Thursday, January 14, 2021

Restoring Trust in Our Elections By Accepting The Results


I didn't want to write about the election. It's a very difficult topic to address given the barrage of conspiracy theories and misinformation. And addressing even one question could take more analysis than I could fit into a single blog post. But understanding the current moment in our national politics requires a clear understanding of what happened and what is at stake.

Let me start by saying that I have no quarrel with the 74 million people who voted for Trump in 2020. Many of them are police officers, military veterans, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and others who would not hesitate to protect me and my family if we faced any dangers or needed care.

Also, I have no ill will for President Trump. I hope he and his family live a happy, peaceful life in Florida. While I personally feel his actions warrant being barred from future office, I believe it is much more important for our country to recognize the peril that we have all collectively placed our Republic in so that we can prevent this from happening ever again. 

Trust in Our Institutions

Our institutions are built on trust. A good example of this is currency. Most people know that the "almighty dollar" is no longer backed by gold or silver. Its value is protected by the collective trust of the citizens of our country, and our neighbors around the world, that the dollar will continue to be accepted as "legal tender for all debts, public and private." You accept a dollar from me at your restaurant because you can go and use that dollar to buy milk at a grocery store - or to pay your taxes to the IRS. 

Likewise, our election system is built on trust. For almost 250 years, our Republic has thrived and persisted thanks to a high level of trust in our institutions. Politicians from every party and office have accepted the results of our elections, with few exceptions. This despite fraud and errors at times being quite rampant. Many times, losers have challenged the results in courts. But once these disputes were resolved, a peaceful transfer of power has been the hallmark of American democracy.

As I will explain further below, President Trump's behavior since the Electoral College certified the results on December 14th was much like the moment in Mary Poppins when Mr. Dawes grabs Michael's tuppence, thus causing a run on the bank. It was the equivalent to the IRS announcing that they would no longer be accepting US Dollars for tax payments. As a trusted authority figure to many, by his persistence in claiming the election was rigged, Trump has eroded trust in our elections more than any actual instance of fraud could. Now we're all left with an electoral system that is more secure than it has ever been, but which is now devalued in the eyes of some voters. It may be too late to ever fully undo the damage.

Our currency is subject to counterfeit, just like there is always some degree of fraud in our elections. And as with our currency, our elections already have many intense security measures in place to curb that fraud, making it exceedingly rare. Thus, the solution to deteriorated trust in our elections is not necessarily to have less fraud - it's for there to be fewer baseless claims of fraud. And just as we all accept currency for our everyday transactions, each of us, especially those in positions of authority, must accept the results of our elections.

Mob Justice is Not Justice

While his unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transfer of power was troubling, Trump had every right to pursue legal challenges, which he did. He lost 61 of 62 court cases, including many brought before Republican and Trump appointee judges and even the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court. The single win was inconsequential to the result. While some of these cases were dismissed for lack of standing, many involved evidence presented which simply wasn't convincing or sufficiently consequential to the results.

President Trump and his legal team failed to convince a judge that there was any substantial fraud, so they decided to air their grievances on a video feed and present their "evidence" directly to the public in a session with a committee of the Michigan legislature. With no judge to adjudicate the evidence presented, they were able to say anything they wanted to with no consequence - none of the "witnesses" were under oath. To call this a "hearing" is an insult to our justice system. It was unethical and immoral. 

It was likewise unethical for President Trump to repeat these same claims in front of a frenzied crowd on the Ellipse on January 6th. In these venues, Trump and his surrogates could make false and speculative claims, sprinkled with some truth, with no accountability and without the ability for those he incriminated to defend themselves or to address the so-called discrepancies his team had compiled. 

The place to put forward evidence is in a court. Period.

Imagine if our criminal justice system worked that way. Imagine if Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, had left the courtroom after failing to convict Simpson of two murders, and then stood in front of a large crowd and said, "We failed in the courtroom, so here is all the evidence we weren't allowed to or failed to present there. Here are some other rumors and speculations. We will never give up, we will never concede. Now march down to O.J.'s house and peacefully demand justice." 

What would that crowd be expected to do with these instructions? There was no more recourse for official government response - O.J.'s trial was definitive under the 5th Amendment's restriction on double jeopardy. If the mob had taken the cue and committed an act of vigilantism, that would not have been just, even if, as most observers believe, O.J. was guilty.

Likewise, while I hope President Trump had no intention of inciting violence on January 6th, he ought to have known that his words could have that effect. No other president or presidential candidate in modern history has done or would have done what Trump did. 

Trust in the Process

Even Richard Nixon respected the process enough to concede when John F. Kennedy won in 1960, despite actual concerns that the result in Illinois had been manipulated by the mafia and other bad actors. Despite the potential irregularities, Nixon told a journalist friend, "our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis." Nixon, widely regarded as one of the most corrupt presidents we've ever had, also later resigned rather than remain an embattled president. This is what people who care more about the stability and longevity of our Republic than their own political ambition do (even if just barely).

Because it's the "Process" of the election that we honor - not the actual "will of the people" that exists in their unexpressed minds. We can't know what every voter is thinking or believes in their hearts. So we rely on ballots, poll workers, counting machines, auditors, county recorders, partisan observers, campaign observers, legal challenges, judges, appeals courts, state legislatures, secretaries of state, and ultimately, The Supreme Court, if needed, to ascertain the will of the people. 

We honor and respect that Process enough to accept the certified results and even the presumed results when we have enough data to project what the outcome will be. That's why Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney and John Kerry and others conceded hours after the polls closed in their respective elections.

I don't mean to imply that Donald Trump is the only one responsible for eroding trust in our elections. Barbara Boxer's objection to the results in 2004 and other House Democrats' objections in 2016 gave cover to Republicans in 2020. The difference in those instances was that the candidates themselves did not entertain the charade. However, I am much less interested in laying blame than I am in bringing light to the damage such actions have so we don't allow the same mistakes to be made again.

Electoral Fraud

There are always instances of fraud and errors in every election. Some people fill out ballots of their deceased relatives whose registration was inadvertently left open. Some ballots are unknowingly lost in the mail, misplaced, or damaged. Clerks and machines make tabulation errors.

The question is whether there is evidence that such fraud or error was 1) systematic favoring one candidate and 2) sufficient to affect the result of the election.

Most candidates concede within the first night of results being reported because usually our elections are not close enough for both 1) and 2) to be true. The burden of proof is on the candidate who is alleging fraud.  

Continuous improvements are welcome. We can always make a more secure, efficient, and convenient voting system. Think of how far we've come since 1788! But it will never be perfect. Once the election has occurred, we have to accept the results and challenge only within the prescribed process. Any desired changes to the process will need to be implemented for the next election - not retroactively. 

It's worth noting that our system does tend to eventually get things right. O.J. later served 9 years in prison for unrelated crimes. Richard Nixon was eventually elected president (and then resigned). If a massive fraud is later discovered which somehow affected vote tallies in multiple swing states with completely different voting systems and rules to the tune of tens of thousands of votes, there are mechanisms to address such fraud.

But without evidence - presented and tried in court - claims of massive fraud are just naked erosions of public trust.

Trust Goes Both Ways

There's a line from the Star Wars film Rogue One where Jyn Erso says, "Trust goes both ways." What Jyn meant by that is if you exhibit trust in those you deal with, they will likewise show trust in return. There's a trope in action films where the good guys and bad guys are in a standoff with guns drawn, and then the good guy convinces everyone to let cooler heads prevail, extending an olive branch by putting his own weapon down. Everyone else follows his lead. 

Put another way, when we put our trust in others, they become more trustworthy.

To go back to another "run on the bank" analogy, consider how George Bailey resolved the run on his Savings & Loan in It's a Wonderful Life. He shelled out cash to his customers from his own honeymoon fund as a show of trust. And in return, his customers agreed to keep their deposits in place. 

Our society functions on this type of trust. When we walk down the street, we trust that those we pass by will not stab us or grab our purse or wallet. When we drive, we trust that others won't intentionally crash into us. When we travel, we trust that the pilots of our airplanes are well trained and sober. When we get surgery, we trust that our doctor is competent and qualified. 

Ronald Reagan famously quoted the saying, "Trust but verify." There is nothing wrong with taking reasonable precautions when dealing with those whose interests are not in line with ours, but ultimately, the "trust" part is more important than the "verify." We have to be able to trust that others we share the world with are acting in good faith. 

Sometimes we get burned by trusting, and seeking justice for those who betray our trust is an important step to maintaining it. But in order to return to our normal lives, we have to learn to trust again and remember that not everyone is like the criminal who wronged us.

As citizens of the United States, we have to trust our poll workers, vote counters, county recorders, and auditors the same way we trust our doctors, pilots, and chefs. We need to keep our deposits of trust in the "bank" of our elections. We can rest assured that there are checks and balances, audit trails, and verifications in place to catch those who would betray that trust. 

We can't allow extremists on either side to erode trust in broad swaths of the population. I firmly believe that Democrats and Republicans, Americans of all genders, races, religions, and ethnicities, share a goal of a peaceful and prosperous society governed by the rule of law. 

Addendum: The 2020 Election

Now I've said what I wanted to say. 

But I understand that many people are nevertheless concerned about fraud in the 2020 election, so I will attempt to address some of the specific allegations directly. Others have attempted to do this more comprehensively, but I will cover at a high level. 

Joe Biden won the 2020 election by a margin of 7 million popular votes (4.5%), and 74 electoral votes. Trump would have needed to win at least 3 additional states (Georgia, Arizona, and either Wisconsin or Pennsylvania) to win the election either outright or through an Electoral College tie settled by a Republican-favored House Contingent vote (where each state's delegation casts a single vote). 

Every state conducted its election in accordance with standards implemented by their respective legislatures (note that the state legislatures of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are all controlled by Republicans). This includes restrictions on registration (for example, in Arizona, you must have a valid Arizona address - no P.O. boxes allowed), testing of vote counting machines with bipartisan oversight, precinct poll measures (poll workers at each site must represent different political parties), counting of results (early ballot counters are from a bipartisan team; observers from all major parties, plus additional observers from each campaign; live video feed of ballot counting), resolving ballots that were not properly filled out (review by bipartisan team); post-election audits (sample of ballots traced from electronic tabulation of results to paper ballots); and recounts, as in Georgia, where ballots were recounted twice with minimal changes to the results each time.

Here's an article detailing the vote counting process in my home state of Arizona. 

I listened to many of the arguments made by Trump and his legal team, and found them to be seriously flawed. For example, it was often repeated that there were "more votes than voters" in some jurisdictions. I sampled a couple of the states they were talking about and was easily able to confirm, based on publicly available registration records, that these statements were completely false. (Often their statements used stale data to lend an air of credibility to their claims.) 

Claims were also made that ballot "dumps" added to Biden's margin. I have watched election results for my entire adult life and every single time, when results from an urban precinct come in, the total for the Democrat always goes up precipitously while the Republican's vote total barely changes. 

That's because, as everyone who knows a lick about politics is aware, black voters overwhelming vote for Democrats. In a city like Philadelphia, for example, where whites are a minority, it is no surprise to see a precinct in the inner city to report 90% - 10% for Biden. Nor is it a surprise to see a large batch of votes all reported from such a precinct at the same time late at night when rural precincts have already reported. Urban precincts are more densely populated and so counting takes more time.

Nor was it unexpected for mail-in ballots (which Trump discouraged his voters to use) to come in overwhelmingly for Biden, a phenomenon which was widely reported in the weeks leading up to the election. Here's an article from October explaining how the results in Pennsylvania would flip overnight as mail-in ballots were opened, verified, and counted.

If you aren't convinced by the actual certified votes which were upheld by the courts, just consider from a high level whether the results make sense. Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016 by a margin of 80,000 votes in 3 states (MI, WI, and PA) in a country of 340 million people against the most unpopular candidate in our lifetimes up to that point. All Biden needed to do to win was convince 80,000 non-Clinton voters, barely enough people to fill a stadium, to vote for him (keep in mind that Trump 2016 voters count double since it both takes away one vote from Trump and adds to Biden).

Yes, Trump convinced a lot more people to vote for him this time - 74 million votes in 2020 vs. 63 million in 2016. That can largely be explained by the rise of mail-in ballots (which made it far easier to vote) and population growth, as well as the high stakes of the election for both sides. Trump made some inroads with certain Hispanic and black voters, but still lost both groups by wide margins. Ultimately, Biden's win came from shifts in white college-educated voters from Trump / third-party in 2016 to Biden in 2020. 

Voters exactly like me. Many, many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have reached out to me publicly and privately affirming that they did the same thing. It shouldn't be hard to believe that Biden, a benign and boring career politician, could do just a hair better than Clinton.

If you look at the certified results by state, you will see that Biden did on average 2.35% better than Clinton. All he needed was a fraction of that to win (in 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania, the tipping point state, by 0.7%). There were only a handful of states where Trump did better in 2020 than in 2016 - states with large Hispanic / Asian populations (HI, CA, FL, NV), which are groups Trump made inroads with; Clinton's original home state of Arkansas (a home-state bump is a well known phenomenon); and Utah, a state that had a strong anti-Trump attitude in 2016 that caused a large 3rd party vote (2.5%) that swung back to Trump in 2020. 

In every other state (44 out of 50), Biden improved by an average of 2-3 points, in some cases as much as 6-7%. That includes Republican strongholds like Alabama (2.3%), Idaho (1.0%), Indiana (3.1%), Kentucky (3.9%), and Texas (3.4%). These results are perfectly consistent with Biden's performance nationwide. Unless you think that a widescale fraud was perpetrated on the presidential ballot of 44 independently run electoral systems, the 2% average swing toward Biden nationally and in the swing states is supported by the preponderance of evidence.

In short, Biden won. It's as simple as that.

If you are still concerned about electoral fraud in your state, please write to your state legislators. They are the ones charged by the Constitution (Article II Section 1) with running your elections, and they alone have the power to introduce additional safeguards for future elections.


Chris Stapley said...

Very well put together. Thank you Jeff!

Jeff Smith said...

Thanks, Chris!