Welcome to Breaking the Vote, the newsletter from VICE News tracking the steady assault on American democracy. I guess the first thing I’d say is that I wish we didn’t have to be here. I wish there were no need for a reporting project dedicated to the ongoing campaign of lying, bad faith, violence, intimidation, and authoritarianism aimed at solidifying right-wing minority rule. It would be better if we weren’t all watching an accelerating effort in Washington—and in precincts large and small across America—to separate voters’ will from who takes power to govern them.
But it is happening, while we all watch! To wit: Within the last week, QAnon-following conspiracists announced candidacies for positions of real power over elections and in Congress; one of the chief propagandists of former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie opted to risk jail rather than tell what he knows about Jan. 6; and right-wing insurrection supporters, joined by Trump, cosplayed an old Nazi ritual before rallying behind Virginia’s GOP governor candidate.
None of what I just described is about partisan finger-pointing, or “broken politics,” or good old American democracy only with sharper elbows. It’s a conspiratorial, authoritarian movement on the verge of replacing one of the two major political parties, and seeking to supplant democratic governance altogether. That’s a big story, and VICE News is on it. So, tell your friends, and I’m glad you’re here.
‘You Will Be Served Lead’
“Time's running out, Richard. We're coming after you and every motherfucker that stole this election with our Second Amendment... You will be served lead.” So goes one of the more than 100 voicemails fielded by Richard Barron, who runs elections in Georgia’s Fulton County, and whom Donald Trump has targeted since the state went for Democrats last year. Trump’s ceaseless lying about his 2020 election loss has unleashed an entire occult industry dedicated to intimidating and threatening the functionaries who run our elections. Election officials and workers are leaving their posts in droves. VICE News Tonight producer Madeleine May kicked off our show’s Breaking the Vote coverage this week with Barron and other election officials—Republican and Democratic—explaining the threats of violence they and their families are facing.
It’s a powerful and disturbing piece of TV. And when you watch it, it’s easy to see the goal of this form of political violence: to replace people of good faith, regardless of party, in the critical, often ignored gears of elections. Imagine the possibilities for their replacements!
Why Are We Here?
VICE News Tonight’s Liz Landers and Izzie Mendez take you on a veritable “Tour-de-FuckMyLife” of Trumpists’ attempts at unraveling democracy since Jan. 6. It’s a “how we got here” journey detailing the audits, intimidation, and insurrectionists that made Breaking the Vote a necessity. Here’s to their coda a year from now recounting how liberal democracy fought back and won!
Bannon Back in the Barrel
Sometimes authoritarianism happens on your phone, and sometimes it happens under the dome. The Democratic-controlled House voted Thursday to hold Trump adviser and election propagandist Steve Bannon in criminal contempt for shirking a subpoena from the Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The committee has a lot to ask Bannon about, including scenes in the new book Peril placing Bannon at the center of conversations the evening of January 5, egging on Vice President Mike Pence to help overturn the election and stoking Trump to “kill” the “Biden presidency in its crib.”
Trump ordered several of his former aides not to show, and Bannon obliged. It took just a couple days for the Jan. 6 committee to refer Bannon for contempt, and 48 hours more for the House to pass it. Dems were joined by just nine Republicans, all from the ranks who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection earlier this year. Now the referral goes to the Justice Department, where Attorney General Merrick Garland will ultimately decide if Bannon gets prosecuted.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who sits on the January 6 committee, seems fairly confident Bannon could be the first in Trump’s circle of possible Jan. 6 ringleaders to face a modicum of accountability for refusing to tell what he knows. But Schiff’s also “vehemently” pissed at Garland for failing to prosecute obstruction of justice and other crimes detailed in the Mueller report.
Where Voting Reforms Go to Die...
Less than a day after the Bannon vote, Senate Republicans again filibustered legislation designed to protect basic voting rights before the next election. The Freedom to Vote Act is a pared-back version of much broader voting policy Dems tried to surface earlier this year. But it still featured substantive reforms, including national same-day voter registration, curbs on partisan gerrymandering, universal vote-by-mail, new protections for election workers (see above), and an Election Day national holiday.
This Freedom to Vote Act’s main feature was unity: All 50 Senate Democrats and zero Republicans voted for it, and that’s what Senate Dem leaders wanted to show. The idea here is that only the GOP filibuster is standing in the way of protecting voting rights, and showing it amps up the pressure to carve out an exception to the filibuster rules to ensure their passage. There’s more than one Democratic senator against that, but West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is the most vocal.
...Unless the Senate Changes
President Joe Biden seems to have taken that example to heart. Thursday night at a CNN town hall, Biden said he’s now open to carving out a voting rights exception to the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights protections, “and maybe more.” The “maybe more” appears to be a rise in the debt limit, which Biden called a “sacred obligation,” one that Republicans are also blocking by using the U.S. economy as leverage. Biden called voting rights “equally consequential” and said he’s now ready to consider filibuster reforms. That’s a change from a president who spent 36 years in the Senate and started his presidency defending the filibuster tradition as 36-year senators often do. It’s important news. But ultimately, it’s a Senate rule (Rule XXII, if you want to know), and only senators can alter it.
Subscribe to read more in Breaking the Vote, a weekly newsletter from Todd Zwillich that tracks the war on voting.