The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats are now going there on ‘stolen’ elections

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on Nov. 14 accused Republicans of trying to steal the Georgia gubernatorial election from Democrat Stacey Abrams. (Video: C-SPAN)

For more than two years, President Trump has baselessly alleged rampant electoral fraud. He pre-blamed voter fraud for his expected 2016 loss, and then he cited it again even after he shockingly won. (Something needed to explain his popular-vote shortfall.) He’s now at it again in 2018; he has accused Democrats of foul play in their efforts to win the still-unresolved Florida Senate and governor’s races, and on Wednesday he alleged that people vote, go back to their cars to change clothes, and then vote again.

But Trump isn’t the only one going down this road right now. Republicans have increasingly warned that Democrats will “steal” Florida. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has tweeted that “democrat lawyers plan to steal [the] #Florida election.” Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s adviser has said Scott won’t lose to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) “unless they steal it from him in court.”

And now even some big-name Democrats are using similar language, alleging that the Georgia governor’s race will be “stolen” from them, too. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has said the “election is being stolen from” Democrat Stacey Abrams. Hillary Clinton has said Abrams would have won “if she’d had a fair election.” And on Wednesday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) went so far as to say, “If Stacey Abrams doesn’t win in Georgia, they stole it.”

The situations are not equivalent. Republicans have lent virtually no substance to their allegations of Democratic malfeasance in Florida; they’re basically using innuendo to argue that Broward County’s slow vote-counting is suggestive of fraud. The GOP secretary of state has said there is no evidence of crimes. And Trump’s claims of millions of illegal votes in 2016 that were all for Hillary Clinton were nonsensical.

In Georgia, by contrast, GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s dual role as secretary of state has been controversial for months. There was the purge of inactive voters that took more than a million people off the rolls. There was also his decision to implement a controversial law that held up more than 50,000 voter applications -- most of them from minority applicants -- because information on them didn’t exactly match state records. Democrats were calling this voter suppression even before the race actually wound up being close. And they are at least talking about specific actions that were taken.

But they could merely argue that the courts need to intervene or that Kemp’s apparent win would have a cloud hanging over it; instead, they are declaring it invalid. Practically speaking, they are alleging illegal activity that hasn’t been proven -- and seems unlikely to be.

A similar purge of the voter rolls in Ohio was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year. And in holding up those voter applications, Kemp was invoking an actual “exact match” law that was passed in 2017. Democrats are making a passionate case that these actions were targeted at minorities -- and the data bear out that minorities bore the brunt of them -- but saying the election was “stolen” carries very specific, legal connotations.

However you feel about the underlying issues, saying the election is being stolen skips over all of that and can’t help but undermine confidence in American elections. Democrats might say it deserves to be undermined, given Kemp’s conduct, but it’s a very serious accusation that has implications for our entire political and legal system. If leaders of both parties are alleging this kind of thing is possible in huge races in neighboring states and implying that legal remedies are insufficient to stop it, that’s a recipe for widespread mistrust of elections.

What’s most notable here is that Democrats have made the decision to go down this road. They’ve apparently decided that the Georgia governor’s race is their chance to highlight an issue that otherwise has a tough time getting on voters' radar: alleged voter suppression.

The tradeoff is they can rightly be accused of prejudging the result and the judicial process -- of doubting the same institutions they regularly accuse Trump of attacking and undermining. It’s one thing to say Kemp’s actions amount to suppression; it’s another to determine he will have “stolen” an election, the result of which will be unjust, even if the courts side with him.

Seeing how Trump and the GOP talk about such things with no evidence, Democrats have apparently decided not to unilaterally disarm. But we’ve crossed something of a threshold here.