As the top elections official in Washington State, Steve Hobbs says he is troubled by the threat former President Donald J. Trump poses to democracy and fears the prospect of his return to power. But he also worries that recent decisions in Maine and Colorado to bar Mr. Trump from presidential primary ballots there could backfire, further eroding Americans’ fraying faith in U.S. elections.
“Removing him from the ballot would, on its face value, seem very anti-democratic,” said Mr. Hobbs, a Democrat who is in his first term as secretary of state. Then he added a critical caveat: “But so is trying to overthrow your country.”
Mr. Hobbs’s misgivings reflect deep divisions and unease among elected officials, democracy experts and voters over how to handle Mr. Trump’s campaign to reclaim the presidency four years after he went to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election. While some, like Mr. Hobbs, think it best that voters settle the matter, others say that Mr. Trump’s efforts require accountability and should be legally disqualifying.
Challenges to Mr. Trump’s candidacy have been filed in at least 32 states, though many of those challenges have gained little or no traction, and some have languished on court dockets for months.
The decisions happening right now come amid a collapse of faith in the American electoral system, said Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in election law and democracy.
“We are walking in new constitutional snow here to try and figure out how to deal with these unprecedented developments,” he said.
Professor Persily and other legal experts said they expected the United States Supreme Court would ultimately overturn the decisions in Colorado and Maine to keep Mr. Trump on the ballot, perhaps sidestepping the question of whether Mr. Trump engaged in an insurrection. Mr. Persily is hopeful that whatever ruling the court issues will bring clarity — and soon.
“This is not a political and electoral system that can deal with ambiguity right now,” he said.
Mr. Trump and his supporters have called the disqualifications in Maine and Colorado partisan ploys that robbed voters of their right to choose candidates. They accused Democrats of hypocrisy for trying to bar Mr. Trump from the ballot after campaigning in the past two elections as champions of democracy.
After the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Trump should be removed from the state’s primary ballot, Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, said in a statement: “Apparently democracy is when judges tell people they’re not allowed to vote for the candidate leading in the polls? This is disgraceful. The Supreme Court must take the case and end this assault on American voters.”
Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and Mr. Trump’s most ardent critic in the Republican primary, warned that Maine’s decision would turn Mr. Trump into a “martyr.”
But other prominent critics of Mr. Trump — many of them anti-Trump Republicans — said the threat he posed to democracy and his actions surrounding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol now required an extraordinary intervention, whatever the electoral consequences.
The challenges are based on a Reconstruction Era provision of the 14th Amendment that prohibits anyone who has engaged in rebellion or insurrection from holding federal or state office.
J. Michael Luttig, a retired conservative federal appeals court judge, hailed Colorado and Maine’s decisions as “unassailable” interpretations of the Constitution. Officials in Maine and Colorado who disqualified Mr. Trump from the ballot have written that their decisions stemmed from following the language of the Constitution.
But on a recent sunny Friday afternoon in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Deena Drewis, 37, a copy writer, and Aaron Baggaley, 43, a contractor, both of whom have consistently voted for Democrats, expressed a queasy ambivalence over such an extraordinary step.
“I’m really just conflicted,” Mr. Baggaley said. “It’s hard to imagine he didn’t fully engage in insurrection. Everything points to it. But the other half of the country is in a position where they feel like it should be up to the electorate.”
Officials in Democratic-controlled California have shown little appetite for following Colorado and Maine. California’s Democratic secretary of state, Shirley Weber, announced on Thursday that Mr. Trump would remain on the ballot, and Gov. Gavin Newsom dismissed calls by other Democrats to remove him. “We defeat candidates at the polls,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement. “Everything else is a political distraction.”
In interviews, voters and experts said it was premature to disqualify Mr. Trump because he had not been criminally convicted of insurrection. They worried that red-state officials could use the tactic to knock Democratic candidates off future ballots, or that the disqualifications could further poison the country’s political divisions while giving Mr. Trump a new grievance to rail against.
“Attempts to disqualify demagogues with deep popular support often backfire,” said Yascha Mounk, a professor and political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who has written about threats to democracies. “The only way to neutralize the danger posed by authoritarian populists like Donald Trump is to beat them at the ballot box, as decisively as possible and as often as it takes.”
The decisions by Colorado’s highest court and Maine’s secretary of state barring Mr. Trump from state primary ballots are on hold for now and are likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While most of the challenges to Mr. Trump’s candidacy have been proceeding in federal or state courts, Maine’s constitution required the voters seeking to disqualify Mr. Trump to file a petition with the secretary of state, putting the politically volatile and hugely consequential decision into the hands of Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat.
Her counterparts in other states said that they had spent months discussing whether they could face a similar decision, and that they had been talking with other elections officials and their legal teams about the thickets of state laws governing each state’s elections.
In Washington State, Mr. Hobbs said he did not believe he had the power as secretary of state to unilaterally remove Mr. Trump from the ballot. He was relieved, he said, because he did not think one person should have the power to decide who qualifies to run for president.
The stakes for the nation were enormous, Mr. Hobbs said, because of the damage Mr. Trump had already done to faith in the nation’s elections.
“It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “This is going to be a long-term effort to try to regain trust among those who have lost it.”
Jena Griswold, Colorado’s Democratic secretary of state, said in an interview this week that she supported decisions by Ms. Bellows and the Colorado Supreme Court to remove Mr. Trump from the ballot.
Election workers and secretaries of state have increasingly become the targets of conspiracy theorists and violent threats since Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept his 2020 defeat; Ms. Griswold said she had received 64 death threats since the lawsuit seeking to remove Mr. Trump from the ballot was filed by six Republican and unaffiliated voters in Colorado.
“All of us swear to uphold our state constitution and the U.S. Constitution,” Ms. Griswold said. “Making these decisions takes bravery and courage.”
Her office announced this week that, because Mr. Trump’s case had been appealed, his name would be included on Colorado’s primary ballots unless the U.S. Supreme Court said otherwise or declined to take up his case.
In Arizona, placing Mr. Trump on the ballot was a more cut-and-dry decision, said Adrian Fontes, the Democratic secretary of state. He said that state law required him to list any candidate who had been certified in two other states.
He called the blizzard of legal rulings, dissents and contradictory opinions swirling around Mr. Trump’s place on the ballot a “slow rolling civics lesson” that demonstrated the country’s democratic resilience.
“I kind of celebrate the notion it’s complicated,” he said. “We’re having this conversation because that’s what democracy is about.”
Mitch Smith and Michael Wines contributed reporting.