Last year, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin lost his bid for re-election by a few thousand votes. He immediately sought to cast the outcome in doubt, claiming he’d been the victim of voter fraud. “We know there have been thousands of absentee ballots that were illegally counted,” Bevin said. Democrats, he charged, are “very good at harvesting votes in densely populated urban areas.”
Bevin was not able to supply any proof. He’d been a contentious figure in office, attacking members of his own party, so no one had his back when he made his unsubstantiated claims. “I’ve rarely seen a person of one party piss off so many people in his own party, so he didn’t have much goodwill,” says Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville.
That’s why the story in Kentucky, although similar in outline, played out differently than what’s occurred nationally. President Trump and his lawyers have not been able to produce evidence of voter fraud that hasn’t been debunked in court, by international observers or even his own Department of Homeland Security. State and local election officials across the country, both Republican and Democrat, say there’s no evidence of widespread fraud or foul play in this year’s election.
"The Nov. 3 election was the most secure in American history," according to a statement released Thursday by a coordinating council of federal, state and local election officials. "There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised."
Nonetheless, in contrast with Bevin, Trump’s claims have been echoed by Republicans at every level of government. Members of Congress have pressured secretaries of state to run recounts, while legislators in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have all said they’ll investigate supposed irregularities. “I would rather guarantee that everyone, at the end of the day, has certainty that the election was conducted fairly because we do a thorough investigation, as opposed to trusting a bunch of bureaucrats in Madison saying, look, we did it just fine,” Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said on Wednesday.
Election calls made by news outlets have no force of law and any candidate in a close election might seek a recount. States are starting to certify the results of the presidential election, but that process will play out into December.
If Trump continues to reject the results, it will break with a long line of historic precedents.
“By not conceding the contest, it allows the fight to literally continue,” says Buddy Howell, a communication professor at Virginia Tech who has studied concession speeches. “You're saying that this new administration has no legitimacy.”
Given Trump’s stature as president, his stance is already being imitated, while voters, at least on the Republican side, are expressing doubts about the validity of the election. Kimberly Klacik, who took just 28 percent of the vote in her Baltimore congressional race, is claiming she was cheated due to mail-in votes she suggests were suspicious. St. Louis County’s public comments page is filled with posts denying that County Executive Sam Page won re-election, despite his 22 percentage point victory margin.
In Washington state, Republican Loren Culp has refused to acknowledge defeat against Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who beat him by more than 500,000 votes. Culp claims unspecified irregularities and says that conceding would “disenfranchise” voters.
What it really does is fail to bow to the will of the voters. Accepting the outcome of elections is at the heart of democracy. Refusing to accept defeat after all avenues for appeal have been closed casts doubt not only on the outcome but the legitimacy of those holding office.
“It’s really dangerous for the future of the republic,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “We’re used to having — no matter how close the election is and once a recount is over — the losing candidate thank their supporters and say we may be back another day. To question the legitimacy or accuracy of the election goes against our whole norm of peaceful transfer of power.”
Bullock suggests that Trump, in the end, might borrow from the playbook of Stacey Abrams, the failed Democratic candidate for Georgia governor. Abrams claimed her 2018 loss to Brian Kemp was not due to voter fraud, but rather Kemp’s purge of hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls and failure to count provisional votes as secretary of state.
At the time of the election, Abrams acknowledged the results but pointedly refused to concede.
“Let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper,” Abrams said. “Democracy failed Georgians.”
For months after the election, Abrams continued to claim she should have won, a claim frequently echoed by national Democrats. “If Stacey Abrams actually cared about the integrity of elections, she’d concede the Georgia governor’s race that she lost by 55,000 votes,” Ronna McDaniel, who chairs the Republican National Committee, tweeted in August 2019. “Instead she’s on national TV today still thinking she won. Completely ridiculous.”
McDaniel’s Twitter feed now is a compendium of claims about supposed election irregularities.
“In terms of what the president may do, he might be able to contact Stacey and ask, can I use your speech,” Bullock says. “She acknowledged the result but said the election was unfair and maybe illegal.”
Poisoning the Well
Since last week’s election, former North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory has given a series of interviews recalling his own defeat in 2016. He lost to Democrat Roy Cooper by 0.2 percent of the vote. McCrory refused to concede until a month after the election, claiming he’d been the victim of voter fraud.
“I was about to walk on stage and accept re-election,” McCrory told WRAL. “And then all of a sudden, someone grabbed me and said 100,000 votes just came in from Durham from early voting, which were supposed be turned in at 7:30.”
Those 100,000 votes from Durham continue to fuel conspiracy theories in the state. At the time, there was talk that the GOP-controlled Legislature would somehow step in and make McCrory the winner, despite Cooper having won more votes.
“It was common here then to refer to North Carolina’s attempted 'legislative coup,'” says Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. “I always thought that McCrory felt aggrieved that, as a final matter, the legislators didn’t ride to his rescue.”
North Carolina was home to the most serious modern case of election fraud, with a Republican congressional campaign in 2018 collecting absentee votes and then failing to turn them in. The state board of elections refused to certify the results and a do-over election was held last year, which was won by a different Republican candidate.
The ballot fraud case and McCrory’s refusal to concede have helped keep North Carolina politics contentious. “Those elections demonstrate the deep division within a highly competitive electorate and a campaign’s willingness to go to great lengths to ensure that victories are had,” says J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “But the count has to show that there is a chance for a candidate to come through towards a victory, or at least maintain a lead, to be viable in contesting an election.”
Not Like the Old Days
Following Cooper’s election, the North Carolina Legislature moved during a lame-duck session to strip the governor of powers, which triggered legal battles and ushered in a period of non-cooperation between the new governor and the Legislature. Admittedly, that might have happened whether McCrory quickly conceded or not, but his failure to recognize and respect the outcome clearly didn’t help.
Close elections have led to hard feelings all over. Just as some Republicans are now dismissing Joe Biden’s popular-vote victory, saying that Trump would have taken more votes if not for California, legislators have sometimes acted as if votes from certain jurisdictions, whether urban or college town, should count less.
“If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Vos said in 2018, after Democrat Tony Evers narrowly defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker. The Wisconsin Legislature also stripped the governor’s office of some powers during a lame-duck session. Vos and Evers have had strained relations ever since; they haven’t spoken since May, despite the pandemic.
But the great thing about a democracy, billionaire Warren Buffett points out in the documentary One Vote, is that everyone’s vote carries exactly the same weight. The unwillingness to accept results based on the timing of the count or the jurisdictions they come from, or some other circumstance, is corrosive to that core idea.
Many Democrats have spent the last four years complaining that Trump’s presidency is illegitimate, due to Russian interference or other trickery. Despite the lack of evidence of voter fraud in this year’s election, Republican politicians are actively soliciting examples. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is asking people to send his office examples of irregularities regarding mail or absentee ballots. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, announced this week a million-dollar fund for reports of voter fraud.
This has been tried before. In 2014, the Alabama Republican Party offered rewards of up to $1,000 to anyone who could help find examples of voter fraud, but came up empty.
If fraud is widespread, it will be apparent, as was the case with the North Carolina congressional race. Responding to close elections with unproven claims of fraud only serves to undermine confidence in elections. Voting may be one of the last remaining institutions Americans have much faith in, but now the simple question of who got more votes threatens to become yet another partisan litmus test.
In 1800, the race between President John Adams, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson ended up tied in the Electoral College. Jefferson won the subsequent House vote that determined the outcome. Adams didn’t attend Jefferson's inauguration, but his willingness to abide by the result was the first peaceful transfer of power between parties in this country, creating a template that endured for more than two centuries.
This is the tradition that Trump threatens to break: Accepting the results, no matter how painful and no matter what political divisions remain.
“There’s always been that line in the loser’s speech, that we will support the new administration because the people have spoken,” says Howell, the Virginia Tech professor. “It’s the beginning of bringing the nation back together, behind one administration. Or, it’s supposed to be.”