Less than two days before pivotal midterm elections, John Oliver delved into the “dangerous trend” of Republican candidates denying the legitimacy of the last election in an attempt to subvert the next one. Over half the country has an election denier running to oversee their elections, which makes the risk of election subversion – “the strategy to negate legitimate election results by simply refusing to accept them” – a serious threat on numerous levels.
The Last Week Tonight host flashed back to 2020, in which Donald Trump and numerous followers attempted to overturn the election, either by pressuring secretaries of state or refusing to certify Biden’s victory. “In state after state, we were lucky that a small group of individuals in key positions stood firm,” Oliver explained.
“The guardrails that protect our democracy were heavily tested in 2020, and while some major weaknesses were exposed, they thankfully held,” he added. “But since then, there has been a concerted effort to attack the people and institutions that got into Trump’s way, shifting the landscape in ways that could make future subversion attempts even more dangerous.”
First and foremost, the stickiness of the evidence-less belief in election fraud – 61% of Republicans still believe that Biden’s victory was fraudulent, “which is just ridiculous given that, again, there is no evidence of that”, said Oliver. “Multiple states had exhaustive recounts. This has been litigated. This just isn’t one of those unknowable things that will never get resolved, like which one of the Teletubbies when cooked properly would taste best.” (The answer, Oliver speculated, is Po.)
That belief is fueled by rightwing propaganda such as Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” 2000 Mules, which is also, as Oliver called it, “the answer to the question: ‘What if The Wire was created by virgins?’”
The “astonishingly dumb” film which claims, without evidence, that operatives submitted fraudulent ballots in 2020 has a loyal following – at least 50 GOP candidates have promoted or cited it.
Rightwing strategists such as Steve Bannon have also encouraged election deniers to oversee voter precincts and take jobs in polling stations with “troubling advice”; at one poll worker and watcher training session in Michigan run by a rightwing activist group, participants were encouraged to call 911 or police with election-related complaints.
“Which is not great, is it?” said Oliver. “You should clearly only call 911 with an actual emergency, like a car accident or a break-in, or when someone takes off their shoes and socks on a plane.”
The shenanigans have driven away serious election officials – in five key battleground states, one in three top election administrators left the job after the 2020 election.
And then are high-level races with risky candidates, such as the Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who has called for the imprisonment of Arizona’s current secretary of state and said that if she didn’t win her primary, it would be because “there’s some cheating going on”. After winning it, she said her supporters “outvoted the fraud”.
“Which is basically, ‘If I lose, it’s rigged, if I win, it’s fine,’” Oliver explained. “Meaning she’s approaching elections with the same objectivity and nuance of a five-year-old inventing a game in real time.”
Arizona also has an election denier, Mark Finchem, running to oversee all of the state’s elections. Finchem has refused to guarantee that he would certify the 2024 election for anyone other than Trump. “He laid out his plan in front of everybody,” Oliver said. “Step 1: identify two counties which, if removed from the count, would hand the election to Trump. Step 2: remove them from the count.”
Oliver warned for chaos ahead. “There are protections against one rogue official refusing to sign off on an election” – they could be sued or held in contempt of court. But the chances someone could attempt and get away with election subversion increase when there are sympathetic minds up and down the chain.
“I do not want to be too alarmist. I don’t mean to sound like Chicken Little here,” he added. “The odds of Kari Lake unilaterally picking our next president are thankfully slim.
“But the odds of her and others like her being able to make a complete mess are significantly higher. Because everything that we’ve talked about tonight has the capacity to overwhelm our system, making it harder to certify elections quickly, leading to confusion, which sows doubt in the process, and in turn causes absolute chaos.”
As disheartening as it could be, Oliver called on his audience to vote as a short-term course of action. “I know how ludicrous it sounds to hear ‘fix the significant roadblocks keeping your vote from counting by voting,’” he said, particularly for black voters, disabled people, the formerly incarcerated and low-income communities who have “long been sounding the alarm about all of this shit”.
But “at every level of the process, we need people to show the same level of enthusiasm for preserving our democracy that other are demonstrating for dismantling it”.