The GOP must stop Americans from believing elections are rigged
President Trump and his allies have been singularly unsuccessful in persuading governors, state elections officials, or state and federal judges that the 2020 election was “stolen.” As Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State explained this past weekend in refusing to help the president “find” enough votes to win, “Respectfully, President Trump, what you’re saying is not true.”
The president’s efforts have been wildly successful, however, in two respects: persuading potentially millions of Americans that our election process is illegitimate, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars since Nov. 3 from those same Americans.
The threat this effort poses to the future of American institutions is clear. If nearly half of the electorate continues to believe that our presidential elections are “rigged,” every election cycle will verge on civil war.
What’s to be done?
At first blush, the task of convincing Americans that the election wasn’t stolen may seem simple. By any fair assessment, the president’s continued claims of widespread voter fraud have been afforded ample opportunity to be heard. There is simply no competent evidence to support them.
President Trump, recall, established a commission chaired by Vice President Pence in 2017 to investigate his claim that some 3 million votes were cast illegally in 2016. The commission met twice, and disbanded without issuing any findings or recommendations. Still, given the prominence of the issue in 2016, the Trump campaign was surely mobilized in 2020 to expose and document the widespread voter fraud it feared.
It has failed. Since Nov. 3, nearly 60 lawsuits have been filed alleging voter fraud in one form or another. Proponents have had 60 opportunities, in other words, to present their case before state and federal judges, including many federal judges who are registered Republicans appointed by President Trump, but all of whom have sworn to be impartial. As Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) stated, “These allegations have been adjudicated in courtrooms across America and were found to be unsupported by evidence.”
That record of failure caused even Trump loyalist Attorney General William Barr to jump ship. If anyone seemed poised to investigate and prosecute vast voter fraud, it was AG Barr. He was no doubt prepared to identify and prosecute the conspiracy that undermined the president’s reelection efforts. There was only one glaring problem: It wasn’t true. Barr said as much before he resigned.
That hasn’t stopped some congressional Republicans, who are now poised to challenge on Jan. 6 the ministerial act of counting Electoral College votes recorded by their state’s elected officials. In a cynical rhetorical dodge, their claim is not that the election was fraudulent; they know better. Instead, they argue, they need an emergency “audit” because there have been “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud.” Allegations, not instances. As Toomey put it, “Allegations of fraud by a losing campaign cannot justify overturning an election.”
In fact, there is precedent for the current allegations in the president’s charges of four years ago, and there have been ample opportunities for investigating them in the ill-fated Pence Commission he convened, and in the unsupported post-election challenges. The election’s results have been validated by the recount process in several battleground states. There is no need, therefore, for the remedy they seek: a rushed, week-long “audit” of a settled election.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) put it bluntly in an open letter to his constituents: “Let’s be clear what’s happening here: We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage. But they’re wrong … . Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”
It’s no wonder, given all the smoke being blown by the president and his supporters, that so many Trump voters believe that the election was stolen.
But how does one walk that back? How does one persuade them that the election was fair and their candidate lost? By all accounts, that will not be easy.
The reason for a lack of evidence is that state and local election officials really didn’t conspire to engineer a stolen election. As one who, as New Jersey’s attorney general, was responsible for regulating elections in that state, I am aware of the occasional mischief that is possible — but also of the professionalism of the hundreds of election officials in each state for whom “one person, one vote” is the cornerstone of our democracy. Viewed in the context of a national election, the president’s allegation depends on the meticulously cultivated and reinforced ignorance of his supporters.
That’s why the conduct of the Republican senators who plan to challenge the Electoral College certification is so egregious: They are knowingly lending credence to a delusion that, if left uncorrected, will undermine our democracy.
It will remain the civic duty of respected Republican leaders to correct this record. Over time, as the Republican Party’s senior statesmen and the president’s supporters such as Toomey acknowledge that the election wasn’t stolen, their candor will persuade many that the president simply lost. Until that day, belief that he won is just that: a belief unsupported by the evidence and refuted by the truth, in this case a 7 million vote plurality and 306 certified electoral votes.
Ultimately, I am sustained by my own faith that although articles of misplaced faith can be stubborn, they yield eventually to the quiet persuasion of truth. As Hannah Arendt put it, “No matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough … to cover the immensity of factuality.”
For the good of our republic, the Republican establishment needs to stand up, and Jan. 6 wouldn’t be too soon.
John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.