The consequences are the threat to future elections. The consequences are the danger that future close elections will be subjected to similar false claims that inspire more doubts about the integrity of the vote and more disputed outcomes. The consequences are the distinct risk that partisanship will be routinely injected into the counting of votes. The idea that it can’t happen here should be tossed aside if Trump and his acolytes maintain their current course, which they will.
The door that closed Friday was the biggest one out there, the convoluted and contentious review of the vote in Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix. The review, described by some as an audit, was ordered by the Republican-controlled state Senate and handed to a firm known as Cyber Ninjas, which had no real experience with election reviews.
The outfit spent months reviewing 2.1 million ballots that had been cast in Arizona’s most populous county. They pursued all manner of conspiracy theories, including an examination of the ballots to see if any contained traces of bamboo, based on the wild claim that there were counterfeit ballots printed in Asia and that were somehow sneaked into Arizona.
The auditors far exceeded their expected timeline. They moved ballots from one location to another. Their work forced the county to decide it should replace its election machinery, fearing that the existing machines had been tainted. Along the way, the Cyber Ninjas team drew constant criticism, from both Democrats and some Republican officials in Maricopa County, who blistered the effort as needless and the examiners as ill-equipped for the job.
In the end, what the review found was that Biden not only won the county, just as the initial vote tallies and certified final results had said, but also that he gained a net of 360 votes. Whatever else the lengthy report said about the ballots, the bottom line was that Trump’s claims were found to be bogus, which frankly was predictable.
Trump’s reaction was also predictable. He claimed the report was a victory for him and democracy. He seized on aspects of the report that raised questions about some ballots, asserting that the report showed there were enough questionable ballots to change the result. The report did not make that claim, though it was certainly written in a way that offered some ammunition to conspiracy theorists such as Trump who are in endless pursuit of something they have failed to find for 10 months.
At the very time the Arizona review was concluding, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared that his state would undertake a review of its own, though Trump won the state over Biden. The Texas review will focus on four counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin. The first three were all won by Biden. In Collin, a suburban county north of Dallas, Trump won in November but by a much narrower margin than he did in 2016.
Other such reviews are underway in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Together, they are a sign that the results from Arizona will do little to bring an end to the false claims, conspiracy theories and calls for more reviews of election results, not as long as Trump has the GOP in his grip.
Republicans who have either pushed for these reviews, or have not stood in their way, justify their actions by saying that when so many people doubt the integrity of the last election, their views cannot be ignored. To ignore those perceptions, they argue, would undermine confidence in America’s system of elections.
This is the poison that Trump has injected into the election system. Those doubts exist largely because he has told the falsehood over and over, others around him have done the same, and many others in the party have not stood up to him, preferring to look the other way. Trump knows that his loyalists believe what he says about the election, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, and so he will continue to say it.
Back in January, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) addressed this issue directly. “The best way we could show respect for the voters who were upset [by the election results] is by telling them the truth,” he said. “That’s the burden. That’s the duty of leadership.”
If that is the duty of leadership, Republican leaders have failed to meet that obligation. Instead, too many pander to those who have bought into Trump’s conspiracy theories, even if they don’t truly believe what he is saying. Fewer and fewer are willing to say that Biden was not duly elected, though some are still equivocal in their language. Still, they allow or support election reviews by saying they are not seeking to overturn the election but merely trying to assure there is integrity and confidence in the vote.
Every election has flaws. The country has survived well despite them. Though mistakes are made, elections are not riddled with inaccuracies. The sudden concern about election integrity, about assuring the doubters who buy into Trump’s statements, is what it appears to be, an effort to mollify the former president and avoid antagonizing him and his base.
If procedures need to be tightened, a bipartisan effort could look for solutions. Republicans prefer partisan approaches. To paraphrase Trump, the attitude of Republicans is they alone will fix it. But in the name of election integrity, Republicans seek changes that would hurt voters most likely to support Democrats — Blacks and Latinos. Democrats, meanwhile, remain hobbled by their own narrow margins. In the ninth month of this year, they remain roadblocked on the issue of voting reform.
Republicans can taste a return to power in Congress starting in 2023, as Biden’s numbers sag. But they fear complacency among the Trump voters, knowing that that alone could cost them in next year’s midterm elections. In a choice between power and protecting the Constitution and democracy, power has the greater allure. Would a House in Republican hands in 2024 agree to certify a Democratic presidential victory after months of claims about perceived irregularities in the states? That is not an idle question.
These are issues for 2022 and 2024. Trump’s brazen willingness to ignore what the real finding of the Arizona review said signals a never-ending effort to set the table for a bid to return to power. Denied the Twitter platform, he now issues angry statements with the flurry and fury of the worst days of his presidency. Republicans who know the truth run greater and greater risks to the country with their acquiescence.