I’ve been in and around politics for a long time, and not once, ever, have I encountered a candidate who said he or she might not accept the results of an election.
Certainly, in close-fought races candidates might ask for a recount. But once the precinct workers and town and city clerks and secretaries of state have checked and re-checked and certified, we consider the matter settled. We accept and abide by the results—at least until the next election. This year, we can’t take that for granted.
Why does this trouble so many of us? Because the elections process is at the core of who we are as a nation.
When elections are done, we commit to a peaceful transfer of power to the winners. We hand power to them without taking up arms and without casting doubt on the legitimacy of their win.
That’s been part and parcel of who we are for centuries, and it’s one of the features of our system that has made the US a beacon to others.
Now, however, we have a president who specifically questions whether or not he will accept the result of the election and step down peacefully. He talks—jokes, he says—about serving beyond his constitutionally allotted time, raising the specter of an American authoritarianism that once seemed inconceivable.
There is no question that these will be difficult elections to administer. If nothing else, the pandemic ensures that. We’re accustomed to knowing election results by the end of the night, but this year a lot of votes will come in later.
This will not be because voter fraud is taking place; as FBI director Christopher Wray just told Congress, there’s very little evidence that it exists. Instead, it will be because the hard-working women and men who administer our elections at the local level will be doing their level best to ensure that every eligible voter’s ballot gets counted.
Already, President Trump seems to have much of his base convinced that the only way he could lose is by fraud. So how do we uphold this core feature of our democracy?
How do we ensure the results are accepted as legitimate? Every state and local election official has to do their best to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote can cast a ballot, and that those ballots are counted as transparently as possible.
Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Opinions expressed are his alone.