I’m still certain it happened to me in 2015. I was finishing my first term on the Philadelphia Board of Elections. Four years earlier, I had earned the position with an upset win over a 36-year incumbent. I was looking forward to the campaign spotlight, and what I was sure would be another victory.
In my case, a judge dealt the blow, ruling that my ballot petition was four valid signatures short of the required 1,000. (We had submitted about 1,500, but more than 1,000 of them were challenged.) I watched it happen over the course of a week: the expensive, mind-numbing arguments about the loops of the “g” in someone’s signature, the race against time to find people to come to court and testify that yes, they did sign, the unexpected overnight transformation of an informal count into a court order and, finally, the judge’s refusal to consider affidavits from 16 more signers, which would have been enough to keep me on the ballot.
Even when an election isn’t stolen, it can still feel stolen. From inside the candidate bubble, no matter what, winning looks inevitable. In President Trump’s case — and in most cases, in my experience of investigating election rumors and data irregularities — the voter-by-voter, real-world evidence ends in wonky but legitimate details, like apartment numbers in a building with a FedEx office on the first floor being mistaken for post office boxes. To the losers, the 2020 presidential election feels stolen, but to any dispassionate observer, that case doesn’t hold water.
But if you love democracy and love this country, you can’t give in to the impulse to rage on against defeat forever. In my own election, it took a while, but I learned how to grieve, heal and move on. The democratic ideals we cherish are just ideals, not realities. Fairness, accountability, transparency, consistency and integrity are all worth striving for. We rarely, if ever, attain them, especially in elections involving hundreds of millions of people. When a stinging loss is fresh, it’s tempting to trash the system. But you have to find a way to resist.
I do know how it feels when the people who are supposed to come to the aid of the unjustly wronged — the press, the courts and all those who talk about justice — fall down on the job. I appealed to every court I could afford. I read the articles by the reporter who was in the room, who saw the judge turn away affidavits, who saw the judge turn a blind eye to clear evidence of wrongdoing by my challengers, and whose only question was whether I regretted not collecting more signatures. I felt the devastation of crushed faith in democracy and the rule of law — devastation all the more shattering because democracy and the rule of law had made me powerful before. I railed at the injustice with all the fervor of the impotent converted.
I’m hardly the first candidate to feel their election was stolen, and I’m certainly not the most prominent. Coke Stevenson and his supporters could reasonably have assumed that the contents of Ballot Box 13 would have made him a U.S. senator from Texas instead of Lyndon Johnson in 1948, if only that ballot box had been unsealed. Decades later, Sen. Max Cleland and his supporters would not have been out of line to think that the ballots cast by Georgia voters in 2002 would have earned him another term, if only those ballots had been marked by hand on paper, rather than stored in paperless, insecure computer memory. And if we include the folks whose elections were “stolen” by legal means such as Jim Crow laws, the list gets even longer.
How can a true patriot tolerate such a broken democracy? The same way true patriots always have — by stepping back when the final verdict has been rendered. An America marred by stolen elections isn't the America we brag about in social studies classes, but it's the America we have always lived in. Part of living in this America is accepting the outcome even when you believe it was stolen. There is always the next election to prepare for — by advocating for better election administration, or by running for office.
And next time you run, just be sure to win by enough that no one can cheat you out of it.