Early this week, electors in 50 states and Washington, D.C., formally chose Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.
And after weeks (and weeks) of waiting, Republicans in the Senate began to acknowledge the president-elect’s victory.
“We’ve now gone through the constitutional process and the electors have voted, so there’s a president-elect,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said.
“The Electoral College has cast their votes and selected Joe Biden,” said a notably enthusiastic Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana. “Legislatures and courts have not found evidence of voter fraud to overturn the results.”
“At some point you have to face the music,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said. “And I think once the Electoral College settles the issue today, it’s time for everybody to move on.” Similarly, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas let us know that he thinks Biden is “president-elect subject to whatever additional litigation is ongoing. I’m not aware of any.”
It is refreshing to see Republican lawmakers finally yield to reality. Still, there’s something concerning about each of these statements. That something was also there in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s interview with Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Asked whether he had “any doubt who won the election,” the outgoing Tennessee senator answered, “Shouldn’t be after Monday. The states have counted, certified their votes. The courts have resolved the disputes. It looks very much like the electors will vote for Joe Biden.”
The “something” is the idea that this past month of litigation (and angry outbursts and demanding phone calls with election officials) was somehow normal, that the “constitutional process” for presidential elections includes potential judicial override, that the Supreme Court weighs in on challenges to the outcome, and that everything is provisional until the Electoral College cast its votes, as if that process is anything more than a formality.
To affirm Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of the election more than a month after the end of voting — as Mitch McConnell did, on Tuesday morning, when he announced that “our country officially has a president-elect and vice-president elect” — is to treat the outcome as unofficial pending an attempt to overturn the result.
In short, Republicans are establishing a new normal for the conduct of elections, one in which a Democratic victory is suspect until proven otherwise, and where Republicans have a “constitutional right” to challenge the vote in hopes of having it thrown out.
We’ve already seen this spread to down-ballot races. Sean Parnell, a Republican House candidate, refused to concede his race against the Democratic incumbent, Conor Lamb, citing voter fraud and signed onto a lawsuit, since dismissed, to throw out mail-in ballots. “I will continue to fight and follow the constitutional process until every legal vote is counted and all legal proceedings are resolved,” he said, more than a week after Lamb declared victory.
John James, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Michigan, took a similar stance. “While Sen. Peters is currently ahead, I have deep concerns that millions of Michiganders may have been disenfranchised by a dishonest few who cheat,” James said, days after voting ended with the incumbent Democrat, Gary Peters ahead. James did not concede until the end of the month.
One rejoinder is that Democrats have played this game too. In 2018, Stacey Abrams took 12 days to end her campaign for Georgia governor. Her opponent, Brian Kemp, had also administered the election as secretary of state. In the years before, his office had improperly purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls and closed polling stations in predominantly Black areas throughout the state. His was a slim victory, and Abrams held out on a concession to call attention to Kemp’s clear conflict of interest.
You see, despite a record high population in Georgia, more than 1 million citizens found their names stripped from the rolls by the Secretary of State, including a 92 year-old civil rights activist who had cast her ballot in the same neighborhood since 1968. Tens of thousands hung in limbo, rejected due to human error and a system of suppression that had already proven its bias. The remedy, they were told, was simply to show up — only they, like thousands of others, found polling places shut down, understaffed, ill-equipped or simply unable to serve its basic function for lack of a power cord.
Abrams did not dismiss the election as “rigged” because there were more voters than she would have preferred. She did not call on judges to subvert the outcome or throw out Republican votes. She admitted defeat, but refused to concede that hers was a free and fair election. Contrast that with President Donald Trump, whose complaint is that he had to compete in a free and fair election, and whose definition of “fraud” is a level electoral playing field.
Following the president’s lead, some Republicans, under the guise of so-called election integrity, are even retreating from popular government itself. After Kemp’s successor as secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, refused to bend to demands to subvert the vote for the president, the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, David Ralston, announced that he would seek a state constitutional amendment to take the office away from voters and put it in the hands of the Georgia Legislature. His counterpart in Michigan, another swing state, has even floated his support for doing the same with presidential electors.
Ongoing debates over coups and fascism and despotism, all keyed to foreign examples, miss the extent to which American history itself offers many examples of democratic backsliding — not into outright autocracy but into forms of competitive authoritarianism or herrenvolk democracy, in which only those designated as the rightful “people” have a legitimate say in government. Perhaps we should be looking less at whether the United States is on the path to authoritarianism and more at whether it’s moving away from the broad-based democratic aspirations of the postwar period back toward the narrow, restrictive democracy of the years between the end of Reconstruction and the crisis of the 1930s.
Greater attention to anti-democratic moments in our history — like the spectacularly violent “redemption” of South Carolina in the 1870s or the Wilmington massacre and coup of 1898 — might leave us less surprised when one of our two major political parties recapitulates the arguments, the claims and even the methods of those in our past who sought liberty for themselves above liberty for others.