The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans’ war on free and fair elections can’t go unpunished

Christian Cantrell, 18, casts his vote for the first time in Charlotte on Nov. 6. (Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)

Never in my lifetime have an American president and his party tried so hard to discredit the results of democratic elections, thereby attempting to affect the outcome and/or deprive opponents of legitimacy if they win. The Post reports:

Republicans are sowing skepticism about the electoral process in states with votes that are too close to call, echoing President Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and suggesting that election officials should jettison the common practice of completing vote counts after Election Day.
Nowhere is the effort more aggressive than in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is tapping the powers of his administration to defend his slender lead in the U.S. Senate race and accusing Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of “trying to steal an election.” Without evidence, Trump on Twitter claimed ballots were “massively infected” in Florida and said the recount should halt — though it is mandated by state law and overseas military ballots aren’t due until Friday.
What appears to be a coordinated Republican strategy to undercut post-election vote counting is also evident in New Mexico, where Rep. Yvette Herrell (R) is refusing to concede her race to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small after absentee ballots changed her status from winner to loser, and in Arizona, where the National Republican Senatorial Committee contended a county election official had been “using his position to cook the books” for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

The effort was utterly unsuccessful in Arizona, where Rep. Martha McSally (R) on Monday conceded the race. Ironically, Scott — who leads in the Florida Senate race — is likely to prevail but will have diminished the credibility of his own victory by fanning allegations of wrongdoing.

Republicans’ assault on democracy goes further. Both Scott in Florida and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp have attempted to remain involved in the vote-counting in their own races. Kemp’s attempt created a backlash, prompted a lawsuit filed by the group Protect Democracy and a rare retreat for Republicans when he gave up his secretary of state title, thereby removing himself from the vote-counting in a race too close to call. (Previously, Kemp had engaged in widespread efforts to purge voters, close polling places and disqualify absentee ballots and voter applications — all of which served to suppress the votes of nonwhites and the poor.)

Likewise in Florida, good-government advocates are suing to get Scott to remove himself from the recount process. “The governor’s use of his bully pulpit is provoking appeals that he recuse himself from the vote counting — not only from [Sen. Bill] Nelson, but also the Florida League of Women Voters,” The Post reports. “The organization, which alleged that Scott ‘intentionally politicized governance of the election,’ filed a lawsuit Monday demanding that he remove himself from the recount process.”

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Suppress voting among traditional Democratic groups; supervise your own election; and then cry foul to intimidate voting officials and to discredit the opposition’s wins — this sounds like something out of a tin-pot dictatorship, not what you’d expect from the world’s leading democracy. Ominously, this practice suggests that Trump and his cult-followers might refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election if things don’t go their way. The result could be a high-stakes constitutional standoff.

Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, who co-authored the book “How Democracies Die,” explained in an NPR interview in January that “what Donald Trump has done by over and over again saying that — lying, saying that our elections are fraudulent, that the election was fraudulent, that 11 million illegal immigrants voted, that the election was not truly fair, free and fair is to convince a very large number of voters, a very large number of Republicans that our elections actually are fraudulent — and the same thing with the media.” Levitsky continued: “He has convinced a fairly large segment of our society that the mainstream media — that the establishment media is conspiring to bring his government down, is purposefully lying and making stuff up such that a fairly large number of Americans no longer believe anything but Fox News. In the long term, it’s hard to imagine how that’s healthy for a democracy.”

How can this noxious practice of discrediting elections be checked? State governments must invest in upgrading voting equipment and making sure competent officials are in place well in advance of an election. The news (as it has done in the case of Florida) should make crystal clear when there is no basis for accusations of fraud — and then pester members of the party making that claim to go show evidence or to repudiate the charges. In addition, state laws should make clear that officials cannot run their own elections, since this is akin to picking the judge for your own trial. (Query whether Trump has done this with regard to Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s appointment.)

Defenders of free and fair elections should continue filing lawsuits to prevent these conflicts of interest, and judges should grant prompt relief to plaintiffs demanding that the Rick Scotts and the Brian Kemps abstain from ruling on their own election recounts.

House Democrats also can conduct oversight hearings on voting access and reform; they should haul in elected officials who have made baseless allegations of election trickery, demand they produce proof and in the absence of evidence urge them to retract their specious claims. (Maybe political hacks will think twice about fanning rumors if they know they will be held to account for their comments.)

Finally, we need updating of the Voting Rights Act, in part to reactivate pre-clearance provisions in states with a history of voting rights violations. (Anyone think Kemp would have gotten away with his voter suppression tactics if all changes had to be preapproved?) Federal voting law should be emphatic: Officials should not be permitted to supervise federal elections in their own races.

Ultimately, the best check on anti-democratic conduct comes from voters, as we saw a week ago when Democrats won up and down the ballot, coast to coast. If officials are politically punished for crying wolf about election misconduct, they will do it less frequently.

Voters should hold politicians to a simple standard: Attempting to undermine the sanctity of elections by baseless rumor-mongering should disqualify a politician from holding office. Forever.

Read more:

What Democrats’ big win in Arizona means

How to lose in 2020 if you are a Republican

Three options for conscientious Republicans (or ex-Republicans)