Voting booths in a line.

When Calvert County Republican Mark Jones was asked during a June poll whether he felt American democracy was either secure or threatened, he answered, “very threatened.”

Prince George’s County Democrat Marianne Rankin agreed about the threat. “This is not the country I grew up in,” she recalled telling her son after seeing video of people rushing the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

A majority of the 1,009 Maryland Democrats and Republicans who also answered the survey conducted by Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR concurred with them. Eighty-one percent of Republican and 77% of Democratic respondents said they, too, felt democracy was at risk.

But their reasons why were split down party lines, as were answers about whether President Joe Biden fairly or fraudulently won the 2020 election, whether the storming of the U.S. Capitol in 2021 was an insurrection, and whether this year’s state and local elections will be conducted fairly and accurately.

The poll results revealed a patchwork of bipartisan opinions, emotions and, in some cases, disinformation. Jones was one of a handful of poll respondents who agreed to discuss their answers with The Banner.

‘There’s facts and there’s lies’

Democrats listed as risks to democracy the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to overturn Roe v. Wade and neuter the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions, the lack of congressional action to pass stricter gun laws, and an increase in state-level voting restrictions.

Rankin, a 73-year-old business analyst, was one of 81% of Democrats who called the attack on the Capitol an insurrection and a threat to democracy. Only 17% of Republicans agreed.

“Democracy is people willing to cooperate and to abide by rules,” Rankin said. “Because democracy has to have some restrictions or it’s just anarchy.”

Nancy Krueger, a Demcorat, said federal lawmakers threaten democracy when they prioritize party loyalty over the legislative process and public safety. Lawmakers stop short of passing “common sense gun laws” because they are “beholden to the NRA,” said the 54-year-old substitute teacher and bartender from Montgomery County.

Krueger, along with 89% of Democrats, trusted the 2020 election’s vote count.

“As a country, we have a pretty good process. The people behind it, they’re all civic minded, and I just don’t feel like there could be some kind of conspiracy developed just to keep Trump from being president,” she said.

Mark Israel, an 84-year-old Democrat from Montgomery County, objected to the poll question which asked whether Biden fairly won, calling it “crazy, anti-democratic nonsense.” Biden won the popular vote by 7 million and the Electoral College vote by 74.

“That’s not a subject where there’s two sides,” he said. “There’s facts and there’s lies.”

‘The Constitution is ... not something to be messed with’

Republicans cited as threats to democracy the erosion of the Constitution’s sovereignty, school curriculums which allow teachers to educate children about racism, and COVID-19 lockdowns and mask mandates.

Most who agreed to talk to The Banner said in interviews they aren’t watching the televised hearings held by the U.S. House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 attack, calling them a “waste of time” because the committee members had been handpicked by the Left (House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy objected to a proposed bipartisan committee). They also held an unshakable belief in debunked election fraud rumors.

The 62-year-old Jones told The Banner the greatest threat to American democracy is the country’s diversion from its Constitution.

“We’re making it an option whenever it fits with the criteria,” he said. “The Constitution is written in black and white, not something to be messed with.”

Jones was one of 60% of Republicans who felt the interruption of the Electoral College certification on January 6, 2021 — a process outlined in the Constitution — was wrong, but should not be labeled an insurrection.

Before he retired in 2005, Jones worked for the Capitol Police for two years operating the vehicle X-ray system. Though he was not a sworn officer, the kinship he felt with uniformed police made watching the violence unfold on his television all the more raw.

“For them to attack the Capitol Police and do what they did was wrong — was totally wrong,” he said.

He also expressed disappointment in those who stoked the violence, asking, “Why would you tell people to do that?” But he denied former President Donald Trump’s participation in igniting the crowd, saying, “He didn’t tell them to go down there and tear up the Capitol.” (Trump told attendees of a Jan. 6 rally to “fight like hell,” but also to march to the Capitol “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”)

Jones understood the perpetrators’ motivations, he said, “They felt like the election was stolen.”

So, too, did retired small business owner Pam Harrison. She’s one of 57% of Republicans who thought Biden fraudulently won the presidency.

Harrison, 64, who said she only watches Newsmax, FOX News and One America News Network, voiced strong doubts 81 million people would have voted for a candidate as ideologically unappealing as Biden, who she said “presented himself as somewhat old and half senile” during debates. “He’s not a strong person and a strong candidate,” she said.

Looming questions about the election’s integrity plagued Harrison. She questioned whether bad actors voted on behalf of dead people and alleged absentee ballots could have fallen into nefarious hands. The Talbot County resident supports strong voter ID laws and said allowing voters to mail their ballots “leaves more opportunity for corruption.”

Not all Republicans agree

Cheverly resident Sabino Epiceno’s poll answers contradicted the majority of the 507 fellow Republicans who responded to the poll. The 39-year-old Navy veteran believes Biden fairly won; he has confidence in upcoming state election results; and he called the events of Jan. 6 an insurrection.

A minority of Republicans, 26%, thought Biden won fair and square.

Epiceno said he’s not “into the tribalism” and in his opinion, the polarized left and right “are all people hear about.”

“There are far more people who are right down the middle,” he said.

Epiceno said the stakes in this year’s state and local political contests “being conducted in a free and fair manner are paramount to people trusting our elections.”

Confidence in the system at stake

Lingering election suspicions, like Harrison’s, baffle national and international democracy advocates who understand the 2020 election was declared “the most secure in American history” by Trump administration officials.

Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst for Common Cause, a nonpartisan national elections watchdog, said her confidence in the last election also comes from knowing the multiple security measures and checks on the vote counting process.

Election disinformation can negatively impact voter turnout in future elections, she said.

“It also affects people’s confidence in the results if they believe these false claims about the voting and counting process,” Steiner said, “Which then can translate into real world physical violence or intimidation, as we saw on January 6.”

International democracy and election observer Laura Thornton has been thinking deeply about how to dissolve the ideological tensions between America’s two political parties.

Thornton serves as director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan organization which works to protect and deter interference within the world’s democracies.

She challenged democracy advocates to dig for the root causes behind one side viewing the other as an “existential threat.”

“Why is it absolutely, fundamentally, a critical issue for this person that Biden not be the president?” she asked.

Republicans and Democrats aren’t making these decisions based on facts, Thornton said, but rather based on “a belief that my tribe has to win.” While facts matter and public records should be made straight, she said, appealing to people’s hearts may be the key, “because it isn’t about the truth.”

A majority of those surveyed in both parties reported they were at least “somewhat confident” that this year’s state and local elections would be fairly and accurately conducted. More Democrats, 65%, feel “very confident” in Maryland’s election processes than Republicans; however, 21% of Republicans said they were “very confident” and 36% are “somewhat confident.”

When asked if he had concerns about the fairness and accuracy of the upcoming elections Jones, the Calvert County Republican, said: “I don’t have any reason to believe that it wouldn’t be. We haven’t had any problems in Maryland.”

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