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Opinion: A constitutional emergency is in our future if we continue touting election fraud

Even Richard Nixon knew not to trigger a crisis by claiming election fraud. But the truth is American elections are remarkably free from irregularities, and voters need to know this ahead of the 2022 midterms

SHARE Opinion: A constitutional emergency is in our future if we continue touting election fraud
A “vote here” sign is pictured in Salt Lake City.

A “vote here” sign is pictured outside of the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Richard Nixon may have been one of the most flawed characters of 20th century American politics, but he understood the power a major party’s standard-bearer holds over millions of supporters. 

Which explains at least one reason why he conceded the presidential election to John F. Kennedy in 1960. 

He had reason to believe he may have been cheated out of victory. The final count gave Kennedy 112,827 more votes than him, out of 68 million cast. That was a difference of 0.17%.

News reports of the day said Republican officials heard rumors that Texas had disqualified 50,000 ballots on technicalities, which was more than the margin of Kennedy’s victory there. Rumors also swirled of irregularities in Illinois, where the difference between the candidates was just 9,000 votes.

Nixon told his supporters to knock it off. He conceded the race, reportedly telling a friend that “our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis.”

“Agony” was a prophetic word. We’re seeing that today, and with far less evidence to back it up.

And if the agony continues, or grows alongside public distrust in the next election and the one after that, the nation may face a constitutional emergency not seen since the Civil War.

The 2020 race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden saw Biden win with a margin of 7,052,770 votes, or 4.5% of the roughly 155 million cast, and by a 306-232 margin in the Electoral College.

Trump’s insistence that the vote was rigged, often called “the big lie,” has spurred investigations and court challenges, none of which has substantiated the claim. 

A group of notable conservatives, led by Thomas B. Griffith, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, thoroughly examined each claim of fraud in 64 court cases arising from the 2020 election, as well as all the audits in battleground states and determined the race was lost, not stolen.

Even a Republican-led “audit” of Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Biden was declared the winner by only 10,457 votes, actually found 99 more votes for Biden but otherwise discovered no widespread fraud.

And yet, the crisis continues.  

Even in Salt Lake County, Sherrie Swensen, the county clerk, recently told KSL she has received multiple threats over elections since 2020. These are generally of the “we’re going to get you” variety. “You’re going down,” a caller told Weber County Clerk Rick Hatch in a recorded message.

And this was in Utah, where Trump won by a margin of 22%. The FBI told CBS News that seven other states with closer margins continue to see high levels of threats against election workers. Meanwhile, The Associated Press reports that almost one-third of Republican candidates for offices nationwide that “play a role in overseeing, certifying or defending elections” supported overturning the 2020 presidential results.

Nixon may have had other motives. He might have been worried about his own legacy, or about ruining his future aspirations (he eventually was elected twice, after all) by looking like a poor sport. People were more civil in 1960.

But he also may have anticipated the political wildfires he could spark across the political landscape, burning distrust in an essential American institution — its elections.

Amid all this, I share with you this little secret I’ve learned through decades of study and observation: No one has yet invented a foolproof voting system. Even with the best of intentions, errors happen.

But another little secret lies in a simple number: 3,143. That’s how many counties and equivalent jurisdictions exist in the United States. Each one handles its own small version of the larger election count in a presidential race.

That’s a beautiful thing.

Washington may be sucking up power wherever it can take it from states and local governments, but elections remain marvelously fragmented and complicated, with each jurisdiction operating differently.

To rig a race, you would need to compromise several of these in key states, which would require a conspiracy involving precinct judges, vote counters and others, including postelection auditors, in each county.

Oh, it’s been done before. Lyndon Johnson allegedly got dead people to miraculously rise up and vote for him in alphabetical order in a rural Texas precinct during the 1948 Senate race. But that sort of thing would be much harder today, with cellphone cameras tempting people with viral material, and with postelection audits.

The Brennan Center has published links to a slew of credible studies that found few irregularities in modern U.S. elections, with incidents of actual fraud happening at a rate of between 0.0003% and 0.0025%.

That’s an impressive record, especially for something as difficult to pin down as a major nationwide election. As a nation, we ought to be proud.

But it won’t be enough to stamp out all the conspiratorial wildfires, or the battle cries that fomented a riot in the Capitol. 

Even Nixon, who tried lots of ways to get at his political enemies, knew not to play with that torch.