on our democracy may be a bridge too far, with voters overwhelmingly opposed to the so-called Independent State Legislature doctrine and ready to withhold their support from candidates who support it.
Only time will tell whether this level of widespread opposition will finally force the rightwing to pump the breaks on their radical, anti-democracy agenda — or whether they’ll continue to barrel full speed ahead in hopes that they can rig the game in such a way that the voters’ feelings on it all become largely irrelevant.
Voters overwhelmingly oppose empowering state legislatures to decide electoral votes
While the current case pending before the Court, Moore v. Harper, may primarily focus on applying the Independent State Legislature doctrine to redistricting, one absurd extension of that argument put forth by rightwing think tanks — and one that has already been publicly endorsed by at least three sitting justices — would hand complete control of federal elections to state legislatures. This could even enable state lawmakers to determine which slate of Electoral College electors to send to Congress, rather than counting the popular vote in that state. This was the idea behind an extreme tactic unsuccessfully tried by Trump in the aftermath of the 2020 election, but which could become standard in 2024 and beyond with the Court’s blessing.
But there’s a fly in the rightwing’s anti-democracy ointment: such a move would (perhaps unsurprisingly) be extremely unpopular with the voters themselves.
Our new survey finds that 83% of respondents believe that the presidential candidate who wins the most votes should receive their state’s electoral votes, while only 10% believe the state legislature should decide. That’s a massive 73-point gap — and it represents as thorough a repudiation of the rightwing’s attempts to enshrine the Independent State Legislature doctrine into law as you’re likely to see in this era of extreme polarization.
Candidates could see significant blowback for supporting Independent State Legislature doctrine
This debate isn’t just happening in a legal vacuum. Rightwing political actors – including some sitting lawmakers and candidates – are actively pushing it forward. And our poll offers a word of warning for those thinking about throwing their support behind this fringe effort.
Nearly 6 in 10 respondents (57%) said that they would be less likely to vote for a state legislative candidate who believed that state legislators should be able to decide which presidential candidate receives their state’s electoral votes, no matter who received the most votes from voters — with 41% going even further to say they would be much less likely to support such a candidate. And that sentiment appears to be bipartisan in nature, with strong majorities of Democrats (59%), independents (58%) and even Republicans (52%) saying the same.
In a rational world, that type of opposition would push lawmakers away from supporting such an unpopular position. But recent experience — and our survey — indicates that we may be living in an increasingly irrational world…
Rightwing conspiracy mongering has poisoned Republican voters
And that is largely because, under the direction of Donald Trump, rightwing efforts to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election — and by extension, undermine the integrity of American democracy — have found their target.
According to our new poll, 75% of self-identified Republican respondents say they are not confident that the election was won fairly and freely by President Biden — with 6 in 10 saying they are not at all confident. That’s an astounding number that conveys not only the depth of the Big Lie’s penetration into the Republican base, but also how it has totally transformed the incentive system for the party’s candidates.
In fact, our survey shows that 52% of Republicans say they’d actually be more likely to vote for a candidate for state legislature who believes that the 2020 election was stolen — with a third saying they’d be much more likely to do so.
This provides a strong incentive for Republican candidates to kowtow to their base’s warped beliefs. So in that sense, it is unsurprising that, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of GOP nominees for the House, Senate, governor, and secretary of state, 60 percent of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot this fall — and that doesn’t even count the flood of anti-democracy nominees for state legislative seats. Our experience in these state legislative races is that the number could well be higher.
Extreme views could hurt Republican candidates in November
But while this positioning may have helped these candidates race to the right and survive competitive Republican primaries, this divorce from reality could hurt them among general election voters. In our survey, 45% of all voters said they would be less likely to vote for a state legislative candidate that denies the results of the 2020 election. Those are some tough headwinds in November. That’s probably why many Republican candidates are trying to dodge the question when asked.
Yet, with little reporting on the alarming representation of election deniers running for state legislative offices, many voters simply aren’t aware of their local candidate’s often extreme stances on the issue. And if the rightwing succeeds in continuing to hide their candidates’ unpopular, anti-democracy beliefs, voters could soon wake up with an even worse problem on their hands.
That’s why The States Project is working to stop the effort to undermine free and fair elections before it gets any further down the track. By investing nearly $60 million to build pro-democracy governing majorities in key state legislatures starting this cycle, we are doing our part to head the rightwing off at the pass and give democracy a fighting chance in 2024 and beyond.
About the Poll
From October 7 to 9, 2022, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 1,230 likely voters nationally using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, geography, and voting history. The survey was conducted in English. The margin of error is ±3 percentage points.