The Election is Going to Get Messy

The freedom of American citizens depends on their right to be heard.

Republicans are creating chaos to shake our faith in the institutions of democracy. We can only fight that with clarity. We have to lay down simple and morally unassailable criteria by which election disputes should be judged, both in the courts and in the court of public opinion. Every case must be decided, not on strict adherence to rules, but on the standard that the freedom of American citizens depends on their right to be heard.

Molly Adams from USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Your voice is your freedom.

The “Citizens’ Right to be Heard” Narrative

As an American citizen, your right to have an equal say in choosing your representation is essential to your being a free person.

What happens when someone attempts to vote and is prevented by election officials, or their mail-in ballot is rejected?

The decision must be judged based on this standard: Does this person have the right to be heard? If the voter is eligible to vote in that election, if they are a citizen, they are over 18, and a resident of the district, they have the right to have their voice heard. You must let them vote and count their vote.

Anything else would be morally wrong.

Applying the “Right to be Heard” Standard

Just yesterday, a judge in Wisconsin ruled against American citizens’ right to be heard.

To vote by mail in Wisconsin, you must have a witness sign your ballot and write in their street address. The League of Women Voters sued to make election officials count ballots with partial witness addresses, if the information present was sufficient to determine the identity of the witness. This morning, a Dane County Judge rejected the League’s request for an injunction, saying that loosening the requirements would “would upend the status quo and not preserve it” and also “frustrate the electoral process by causing confusion.”

Apparently, as many as 7% of mail in ballots have incomplete witness address information. We’re talking about American citizen voters whose ballots might be missing, say, the street number for the witness. There is no question as to whether the voter is eligible to vote in this election. There is no question as to the identity of the voter. There isn’t even an actual question about the identity of the witness.

This judge chose to deny these American citizens, as many as 7% of those casting mail in ballots, their right to be heard: their right to have their vote counted. This judge, in essence, robbed these American citizens of their most fundamental freedom: their right to have a voice in the choosing of the government under which they will have to live.

In doing so to enough eligible voters to potentially change the outcome of an election, this judge also robbed the entire body of eligible voters of its voice, its right to have the election faithfully represent the will of the voters, and the freedom it gets from living under a government of its own choosing.

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NYTimes: This Threat to Democracy Is Hiding in Plain Sight, Sept 23. 2022

The Purity War

Creating Chaos

Republicans have been recruiting activists to become poll watchers, election workers and election officials across America. They are putting their people in place to challenge every possible vote.

They are planning to make a HUGE mess, and then argue that the only way to clean it up is to throw out every vote that has even the slightest hint of non-conformity. For example, in the NYTimes video above, they talk about poll watchers challenging votes because someone “looks like an immigrant.”

Republicans say that they are against “fraud” and that stopping even one fraudulent vote is worth making it a lot harder for everyone to vote. They talk about things like the “purity” and the “sanctity” of elections. Of course, the “purity” frame has very nasty connotations about who should or shouldn’t be eligible to vote, as with the virulently racist “replacement theory.”

Even without the racist dog-whistles, there is huge problem with “purity” being the criteria for legitimate elections. If you block 99 out of 100 people from voting, that remining vote might be pure as the driven snow, but that doesn’t make it a legitimate election.

Weaponizing Technicalities

If people are determined to subvert democracy and defy the will of the voters, they can use the letter of the law to violate the intent of the law.

We are expecting rampant voter suppression: frivolous challenges to voters and ballots and excessive enforcement of minor regulations. These will be based on a patchwork of election laws, many of which are new and designed for this very purpose.

Just recently in Arizona, a voting rights initiative signed by more than 500,000 voters was blocked from being put on the ballot. More than 250,000 signatures were disqualified over irrelevant technicalities by Republican-appointed judges. Were mistakes made? Yes. Does that justify a massive violation of the clearly expressed will of the voters? No.

The rash of new and overly restrictive voting laws and regulations will make it difficult to rely solely on the courts to remedy this problem.

The Court of Public Opinion

He Said, She Said

The right-wing attack machine has spent two years insisting that we’re encouraging fraud and stealing elections. We’ve spent two years trying to say it isn’t true. What happens when we’re the ones who have to argue that elections are being stolen? We’re heading into the mother of all ‘He Said, She Said” debates.

Just talking about what they’re doing wrong or assailing their motives isn’t going to work. The attack machine will continue to use their “firehose of falsehoods” in their ongoing campaign to destroy faith in elections and in democracy. We know from experience that fighting every claim individually is a recipe for failure.

Restoring Confidence with Clarity

We need to restore order to the chaos. We need to set clear and universal terms by which people will judge election disputes in the court of public opinion, terms that will appeal to people across the political spectrum. We need to override the case for what might be technically right with the case for what’s morally right.

Our message is morally powerful: the freedom of American citizens depends on their right to be heard, with “being heard” meaning “getting to vote and having your vote counted.” Wherever a vote is challenged, we must rule in favor of the voters’ right to be heard.

Leaders, election officials and judges could restore confidence in the election process as a whole by using this simple criteria as their guide across the board, knowing that the public will understand their choices and judge them as morally right. After all, they will be ruling on the side of freedom.

Citizens have the right to be heard.

Talking Points

The power of the Citizens’ Right to be Heard narrative depends on our making sure people understand the relationship between voting and freedom. We have to state and repeat the fact that voting is what makes us free.

I talk more about the connection between voting, the will of the people, and freedom in my previous issue, Reframing the Threat to Democracy.

This is about self-government. What makes America a free country is our right to live under the government that we choose. We have elections to determine the will of all of the people, the will of the entire body of eligible voters, in choosing that government. That’s why every citizen must have equal access to vote and why we have to count every vote.

In all election disputes, nothing matters more than this: What will make this election more faithfully represent the will of the people?

How does that apply to the wave of challenges we are about to face? What happens when someone attempts to vote and is prevented by election officials, or their mail-in ballot is rejected?

The right of American citizens to have an equal say in choosing their representation is essential to their being a free person. Taking away that voice is taking away their freedom.

A person is not free if they have to live under a government they did not have a voice in choosing and obey laws that they did not have a voice in making.

In decisions about whether a person should be allowed to vote, or whether their ballot should be counted, there is only one standard that matters: Does this person have the right to be heard?

What determines whether someone has the right to vote in that particular election?

It’s about eligibility. Are they a citizen? Are they 18 or older? Are they a resident of the district? If yes, they have the right to have their voice heard. Anything else would be morally wrong.

What are some important strategic points we need to make?

These are American citizens whose right we are fighting for.

There’s a BIG difference between not being eligible, and being eligible but not making it over all the bureaucratic hurdles.

If the person is actually eligible to vote, it’s not fraud, it’s a paperwork error. Errors can be fixed.

We must take every possible step to remedy these errors, because losing their vote means losing their freedom.

We could use a little audacity.

How would you feel if you went to vote on election day and didn’t realize that your drivers’ license had expired? Does not having a current drivers’ license mean that you are no longer a citizen?

Is forgetting to sign your mail in ballot a crime worthy of depriving an American citizen of their freedom? No.

Depriving someone of their vote is like stripping them of their citizenship rights!

It would be morally reprehensible to violate the most fundamental freedom of an American citizen because the post office took too many days to deliver their ballot or they only had a college ID.

Republicans capture the attention of the public debate by turning everything into a dramatic case of moral injustice. We could use to lean harder into the moral angle, even if it pushes us a little out of our comfort zone.

The Bottom Line

They intend to sow chaos so they can argue for throwing out millions of votes by eligible voters. We have to start now to push our message of what is right. Every single one of us has to promote this narrative of “protecting American citizens’ right to be heard.”

We might have to fight the legal battles individually, but we know that in the public debate, fighting the lies and attacks individually doesn’t work. We have to have a simple and consistent message. That’s the only way it will get through.

If we can generate enough public support for “citizens’ right to be heard,” we can make the case for applying that standard across the board as a means of restoring public faith in our elections.

Thanks, as always, for reading! I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!

I look forward to your feedback and ideas.

Warmest Regards,


Thank you for reading Reframing America! This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts by email please consider becoming a subscriber. All content is free, but some people choose to become paying subscribers to support this mission!