Is democracy on the midterm ballot?

January 6.
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President Biden recently warned American voters that democracy is on the midterm ballot. "In our bones, we know democracy is at risk," Biden said in the speech. He cited acts of political violence and election deniers as imminent threats. Others have echoed his concerns on the campaign trail, though polls suggest voters might not be all that concerned.  

What are the issues that Biden claims threaten the future of democracy, and how will they impact the midterm elections? Here's what you need to know:

What are politicians saying about the threat to democracy?

During his speech at Washington D.C.'s Union Station on Nov. 2, Biden implored American voters to stand united against the threat that election deniers pose, describing the U.S. as a nation with its transitions of power under threat. "It's estimated that there are more than 300 election deniers on the ballot all across America this year," Biden said. "We can't ignore the impact this is having on our country. It's damaging, it's corrosive, and it's destructive."

Biden didn't name Donald Trump directly, instead calling him "the defeated former president" while blaming him for perpetuating "dangerous" theories. He called the group of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 "an enraged mob that had been whipped up into a frenzy by a president repeating over and over again the Big Lie that the election of 2020 had been stolen."

Other Democratic leaders have echoed Biden's sentiments while making their closing pitches to voters ahead of Election Day. Former President Barack Obama, for example, warned Arizona voters at a rally in Phoenix that if they voted for election deniers, "then democracy as we know it may not survive." His comment appeared to be a reference to Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who has refused to commit to accepting the ballot results if she doesn't win.

What do Republicans think about the claims?

Republicans aren't buying it, instead flipping the focus onto Biden's responsibility for the state of the economy.  In response to Biden's speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel said, "President Biden is trying to divide and deflect at a time when America needs to unite — because he can't talk about his policies that have driven up the cost of living."

In a statement, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called the president's speech "desperate and dishonest." She added that "Joe Biden promised unity but has instead demonized and smeared Americans while making life more expensive for all."

Is misinformation on social media fueling the fire?

Some experts are focused on social media as the epicenter of the proliferation of election-related misinformation and conspiracy theories. Tuft University dean Bhaskar Chakravorti, who studies technological change and society, says the spread of misinformation will play an essential role in the upcoming midterms and the 2024 election. He warns, "The single galvanizing narrative is that the 2020 election was stolen."

Misleading claims about mail ballot security, rumors about non-citizens voting, and stories about ballot locations being moved are spreading on various social media platforms ahead of Nov. 8. In response, some of the companies have implemented new measures to remove false information from their platforms; Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said in a statement that "we've been applying [the] lessons" of hundreds of prior elections "to strengthen our preparations."

Critics, though, say that the sheer number of false claims in circulation indicates tech companies are falling short. Jon Lloyd, the senior adviser at the nonprofit Global Witness, says popular social media companies "are still simply not doing enough to stop threats to democracy." His organization recently published a report highlighting TikTok's failure to remove advertisements with misleading election information.

A report from the Center for American Progress warns that after the spread of voter fraud conspiracies in 2020, "considerable threats to the democratic process remain, including the refusal to certify election results, increased voter intimidation, and abuse of electoral laws." While they clarify that social media companies are not the cause, "they have allowed their platforms to be easily abused to carry out those attacks."

What do voters think?

Recent polls suggest that while voters agree that threats to democracy exist, it's not the most pressing issue this election season. A recent New York Times/Sienna College poll found that 71 percent of all voters surveyed said democracy was at risk, but only 7 percent deemed it the country's most critical problem. The top two voter concerns were the economy, at 26 percent, and inflation, at 19 percent.

Voters also seemed split over what they considered legitimate threats to the future of democracy. Republicans overwhelmingly identified Biden, mainstream media, the federal government, and mail-in-ballots as threats. Democrats mainly cited Trump, while others pointed to the Supreme Court and the Electoral College, per the Times. However, 11 percent of voters said that government corruption, in general, was the issue — more than those who named either Trump or Biden. A further 50 percent believe the American political system is "too divided politically to solve its problems."

Nate Cohn, a political analyst for the Times, supposes that some voters might have a different view of threats to democracy than politicians. "​​For some of these voters, the threat to democracy doesn't seem to be about the risk of a total collapse of democratic institutions or a failed transition of power," he said. "Or they may not view the threat as an emergency or a crisis yet, like being on the brink of sustained political violence or authoritarianism."

The New York Times/Siena College poll surveyed  792 registered voters nationwide via telephone from Oct. 9 to Oct. 12. The margin of error was +/- 4 percent.

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