The Senate hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection was the blame game to end all blame games: The failure was within the FBI. Or maybe the Army. Or maybe the Capitol Police.
But the extremists’ deadly siege of Congress didn’t happen only because individual agencies failed to defend the building, and the riot was not just born of rage or blind allegiance to a defiant candidate. It was an attack on voting—the very heart of American democracy.
Just as the pursuit of an impeachment conviction against Donald Trump required members of Congress to regard the former president as “singularly responsible” for inciting the mob, yesterday we asked which agency should be held singularly responsible for the security failures. Those are the wrong targets.
They are wrong not because the impeachment failed to produce a conviction—that result was preordained by Republican fealty— or because we should not suss out the security failures, but because the fixation on Jan. 6 in isolation has led Congress, the media, and much of the nation to lose sight of everything else that sparked the “Stop the Steal” uprising. And now, a fixation on which security oversight to blame threatens to take us further away from realizing that the problem has been decades in the making, while we are doing almost nothing to stop it from happening again.
The roots of this crisis and where it will lead next are clear to me because I’ve had a front-row seat to this drama for four years. As ProPublica’s voting reporter, I took on an unusual beat for the 2016 election, tracking not the stakes of elections but the process of voting itself: seemingly mundane proceedings like poll worker trainings, county purchasing meetings about voting machines, obscure legislative hearings on voting laws. ProPublica’s idea was to pool 1,100 local reporters to document how the vote played out in the first election after the Supreme Court’s landmark revisions to the Voting Rights Act. Then, in October, the story began to change when Trump, then the Republican nominee, alleged widespread voter fraud.
Even after his 2016 victory, Trump continued the charade — sowing the seeds of doubt that would allow him to claim victory in 2020, even if he lost. Today, we connect his motivation with whatever personal demons make Trump unable to admit defeat, but what’s just as important to understand is that Trump had picked up a playbook that was years in the making by his party’s local leaders.
The first place I saw that playbook really clearly was in Texas, where I traveled in 2017 to explain how the implementation of the state’s new voter ID law had gone so disastrously the year before. The assumed goal of voter ID was a policy move to make it more difficult to vote as the state’s rapidly changing demographics threatened power long held by white Republicans. But what really made the party embrace voter ID was its power to ignite the base.
I was especially struck by Doug Smith, the Republican chair of the Texas House elections committee when voter ID legislation passed. He described how claims of voter fraud first levied after the 2000 election by George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Aschroft, ricocheted in Texas, becoming such an obsession of Republicans that by 2009 Smith concluded no legislative activity could proceed until lawmakers tackled voter fraud fears.
After studying Ashcroft’s investigation, which found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Smith tried to craft moderate legislation. He eventually gave up after Tea Party organizing handed Texas Republicans a supermajority in the House in 2011.
A few years removed from elected office, Smith understood why his party had gone down such a dark hole. “If you persuade people that you are the party trying to make sure elections are controlled by American citizens, and that the Democrats are doing everything they can to make sure that illegal immigrants can vote by the busload,” he said, “that’s a good position to be in.”
And it is.
Fomenting anger based on election fraud claims proved effective in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Indiana, where voting laws were debated with increased fury and threats were made toward election officials. And then came Trump. The claims he made in the 2016 campaign aligned him early on with this lineage. Over the course of the 2020 election, Trump took fraud fiction to a new level. I increasingly found myself fielding phone calls from terrified election officials across the country. One Republican election official called me after midnight, a week before November 3, just to talk. She wanted to know what the country would be like after this election. I couldn’t find any words of hope to offer her.
I’ve been reminded again and again over the past four years of the major structural forces that made possible what we saw in January. One is the bigger shifts in voting laws that both opened the door to more restrictive voting laws and centralized voter-roll data, which conspiracy theorists and fraud commissions alike misinterpret to spin scary stories of illegal voting that appeal to the base foundations of the country’s ugliest, most racist roots. The other is changes in my own profession, the media itself.
The local news outlets my ProPublica colleagues and I worked with during the 2016 election were already husks of their former selves, poorly equipped to debunk the claims of vote fraud by local elected officials like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. By 2020, many of those journalists had lost their jobs altogether.
It is no longer acceptable to pretend that we can cover claims about our election system without resourcing local reporters to examine and explain those claims thoughtfully and with nuance to local readers who understandably do not trust national sources. It is no longer acceptable to ignore the tedious and important work of our local election administrators, who are on the front lines of democracy.
As we move forward from the lowest point in modern American democracy, we need to reclaim a common understanding of truth. To do that, we need the journalism that helps voters understand the pivotal events just around the corner, whether bloody or not — from redistricting to legislative election reforms to whether to maintain vote by mail and early voting. That’s why I left ProPublica to join Votebeat, a new pop-up newsroom designed not only to support local reporters in covering voting and elections, as Electionland did, but to create full-time jobs to ensure somebody is doing that reporting.
The local and state level, after all, is not just where voter fraud claims began. It was also the early warning system for the Jan. 6 insurrection, with many reports of harassments of poll workers and death threats against election officials. And it is the stage where state Republicans first made national news for revealing their president’s illegal scheme to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory. Notably, it wasn’t Mitt Romney or a Cabinet member or a White House staffer who recorded and released a call in which Trump abused his power, seeking to falsify an election result. It was a Republican voting official in the state of Georgia.