PRINCETON, Minn. – Duane Bonebrake was venting about last year's presidential race as he waited with his wife for the yearly Rum River Festival parade to kick off.
"It doesn't make sense," said Bonebrake, a handyman from nearby Milaca. He unspooled his own version of ex-President Donald Trump's discredited claims that President Joe Biden did not fairly win the election, saying he didn't understand how Biden won because no one he knows voted for him.
National polls show large numbers of Republicans continue to believe Trump was the election's real winner. The staying power of this alternate history of recent events is driving a wave of restrictive new voting laws in Republican-led states around the country, and driving concerns about long-term damage to the U.S. democratic system.
"We are meant to have an adversarial system of government. But the fights are supposed to be about policy: the size and cost of government, the reach of social programs, how to protect public health," said Michael Minta, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota. "What it's not meant to be is a sustained fight over who actually won the presidential election."
Minta was one of nearly 200 "students of American democracy," mostly political science and law professors, who signed onto a recent "Statement of Concern" warning that the GOP-driven changes to voting laws "are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections."
What that means, they argue, is that "our entire democracy is now at risk."
'Lots of questions'
Aftershocks from Trump's attempts to dispute his loss continue to jolt national politics. But aside from Bonebrake, few in the crowd gathered for Princeton's parade on a recent scorching hot June afternoon felt like chatting about the last election or their confidence in democracy.
"I don't do politics," said Brittany Bastian, her six kids surrounding her on the sidewalk. They were trying to keep cool with the help of ice cream and the meager shade cast by an empty Masonic Hall along the parade route.
Last year was a tough one, Bastian said. Her family moved back to her husband's hometown of Princeton from Casper, Wyo., after he lost his oil rig job at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bastian said she voted for Trump in 2016 and that she liked his style as president. "Our family, we're gun people, so that's a big reason too," she said. But she didn't vote last year: The challenges of distance learning with six kids in a new home were all-consuming, she said.
Princeton straddles the border of Sherburne and Mille Lacs counties — two of the most politically red in the state. In both counties, Trump got more than twice as many votes as Biden, who easily carried Minnesota on the strength of big winning margins in more populous counties.
"Biden's doing OK. Mostly I hate Trump," said Jerry Johnson, who drove up from his home in Fridley to hawk inflatable cartoon characters and other plastic toys to paradegoers. He's been working summer festivals like this around the state for 45 years, he said.
The theme of Princeton's Rum River Festival, which was canceled last year because of the pandemic, was "Coming Back Together." It hit the usual marks for a small-town parade: a lot of fire trucks and tractors, a handful of regional high school marching bands, notable residents waving from the backs of convertibles, handfuls of candy tossed at kids along the route. Turnout was decent but not huge; unseasonable heat seemed to bring down the energy level.
It's not a state election year, so politics was a near nonpresence in the parade, except for a small cadre of local Republicans. It included state Sen. Andrew Mathews and state Rep. Sondra Erickson, both of Princeton, and signs for Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber, two Republican congressmen whose districts both reach into the Princeton area.
"I hear lots of questions about election integrity," said Erickson, a retired English teacher and one of the longest-serving House Republicans.
She's instead focused on education funding and policy issues at the statehouse this year, she said. Those calls and e-mails about the election were more frequent around the time Biden took office and have fallen off since, she said.
Mathews, a federal caseworker and pastor, said he "definitely has concerns" about how the presidential election went down but not enough to pronounce the outcome unfair. He was more interested in criticizing the Biden administration's management of the U.S. southern border.
Republicans in leadership positions, from prominent members of Congress to state legislators across the country, have either embraced Trump's discredited version of what happened in November or declined to push back in a significant way.
That includes the four Republicans in Minnesota's congressional delegation, though Emmer and Stauber voted to certify Biden's victory. In the state Senate, Republicans in the majority have pushed for changes such as provisional balloting and a photo ID requirement they say are meant to bolster trust in elections.
"I don't want to go about after an election and prove it was wrong," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the lead Senate Republican on election issues. "Set systems in place that do it right up front."
Asked whether she believes the last election produced a fair outcome in the presidential race, Kiffmeyer, a former Minnesota secretary of state, responded: "I don't have any comment on that."
Minnesota's Democratic governor and the party's House majority mean the state won't be subject to the kind of new limits on voting recently implemented in a number of states under Republican control.
Republican legislatures and governors in more than a dozen states have passed or are considering laws that include curbing absentee and early voting, reducing the number of polling places for in-person voting and setting new eligibility requirements for voting, and would shift oversight of ballot counting and election certification from nonpartisan appointees to partisan elected officials.
"They're getting into the business of changing the rules so that it disincentivizes people from participating in the process," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. "The message is clear: to make voting and registration harder and putting up new barriers to the right to vote. They are taking us backward as a country."
Bonebrake said his own doubts about the last election have him questioning whether voting is even worthwhile. "What good is it doing you if it ain't counting?" he asked.
His wife, Mary Bonebrake, was eating a Subway sandwich as Duane wrangled their new puppy, Zoey, a terrier-schnauzer mix.
"I would definitely vote again," she said. She said she agrees with her husband on most issues, but Mary showed a flash of annoyance as he continued to rant about Biden and Trump, about the COVID vaccine and Gov. Tim Walz, about immigrants and racism.
"Stop. Stop," she whispered at him. "Stop."