So here’s the official company line promoted by establishment Republicans to defend the outcome of the 2020 presidential election: Of course the election had some irregularities like all elections but nothing that would change the result and, by the way, the country needs some major election integrity reform before this happens again.
The doublespeak designed to refute what election fraud deniers call “the big lie” was best expressed over the weekend by Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, failed presidential candidate, and now paid ABC News shill. While attempting to shame fellow Republicans for bolstering Donald Trump’s complaints about how the election was handled in states that flipped to Joe Biden in 2020, Christie falsely claimed there wasn’t any evidence of vote fraud. “I don’t think there’s any question that the country needs to focus on in terms of our elections is making sure we have some effective electoral reform . . . we need to make the system better for 2022,” Christie told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. “But this election was not stolen.”
Others have set up a similar trap for themselves. Just hours before the so-called “insurrection” began, ex-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) slammed his GOP colleagues planning to protest the results and demand an election audit. Like Christie, McConnell defended the integrity of the election while supporting election reform at the state level. “Last year’s bizarre pandemic procedures must not become the new norm,” McConnell lectured January 6.
Which raises the question—why not?
If the 2020 election was legitimate and, as McConnell and others insist, featured no evidence of decisive fraud outside the normally acceptable level of illegalities, then why should anything change?
Tens of millions of mail-in ballots without signature verification or documented chain of custody or other legally required proof should indeed be the “new norm” if their analysis is to be believed. Election Day will last not weeks but months; every voter will receive an absentee ballot, even those who didn’t request one, and it can be returned past Election Day without a postmark or delivered to drop-boxes manned by partisans in deep blue counties and cities.
Unelected government bureaucrats can override state election laws with impunity. Republican observers will be kept far from the counting process. Judges, motivated either by fear or malice, will refuse to consider lawsuits that carefully detail the unlawfulness. Even the United States Supreme Court will insist states that properly followed the Constitution in administering their own elections lack any “standing” to sue other states that did not follow the Constitution.
This is the conundrum created by election fraud deniers in the GOP. One cannot simultaneously defend the integrity of the 2020 election and call for new laws to ensure election integrity. It’s an exercise in cognitive dissonance, a self-own as the kids would say, that will backfire one way or another. By refusing over the past few months to acknowledge, let alone address, provable instances of voter fraud, Republicans now find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
If Republicans in Congress pursue federal election reform, as Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) plans, Democrats, the news media and some of their own Republican colleagues will accuse them of perpetuating the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. Otherwise-moderate voices such as Scott’s will be vilified as no better than the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol last month and promptly given the Josh Hawley treatment.
If Republicans in Congress don’t pursue federal election reform, they’ll write their own political obituaries for two reasons: First, the still-infuriated base will punish them at the polls. Second, the Democrats once again will get the message that their pursuit of political power by any means necessary won’t be stopped by the other party even when they have control. It’s worth noting that state legislatures in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia are controlled by Republicans; feckless leaders in Washington aren’t the only politicians to blame for this mess.
Democrats, on the other hand, plan to leverage every bit of the “big lie” cover-up story to codify the socially-distanced 2020 election, pandemic or not. Shortly after winning the House in 2019, Democrats passed H.R. 1, dubbed “For the People Act.” The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), “will create automatic voter registration across the country, ensure that individuals who have completed felony sentences have their full voting rights restored, expand early voting and enhance absentee voting, simplify voting by mail, reduce long lines and wait times for voters and modernize America’s voting system.”
Now that Democrats have control of the Senate, it’s increasingly likely the bill will make it to Joe Biden’s desk before the next election; Senator Jeff Merkely (D-Ore.) announced January 19 that he would sponsor the bill in the Senate. The House could pass the legislation as early as this week.
If signed into law, the bill would end the prospect of electing another Republican president ever again. Ditto for most governorships and Senate seats. Free and fair elections, to the extent any shadow of this core constitutional right still exists, will get tossed into the dustbin of American history.
Which is why the “nothing to see here” gambit being played by Senate Republicans is so risky. Instead of using their power to confront voter fraud before and after the election, Republicans, many of whom were eager to see Donald Trump leave the White House, hid under their desks, both literally and figuratively.
McConnell already has paid a hefty price; disgruntled Republican voters in Georgia demoted him to minority leader this month. But instead of recognizing his own culpability, McConnell is in cahoots with Democrats to prepare an impeachment trial for Trump as some sort of retribution.
Ironically, an impeachment trial might be the best way for Trump and his legal team to combat the “big lie” and force both Democrats and Republicans to defend their tolerance of election fraud. Trump, unfortunately, did promote some claims that turned out to be far-fetched, but if his lawyers focus on provable election illegalities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin instead of silliness like “krakens,” the former president has a slim chance to counter the Beltway’s groupthink.
Republican-held state legislatures plan to enact election reform as lawmakers finally begin to understand and admit that lax rules, or laws that were ignored altogether, have enraged their constituents. Georgia Republicans are considering laws to tighten that state’s mail-in voting rules; Pennsylvania Republicans are holding a series of hearings on election reform.
Several election-related lawsuits, as I explained last week, await action by the Supreme Court.
Trump voters, meanwhile, are not backing down. Polls continue to show the overwhelming majority don’t think the election was fair. Republican losses in Georgia this month were just the start of the rank-and-file’s revolt against idle party leaders.
In order to save itself, the GOP must reconcile its claims of a clean election with demands for election reform. It’s tricky territory that few, if any, are savvy enough to navigate.
But they only have themselves to blame.