October 10, 2022
Every Texas county has its unique history, and Gillespie County’s is fascinating. Tonkawa, Comanche and Kiowa Indians inhabited the region until German immigrants began moving into the area in the 1840s. Alone in a new and immense country, the Germans created a rich tapestry of civic, church, and educational institutions to support and enrich their community. (Fun Fact: Germans from Fredericksburg, New Braunfels and Castroville were instrumental in getting the Texas Legislature to create the first public schools in the state.)
The combination of rugged individualism and mutual reliance continued to shape the culture of Gillespie County as it grew. Although it was a small, tight-knit community, proud of its German roots, it was known for its hospitality. By the 1970s, Gillespie County had a nice tourism industry, with attractions like the LBJ Ranch and Birthplace, the Nimitz Museum and an admirable collection of tchotchke shops. By the 1990s, a viticulture industry nurtured by the favorable wine-growing soils in the region was blossoming. By 2021, 27,797 people called Gillespie County home, and Airbnb now lists over 1,000 properties in the area.
But Gillespie County, sad to say, is not immune to our current madness.
Two months ago, the elections administrator for Gillespie County resigned her position. She’d had, to paraphrase a well-known maritime philosopher, all she could stand, and she couldn’t stand no more.
The administrator, a nine-year veteran county employee named Anissa Herrera, told the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post, “After the 2020 (election), I was threatened, I’ve been stalked, I’ve been called out on social media, … The year 2020 was when I got the death threats. It was enough that I reached out to our county attorney, and it was suggested that I forward it to FPD (Fredericksburg Police Department) and the sheriff’s office.” Herrera’s two colleagues in the elections office also quit.
Herrera’s resignation was the culmination of a campaign of harassment and intimidation that had been going on since 2019, when the losers of an election to ban fluoride in Fredericksburg’s water (!!!) filed lawsuits to declare the election invalid, alleging a grand conspiracy on the part of virtually the entire county and municipal government. That group also claimed electoral mischief in 2020 – even though Donald Trump carried Gillespie with 79% of the vote. It got even crazier during last year’s constitutional amendments election, when poll watchers tried to force their way into the counting spaces from which outsiders are barred. Fisticuffs almost ensued.
I confess to being mildly surprised that mild-mannered, hospitable Gillespie County has become a hotbed of election denialism and sabotage. But the idea that elections are corrupt is becoming widespread, as is the notion that ordinary citizens can, and should, physically intervene “to protect the integrity of elections,” a principle that the Texas Legislature indulged last year by expanding the rights of allegedly nonpartisan poll watchers to insert themselves in the back end of managing elections.
Anissa Herrera’s story is not unique. Harassment, intimidation, and threats against election officials are on the rise around Texas and the country. Agitators disrupted a routine election machine demonstration and certification in Hays County last month:
About a dozen activists demanding responses to conspiracy theories about election integrity this week disrupted what is typically an uneventful public testing of voting machines ahead of an election in Hays County.
The activists shouted at the county elections administrator and Texas’s secretary of state, who was present for the testing. County officials said they’d never previously encountered such intense hostility at the routine event.
The test they disrupted is a formality, done to verify the accuracy of voting machines, and election administrators have tried to make them an opportunity for skeptics to see the technology and processes up close and get their questions answered. But, as in Tarrant County last month, the skeptics either refuse to participate or continue to espouse nonsensical conspiracy theories.
Election denial is a growing cancer on our democracy. There’s a circular logic at the heart of the Big Lie, or Stop the Steal, or whatever you want to call the fallacy that Donald Trump somehow, someway, won the 2020 election despite the complete lack of credible evidence to the contrary:
1. I will win any legitimate election.
2. I did not win this election.
3. Therefore, this election is not legitimate.
This is exactly the argument election deniers make. It requires no proof, which is good because they have been unable to produce any credible evidence of election mischief sufficient to change the outcome. Add to that formulation the corollaries as they are now applying them to election officials:
4. The illegitimate election was administered by election officials.
5. Therefore, the election officials are corrupt and illegitimate.
Our elections have not descended into complete chaos yet because courts have upheld the constitutions, laws and rules under which the elections were conducted. But the next step in the program should be self-evident:
6. Courts refuse to overturn illegitimate elections.
7. Therefore, the courts themselves are illegitimate.
This is a systematic crusade to sabotage our faith in elections as a way to pick leaders in this country. It is not entirely new, but it has acquired a new fervor and viciousness in the last few years. The main vector, of course, is the Big Lie – the notion that Donald Trump was deprived of a second term as president by a sinister, almost satanic, combination of forces that switched election results in key battleground states. There have been dozens of recounts, and audits, and audits of audits, and there’s no evidence of election fraud on a scale that could have any effect on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Nevertheless, appalling, and appallingly noisy, numbers of Americans continue to parrot the nonsense they hear from Trump, Tucker Carlson and other dark actors.
Roughly 70% of self-identified Republican voters believe Joe Biden was not legitimately elected. The Washington Post has identified 299 candidates on the ballots this fall in House, Senate and key statewide offices who are election deniers – including 24 congressional candidates in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Last year, Abbott and Patrick insisted on an election audit in four Democratic counties, even though Trump had won the state by over 600,000 votes. The audit found nothing.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 60% of Americans will have an election denier on their federal ballots this fall – i.e., not including election deniers in state and local races.
In most states, the Secretary of State has oversight over the conduct of elections and is elected by the people in many of them. (In Texas, the Secretary of State is a gubernatorial appointee.) Election deniers are running for these critical statewide offices in at least 13 states:
· In Alabama, Election Denier Wes Allen won the GOP primary with 30-point lead.
· In a significant upset in Indiana, the Republican convention picked Election Denier Diego Morales over the incumbent, Holli Sullivan, who is not an Election Denier.
· In Nevada, Election Denier Jim Marchant won his primary with 17-point lead.
If these and other election deniers win in November, they will be in charge of administering the presidential election in those states in 2024.
At some point, of course, proving election fraud is only an incidental effect of this effort. Undermining faith in elections is the primary goal. The people who want us to lose faith in elections don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. They don’t care if you’re an anarcho-socialist or a crypto-fascist authoritarian, whatever those terms mean. They don’t care if you’re young or old, rich or poor, black, brown, Asian, or white. All they want is for you to lose faith in free and fair elections as a way of setting the broad direction of our polity, whether it’s the nation or a local library district. Because once we think there’s no way to honestly choose our own leaders, the door to authoritarianism has opened.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide." We now face a serious “stress test” of our democratic institutions, and of our individual commitment to freedom and self-determination.
We must not fail.