America’s second civil war could start with a bang or with a whimper. It could begin with a skirmish or sneak up on us through a series of small compromises and acts of political cowardice. Civil war could announce itself loudly and bloodily, leaving no doubt as to its awful entrance. Or it could creep in through the back door, only to be recognized in hindsight as a series of seemingly disconnected events that could have and should have been stopped. We may be midstream in such a flow of events already. We now examine this possible future as if we have just emerged from its aftermath.
During the 2022 campaign, national Democrats were bracing for a tidal wave that might eject them from control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, crippling President Joe Biden’s agenda and possibly accelerating former president Trump’s formal announcement (he toyed with it throughout 2021 and 2022) as a candidate for the presidency in 2024. Democrats had long since lost patience with Republican accusations about the “stolen” 2020 election, which they came to believe led to a flurry of unnecessary and regressive laws in states dominated by Republican legislators. In Texas, a law passed that set new restrictions on mail-in ballot access, limited the use of drop boxes for early votes, and then went further by weaponizing and empowering hyperpartisan poll watchers to interfere with the voting process. This in a state where it was already harder to vote in than most other states. In states like Florida, Iowa, and Texas, professional election administrators found their efforts criminalized. In states like Arizona and Georgia, it appeared legislators were seizing control of elections by limiting the authority of election administrators at the state and county level, thereby creating the real possibility of partisan politicians rejecting the will of the voters. In several states—Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada—there were candidates running for secretary of state on a platform of denying elections and delivering outcomes for their preferred candidates. All of this was very much on the minds of national Democrats. Many were seething.
In such an environment, many were worried about armed poll watchers, inflamed passions, and even possible violence. In Texas, voters saw unusually long lines in voting precincts in urban areas like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, where recent legislation had resulted in concentrating more voting into a single day. The lines were longest in communities of color, thus confirming fears about the consequences of the new election law. Before the March 1, 2022, primary, voters in predominantly Democratic counties like Harris, Travis, and Bexar were seeing requests for mail-in ballots rejected at historically high rates, fifteen times higher than Texas had previously experienced in their most populous counties.
About this time, Democrats in Washington began wondering aloud if midterm election results could or should be believed. “I think there’s a real possibility that we will see in the next two elections, get some results sent to us for ratification . . . that’s not consistent or that we’re gonna have to question,” Texas Democratic representative Colin Allred said. “That’s the reality of the situation. We can no longer pretend like these elections are just going to continue to proceed the way they have in the past.” At a press conference marking his administration’s one-year anniversary, President Biden amplified this sentiment. When asked if the midterm elections would be legitimate, Biden said: “Well, it all depends on whether we are able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of this election.” Biden’s statement wasn’t as toxic as Trump’s, but it deepened confusion and consternation—setting the country up for months of midterm election fear-mongering.
Imagine a polling station in Texas on Election Day 2022. The location doesn’t matter. Neither does the underlying dispute. What matters is a person came to the polls, purportedly on the hunt for voter fraud. States like Texas had given poll watchers more latitude to move around polling places, question procedures, and exercise authority. This person, in accordance with Texas law, was armed with a semiautomatic pistol. A discussion escalated into a confrontation, perhaps about the proper place to stand inside the polling precinct in relation to others, or about how to properly mark the ballot and use the ballot scanning machine.