This past summer, Americans were shocked and dismayed by the wanton violence and rioting in cities across the country. Although instances of racial injustice are real and deplorable, the violence in response was inexcusable. The lawlessness was often aided and abetted by the fomentation of distrust in the vital public institution of law enforcement. Fortunately, most Americans know that despite instances of police abuse, on the whole our nation’s law enforcement officers can be trusted to protect and serve the public.
We now need the same respect and trust in the officers who carry out our elections. The scenes of violence at the U.S. Capitol this week were swiftly condemned and should serve as a wakeup call to the dangers of casting doubt and aspersion on the most fundamental institution of our democracy — our elections.
If you have doubts about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, consider trusting instead in our constitutional institutions.
Consider these four principles for democratic elections.
First, the golden rule applies to elections, too. In the wake of the bitter 2016 election, many supporters of the losing Democratic candidate railed against the integrity of that election as having been “stolen” by Russian interference. Now, some supporters of the losing Republican candidate bemoan an election stolen by “Venezuelan” voting machines. There is no credible evidence that the outcome of either election was rigged. And yet, in 2016, lawless rioters stormed city streets, and now, in 2020, lawless rioters have stormed the Capitol’s halls.
In his farewell address, George Washington warned that partisanship “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, (and) foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” In our day of political tribalism, we need fewer partisans and more patriots. And in our constitutional republic, patriotism — love of country — depends upon supporting the rule of law, even, and especially, after losing elections.
Second, America’s institutions are more trustworthy than the internet. We honor and revere the Founders of this great nation by exercising faith in the inspired institutions and the form of government they devised and bequeathed to us. Our political institutions have survived a Civil War and two World Wars. Those institutions are more trustworthy than anyone’s favorite news personality, conspiracies circulated on the internet, or the doubts sowed by those who stand to gain from our distrust. Suspicions fueled by internet conspiracies must not be allowed to undermine faith in our centuries-old institutions.
Under the Constitution, the states, the courts and now Congress have completed their respective responsibilities. While every effort should be made to investigate and prevent fraud, significant checks and balances in our constitutional process should inspire confidence.
In Arizona and Georgia, two states where voter fraud was alleged, Republican governors have signed their state’s electoral certification. President Trump’s lawyers challenged the results in dozens of courts, but neither the U.S. Supreme Court, with three Trump-appointed justices and a conservative majority, nor other courts have found significant merit to overturn any election results.
(W)e need leaders who light the way, not stoke the fires.
The Department of Justice, led by then-Attorney General William Barr, a staunch Trump ally, investigated and found no evidence of systemic fraud that would have changed the election outcome. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, after evaluating the alleged evidence, concluded, “nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale ... that would have tipped the entire election.”
Most significantly, Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over a joint session of Congress, has affirmed the electoral count. The People have spoken, their representatives have abided by their choice, and our institutions have duly acknowledged it.
Third, in a representative democracy, we need leaders who light the way, not stoke the fires. A significant number of Americans believe the recent election “was rigged” against their candidate. While some responsible Republican leaders have refuted the allegation that widespread fraud altered the election, others have relied on the popular perception of fraud as evidence of its existence.
The conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal decried this tactic as lamenting the “fire” while wielding the “flamethrower.” A more admirable response would be “to push back against conspiracy theories” rather than “fan the anger and fund-raise off the credulous.” (Examples of pro-Trump conservatives who have refuted his claims of widespread fraud include, among many others, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Tom Cotton, former Attorney General William Barr, former Governor Chris Christie and National Review contributor Andrew McCarthy.)
Fourth, our loyalty is to the Constitution, not any president or party. Republicans have had much to celebrate over the last four years. Three conservative justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Pre-pandemic unemployment rates reached historic lows. Congress passed tax reform and regulatory relief. Trade deals were renegotiated. NATO allies pledged more spending on defense. But one can agree with President Trump’s policies without pledging oneself to his politics.
Trump’s assault on his election loss is one final loyalty test asking his supporters to pledge themselves to him, rather than the Constitution. State governments, the courts, the attorney general, Congress and the vice president have all declined his invitation.
So should We the People.
Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City.