Today, millions of Americans go to the polls to cast their ballots for everything from county judges and railroad commissioners to United States representatives and senators. Much of the media’s attention has been on whether the electorate will use the midterms to express their dissatisfaction with the Biden administration more generally and the challenging economic and financial situation that the administration has presided over more specifically.
The balance of Congress has received particular attention in this regard. Will Republicans take both houses of Congress from the Democrats (a decent chance), just one (very likely), or will Democrats somehow hang on and maintain control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives (few people, even among Democrats, would confidently bet on this outcome). Many of the public opinion polls for the various congressional races are within the margin of error and therefore too close to predict, but it is fair to say that both Republicans and Democrats are preparing for a new congressional term starting in January 2023 that will make it significantly harder for the Biden administration to score meaningful legislative and policy victories.
Yet, the balance of Congress might not even be the most important issue at stake in this midterm election. Across the country, voters go to the polls to vote for governors, state legislative candidates and secretaries of state, to name just a few. And a significant number of Republican candidates for those offices have come out as election deniers – believing and advocating that Biden did not win the 2020 presidential election and that Trump is the rightful president. Even if only a handful of those election-denying candidates win election today, they could inflict enormous damage on the 2024 election, when they would be able to influence vote counts and certifications for the presidential election.
Growing partisan polarization and fierce electoral competition has been a staple of American democracy for many decades. So have electoral backlash against the incumbent party during midterm elections. Neither of these have ever amounted to a significant threat to American democracy. The rising level of disinformation, conspiracy theories and the erosion of norms around the acceptance of election outcomes and peaceful transition of power, however, have reached worrying levels that threaten the core of the American political system. It is a real threat to the United States but also the world more generally if one of the beacons of democracy is faltering, maybe even crumbling.