Yes, Democrats Have Called Some Elections Illegitimate. GOP Election Denialism Is Far Worse.
When Democrats voice dismay at MAGA Republicans’ belief that Donald Trump got cheated out of victory in the 2020 election, a common response goes: “Well, Democrats do it too!” But Hillary! But Stacey Abrams! But Al Gore! But Jimmy Carter! Anti-anti-Trump types are willing to concede that Trump’s claims about the 2020 “steal” were baseless, but they insist that the problem exists on Both Sides™, and that it’s rank partisanship—not to mention hypocrisy—to claim that the Trumpified GOP’s election denialism should be uniquely disqualifying.
There are many instances in which a nuanced view of an issue gets unfairly slammed as “bothsidesism.” This isn’t one of them.
Have politicians (and other public figures) from both parties made ill-advised, and sometimes entirely spurious, statements questioning the legitimacy of elections that favored the other party? Yes, they have, and it’s a bad and toxic habit. In particular, there are good reasons to be harshly critical of some Democratic claims casting aspersions on election integrity in the United States, and the Democratic party needs to so some serious soul-searching on the subject. But the GOP’s post-2020 election denialism is in an entirely different league. It is vastly more toxic. And it is uniquely dangerous.
While Republican activists have compiled a long list of “Democrats denying election results” (there’s even a 12-minute supercut of clips put out by the Republican National Committee), they revolve mainly around three issues: the 2016 election, the 2000 election, and the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia which Stacey Abrams lost to Brian Kemp. Let’s deal with each of these in turn.
I. The 2016 Presidential Race
The Republicans’ favorite smoking guns relating to the 2016 election are a couple of video clips of Hillary Clinton expressing the view that the election was “stolen” from her or that Trump was an “illegitimate” president.
The first thing to note is that Clinton’s comments were made in 2019, nearly three years after the 2016 election. The “stolen election” remark is from May 2019, two weeks after the publication of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report, which stated that while there was no evidence of active conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, there had in fact been a Russian conspiracy intended to help elect Trump. And Clinton’s remark about Trump being an “illegitimate” president came in September 2019, in the midst of the Trump-Ukraine scandal that soon led to Trump’s (first) impeachment, for trying to use military aid to Ukraine to leverage demands for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to provide information that would damage then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden and cast doubt on Russian election interference in 2016. By then, Trump was already widely seen as an illegitimate president by his critics.
By contrast, during the first two-and-a-half years of Trump’s presidency, Clinton had kept a low profile and refrained from attacking Trump’s legitimacy. It seems that the most the GOP list-makers could find from before 2019 was that in September 2017, when repeatedly pressed by National Public Radio host Terry Gross, Clinton said she would not absolutely rule out questioning the legitimacy of the election if more information about Russian interference came out. She also stressed that there were no means to legally challenge it: “There are scholars, academics, who have arguments that it would be [legal], but I don’t think they’re on strong ground. . . . I just don’t think we have a mechanism.”
Let’s not forget that a little less than a year earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the election, Hillary Clinton gave a gracious concession speech on November 9, 2016 when it became clear that she had lost to Trump.
It’s true that some other high-level Democrats were more defiant. About seventy—including the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, refused to attend the inauguration in January 2017, some explicitly citing Trump’s alleged illegitimacy. And yes, some Democratic House members objected to the certification of their states’ votes. How many? A total of seven. Because no Democratic senators joined them, the objections were not even formally considered. By contrast, in January 2021, 139 Republican House members and eight Republican senators objected to the certification of Biden’s win. That’s 139 vs. 7 in the House and 8 vs. 0 in the Senate.
And that’s not to mention massive Republican efforts at the state level, supported by 19 Republican attorneys general and coordinated with Trump’s own legal team—and with Trump’s own active and aggressive participation—to invalidate the results of the vote in several swing states in an attempt to throw the Electoral College to Trump. In several states that Biden won, this effort included fraudulent electors sending to Washington phony certificates depicting Trump as the winner. Let’s leave aside for now the question of whether this effort could have worked if a few officials in key posts had caved to the pressure. The point is that it was a dogged, multipronged effort by people who absolutely wanted it to succeed.
And that’s not to mention the events of January 6th, when a mob of Trump supporters—egged on by Trump himself to “Fight like hell”—invaded the Capitol in a last-ditch attempt to stop the certification of Biden’s victory. (No, the violent anti-Trump protests in Washington on Inauguration Day in 2017 are not remotely comparable; they were not intended to reverse the election results, and neither Clinton nor any other prominent Democratic politician cheered them on.)
In other words, comparing “election results denial” in 2016 and 2020 is not just comparing apples and oranges, it’s more like comparing a tricycle to an 18-wheeler.
II. The 2000 Presidential Race
The finger-pointing at the 2000 election is equally specious. First of all, there actually was a hotly contested election that year and a controversial Supreme Court ruling to stop a recount. Yes, Al Gore and many other Democrats expressed disagreement with that ruling. Some, including Hillary Clinton and former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe, said the election was “taken away” or “stolen” from Gore.
That rhetoric was extreme and unwise. And some pundits’ claims that Gore would have won the Florida recount if it had been completed are on very shaky ground; it all depends on how the recount would have been conducted. A New York Times analysis in 2001 concluded that Bush would have narrowly won under the most likely scenario.
But here, again, is a key difference: Once the Supreme Court ruled, Gore conceded with no hedging or qualifications, expressed his faith in America, and urged Americans to rally behind George W. Bush. In a symbolic gesture of protest, thirteen House Democrats objected to the counting of Florida’s electoral vote, with support from a few more representatives. But the objections went nowhere, since no senators joined in them. (Poignantly, Vice President Gore himself, fulfilling one of the responsibilities of his office, presided over the counting of the electoral votes.)
Gore did later sharply criticize the Supreme Court in a pair of 2002 interviews and express the view that he would have won in a fair recount—but that was the only time he spoke out on the issue during the Bush presidency.
III. Stacey Abrams
The closest Democratic analogue to Trump is Stacey Abrams, who refused to give a concession speech after losing the governor’s race to Brian Kemp in 2018, claiming that he had rigged the election in his favor as Georgia’s secretary of state. Her claim that her loss was due to vote suppression by Kemp’s purges of voter rolls, invalidation of registrations due to technical errors, and poll closures has been hotly contested. I don’t think her allegations are adequate grounds for questioning the legitimacy of the election, and I believe that the Democrats’ acceptance of her stance (complete with coy denials of being an “election denier”) is genuinely bad for democracy, if only because it sets a dangerous precedent. But even so, the analogy to Trump fails.
First, we’re talking about a gubernatorial election, not a presidential one. Second, Abrams refused to concede but also acknowledged, however grudgingly, the outcome of the election and did not try to overturn it. There’s a difference between non-concession and attempted sabotage of the election results. And Abrams certainly did not attempt to wrest the governor’s seat from Kemp by a combination of junk lawsuits and mob intimidation.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Abrams, whose lawsuit claiming that Georgia’s new “election integrity” laws amounted to an attempt at racist vote suppression was just rejected by U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones (a Barack Obama appointee who is black). One can also criticize President Biden’s inflammatory references last January to those laws as Jim Crow redux—a low point in the Biden presidency.
Yet there remains a huge qualitative difference between all of that and the Trump Republicans’ actions in 2020—and between all of that and the massive wave of election deniers running for office this year. Some of them are explicitly refusing to commit to accepting voting outcomes that don’t go their way. Some could be in a position to disrupt the certification of votes in the 2024 presidential election. Maybe some of them are merely pandering to the MAGA base. A few have tried to pivot away from denialism after the primaries: New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc has decided, just in time for the general election, that the new “research” he has done shows the election wasn’t stolen. Maybe, when push comes to shove, they’ll choose the rule of law and the Constitution. But do we really want to take that chance?
Pre-2020 denial of the legitimacy of presidents from the other party, it should be noted, was hardly limited to Democrats. After the 1992 election, Republicans widely questioned Bill Clinton’s mandate because, thanks to Ross Perot’s presence in the race, Clinton won with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Many also believed that Clinton did not win fair and square because the “liberal media” put a thumb on the scale to help him and cover up his scandals. (Today, many conservatives who concede there was no widespread voter fraud in 2020 embrace a similar “election-denial lite” theory of why Biden did not win fairly.) Barack Obama was widely portrayed as a Kenyan-born usurper, with Trump leading the charge. More generally, the narrative that Democrats win by stealing elections had a lot of currency with a large, non-fringe portion of the right; see, for instance, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt’s 2004 book with the self-explanatory title If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat.
One may argue that the trend of treating opposing-party presidents, even rhetorically, as cheaters-in-chief has been bad for the country and toxic for our politics. Perhaps, sooner or later, this trend was inevitably going to escalate into active efforts to overturn election results one doesn’t like—i.e., a de facto negation of democracy. But the reality is that here and now, this escalation has happened overwhelmingly on the Republican side. (For now, anyway: One party’s tactical escalations are usually replicated across the aisle, so the more the GOP enables election challenges based on voter-fraud conspiracy theories, the more emboldened Democrats will feel to challenge election results by claiming that they were tainted by vote suppression.)
A GOP victory that significantly boosts the rank of election deniers in Congress and in state-level public office will not plunge the United States into a political Armageddon. But it may very well jeopardize, at least for the foreseeable future, the integrity of our elections.