US elections survived a threat, but the future is bleak
The toxic political fallout of the recent presidential elections has truly tarnished America's reputation.
A month after the elections have been called in favour of his opponent, President-elect Joe Biden, the sitting president still refuses to concede. A clown car of Trump lawyers have filed a flurry of frivolous lawsuits that have been pretty much thrown out with disdain by the courts, sometimes by judges Trump himself appointed, often with scathing critiques from the bench. Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, two of Trump's lawyers, have invited ridicule with their outlandish claims which have collapsed in court.
President Donald Trump has taken the extraordinary, appalling step of requesting Republicans in state legislatures to deny the people's verdict. He has asked the Supreme Court to invalidate millions of votes from four battleground states.
Yet amid the debris of massive political mayhem, something important has not been given due credit. By and large, the US elections have been remarkably smooth. This would be a laudable achievement in any large country. In America, this is nothing short of a miracle.
For a country that prides itself on being one of the world's strongest bastions of democracy, its actual system of conducting elections is shockingly ramshackle. There is no nonpartisan overarching federal body of permanent bureaucrats that conducts elections. Instead, a crazy-quilt patchwork of countless counties run elections, supervised by state officials who are elected in partisan elections. Many poll workers are volunteers, and paid workers are poorly paid.
With the pandemic, this year brought some unique challenges.
"There was an acute shortage of poll workers. Yet the United States saw unprecedented turnout over the last few weeks," the national security blog Lawfare, which is associated with the Brookings Institution, remarked. "Many states handled voting by mail and early voting impressively and huge numbers of volunteers turned up to work the polls… And for all the president's griping about the counting of votes, it has been orderly and apparently without significant incident. The result was that, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 230,000 Americans [until then], record numbers of Americans voted—and voted by mail—and those votes are almost all counted at this stage."
This year marked an unprecedented, unprincipled partisan Republican onslaught on elections and officials. Unsubstantiated claims of massive fraud led to a bizarre, baseless "Stop the Steal" movement by hardcore Trump supporters who claim the elections were rigged. They are yet to provide any tangible evidence that will pass muster at any US court of law. That hasn't stopped them from creating a threatening, hostile atmosphere for election officials.
Trump has egged on these fevered supporters.
Yet something rare and remarkable has happened. It appears that the actual duty of ensuring a fair election is so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness that threats and intimidation failed to budge election officials, even when they were themselves Trump-supporting Republicans. Republican election officials have simply refused to accept outrageous demands of Trump supporters and gone about their job.
"I'm a proud Trump supporter," Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said at a news conference at the state Capitol. "Like other Republicans, I'm disappointed our candidate didn't win Georgia's electoral votes."
"Working as an engineer throughout my life, I live by the motto that numbers don't lie. As secretary of state, I believe that the numbers that we have presented today are correct. The numbers reflect the verdict of the people," he said on November 20.
Raffensperger has paid a stiff price. Protesters have showed up on his property and Trisha, his wife of 40 years, has received "sexualised threats" on her cell phone, according to Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling.
Meanwhile, Trump has met Republican leaders of Michigan's legislature and asked them to overturn the results in their state. He has made a similar request to Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican. All three have declined, to their credit. These laudable instances of principle, it must be pointed out, stand in stark contrast with the complicity of a wide swath of the Republican Party.
"In a recent survey, an alarming 222 Republicans in the House and the Senate—88 percent—refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the presidency. Another two insisted Trump won," Zeynep Tufekci writes in The Atlantic magazine.
Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are Republican candidates for runoff elections in Georgia in January which will decide control of the US Senate. Instead of supporting Raffensperger's principled stand, both shamelessly aped Trump and—I'm not making this up—called for Raffensperger's resignation.
So while this time around the American elections process survived the ultimate stress test, the political future of the nation is dark and murky.
"But ignoring a near catastrophe that was averted by the buffoonish, half-hearted efforts of its would-be perpetrator invites a real catastrophe brought on by someone more competent and ambitious," Tufekci warns in The Atlantic.
"President Trump … (is) establishing a playbook for stealing elections by mobilising executive, judicial, and legislative power to support the attempt. And worse, much worse, the playbook is being implicitly endorsed by the silence of some leading Republicans…
"We're being tested, and we're failing. The next attempt to steal an election may involve a closer election and smarter lawsuits... If most Republican officials are failing to police this ham-handed attempt at a power grab, how many would resist a smoother, less grossly embarrassing effort?"
Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.