Since Donald Trump’s unlikely election, critics have warned time and time again about undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election system.
Another group of unquestioning Trump claims conviction that the system is “rigged” or “stacked.” Two of the past three presidents — Trump and George W. Bush — were elected to first terms with a minority of the popular vote.
I’m not arguing here for abolition of the Electoral College — but the relatively rare election in which one candidate receives the most votes but the other receives the most votes in the right places at the right time does lend weight to the fears of those who feel their single vote hasn’t any real influence on an election.
Yours may never be one of those hyper-critical votes but it’s hard to argue single votes don’t much matter when Kentucky’s governor won his primary four years ago by 83 votes and our current president lost the popular vote but won critical Electoral College votes in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin by a combined margin of about 77,000 votes.
I lack no faith in either the elections of Bush, Matt Bevin or Trump to their first terms. Neither do I give any credence to those who claim Bush and Trump “stole” their elections. There is scant evidence of voter fraud in this country, and when it occurs, it typically shows up in local elections in the form of questionable absentee ballots.
Even if you add in the 1960 election of John Kennedy over Richard Nixon, the four most contested elections at the state and federal levels in my life were ultimately won by Republicans. I’ve always believed those Republicans were entitled to the wins and at worst “stole their election fair and square,” meaning the victorious candidate manipulated the election rules in legal ways to optimize his chances of winning.
The one nagging exception and fear is our current president — it’s hardly debatable any longer his campaign actively and knowingly sought and likely received help from foreign governments in spreading disinformation to rile voters and disparage opponents. He was recorded on both audio and video saying: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
In a narrowly divided country, one is certain to endure closely decided votes. But we live in an era in which a large plurality is knotted up on one end of the political spectrum and another at the other end — with only a few “moderate,” or “independent” voters in the middle who often decide our elections.
This has produced two observations, one of them more than a little threatening.
The first is that Republicans won three of four of those bitterly contested elections, including the last three. Yet it is the GOP which wants more restrictive voting laws and points to unsubstantiated “evidence” of voter fraud. Such efforts, however, nearly always disproportionately drives down voter participation by low-income and ethnic groups who tend to vote Democratic.
But what’s really alarming is the undercutting of the credibility of our election system itself. Trump raged in 2016 that the election was “rigged.” Now Bevin, after losing his re-election bid to Andy Beshear by 5,000 votes, cites unspecified and uncorroborated “irregularities” in last week’s vote.
That is indefensible and wholly irresponsible. But a sizable portion of Trump and Bevin voters already accept such conspiracy theories. That’s bad enough. But it’s an existential threat in an era where demagogues can be elected by exploiting “average Americans’” fears that the game is stacked, such paranoia can pull the rug of credibility from under our democratic institutions, including the most important one — the sanctity of our elections.
Those institutions are only as strong as citizens’ faith in them.
It’s high time for the self-professed “adults in the room” to stand up for their state and country — for principle for goodness sakes — rather than personal interest and political power.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.