The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Offered a chance to defend election integrity, Biden instead adds asterisks

President Biden takes questions from reporters during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 19. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One of the two main policy priorities President Biden is advocating at the moment is legislation that would bolster elections by ensuring early and mail-in voting, improving protections for elections officials and making Election Day a holiday, among other things. Passage of the bills that would result in those changes depends on overcoming a filibuster in the Senate or on eliminating the filibuster requirement, neither of which is likely. So, as Biden seemed to acknowledge in his lengthy news conference Wednesday, neither are the reforms.

Pressure to pass such legislation has increased over the past year, a function of both former president Donald Trump’s unceasing false claims that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud and by Republicans leveraging those claims to push for state-level restrictions on voting access. Democrats aren’t going to be able to get Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to make it easier to vote, but they figured they had an outside chance at changing federal law to do so.

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That chance no longer seems likely. So, during the news conference, Biden was asked a question that considered that reality.

“Speaking of voting rights legislation,” a reporter offered, “if this isn’t passed, do you still believe the upcoming election will be fairly conducted and its results will be legitimate?”

This is an explosive question, versions of which were presented to Trump repeatedly and which Biden’s predecessor used to inject uncertainty around a contest he seemed unlikely to win. The Democratic Party has — justifiably! — put a lot of emphasis on the fact that the 2020 results were trustworthy and the election not illegitimate. Most Republicans don’t believe that, choosing instead to ally with Trump’s dishonest claims.

Surprisingly, Biden didn’t reject the idea that the election results would be beyond question.

“It all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election,” he said — the “this” there apparently referring to those state-level efforts to limit voting access. In other words, if the federal bill passes, he will say the results are legitimate. If not? Well …

He continued on to talk about how he was confident that people would turn out to vote even if it was hard. After all, he said, people turned out in record numbers during the pandemic in 2020. But this wasn’t trivial: “It’s going to be difficult. I make no bones about that, it’s going to be difficult,” he said.

Later, another reporter followed up.

“A moment ago, you were asked whether or not you believed that we would have free and fair elections in 2022 if some of these state legislatures reform their voting protocols,” he said. “You said that it depends. Do you think that they would in any way be illegitimate?”

“Oh, yeah, I think it easily could be illegitimate,” Biden said. “Imagine, imagine if in fact, Trump had succeeded in convincing Pence not to count the votes. Imagine if …”

The reporter interjected, apparently thinking Biden had interpreted the question as being about 2020. But Biden seemed simply to be arguing that, had Trump had that kind of sway, imagine where else influence might be applied.

“Imagine if those attempts to say that the count was not legit, you have to recount it, we’re not going to count — we’re going to discard the following votes,” he said, adopting the perspective of a theoretical election worker. “I’m not saying it’s going to be legit. The increase and the prospect of its being illegitimate is in direct proportion to not being able to get these reforms passed.”

Again, this is a remarkable break from the main line of rhetoric over the past two years. With good reason, there’s been a broad insistence that the most recent election wasn’t tainted by shenanigans. Here, Biden was suggesting that such a thing was possible — within the constraints of changed state laws and processes and, presumably, the context of a concerted effort to install officials sympathetic to Trump’s false claims at the local and state level of election monitoring.

We’ve heard arguments like this before. When Stacey Abrams lost her Georgia gubernatorial bid in 2018, she raised questions — often valid — about how her opponent, then the state official responsible for administering elections, had excluded certain voters. Some rhetoric from the left portrayed the results as invalid, though Abrams soon conceded to now-Gov. Brian Kemp (R).

Democrats are very much concerned about a scenario in which a close election is handed to the second-place finisher. After all, that’s exactly what Trump and many of his allies tried to do after 2020. Resulting changes in election administration do raise the specter (though not the certainty) of corruption. But by amplifying questions about election integrity, particularly in the muddied context Biden presented, the president validated the sort of skepticism his party had been trying to rebut.

This is particularly true given that his party’s proposed legislation is unlikely to pass. So now what? Are we heading into a federal election with the president’s stated position that the results should be eyed skeptically? This is not unfamiliar territory, certainly, but not a situation that many Americans are eager to repeat.

Update: In a Twitter post on Thursday morning, press secretary Jen Psaki reframed Biden’s comments.