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What pathways would lead most directly to democratic failure in the U.S. and why is a breakdown more plausible today than at previous points in recent history? A new essay by Bernard Grofman, Jack W. Peltason Endowed Chair of Democracy and Distinguished Professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, argues that the federal structure of the U.S. Constitution coupled with false claims of election fraud create a very real scenario in which state or congressional level reversals of popular vote results becomes possible. 

“There are changes that have happened in recent years that increase the possible routes toward democratic breakdown,” says Grofman who is an expert on voting rights and redistricting. “My analysis is that if there is a breakdown, it is most likely to be at the level of state action rather than at the federal level. But there are potential failure points at the federal level as well.”

His essay, published in Perspectives on Politics, outlines six pain points that are particularly problematic today. They include:

  • Decentralization of election administration to the state level and below.
  • Historically high levels of malapportionment in the Senate and gerrymandering in the House  and partisan bias within the Electoral College.
  • A 2019 Supreme Court decision that rejected federal courts from placing a constitutional check on partisan gerrymandering, effectively allowing state legislatures to redraw electoral boundaries that meet a party’s purpose.
  • Recent legislation passed in one-party controlled states – such as Georgia – that enables the state legislature to take control of elections from local boards and from the Secretary of State.
  • The constitutional possibility of entrusting the state legislature, rather than the voters, the power to select presidential electors — a change that must be done well in advance of a presidential election.
  • Supreme Court deference to state election administration in the absence of clear constitutional violations.

“In trifecta-controlled states, partisan gerrymandering is a near certainty,” Grofman says. “Also there are high levels of partisan bias within the Electoral College in the 2016 and 2020 elections. And malapportionment in the Senate at very high levels. These distortions mean that a minority of a state – or of the nation – can determine which party will be in power at state or national levels.”

His essay notes that while just because one party could use these pathways doesn’t mean it would, recent events have him concerned. An increasingly polarized electorate, the remarkably high number of congressional  votes against acceptance of Biden’s election to the presidency on Jan. 6 , the belief among tens of millions of Republican voters that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and the current high stakes closeness of each congressional election in the U.S. House and Senate and for the presidency at the level of Electoral College votes stand out as factors that make a democratic breakdown more plausible today than at any other point in recent history.

“A lot is riding on this year’s mid-term elections, which can be thought of as a testing ground for 2024 in that we will have a much better sense of the resilience of the U.S. political system once the 2022 elections are over,” he says. “Will there be some close elections in a Republican controlled state that might give Democrats a majority for offices in that state that Republicans in power try to have reversed based on spurious claims of fraud? If we have a Republican Senate or House elected in 2022, will there be an attempt to impeach Biden, or to remove him from office based on the claim that his election in 2020 was fraudulent? These are real scenarios that could lead to a breakdown of our democracy.”

The full essay is available online at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/prospects-for-democratic-breakdown-in-the-united-states-bringing-the-states-back-in/8C2D8B0E554A611AB1854F5491E4B7C9.