Trump’s bid to keep power could have lasting effect
Not since Reconstruction has there been more strain on America’s elections system, nor have so many voters been skeptical of the integrity of the vote count.
WASHINGTON — The Electoral College made official on Monday the victory that voters gave to Joe Biden weeks ago — with the California delegation’s 55 votes clinching it — after the typically little-noted event became a flash point for yet more anxiety and drama because of President Donald Trump’s desperate efforts to cling to power.
The president failed to hijack the constitutionally required convening in all 50 states’ capitals, which for more than a century stood out only for how little attention or controversy it drew. He couldn’t stop Hillary and Bill Clinton, designated electors in New York, from delivering ballots certifying the Biden win there, nor could he persuade Republican-controlled legislatures in half a dozen states that voted for Biden to block the certification.
In a televised speech Monday evening, Biden marked the occasion as a symbolic win for democracy and a sign that the nation had rejected Trump’s efforts to undermine the election results.
“In America, politicians don’t take power — the people grant it to them,” Biden said. “The flame of democracy was lit in this nation a long time ago. And we now know that nothing — not even a pandemic, or an abuse of power — can extinguish that flame.”
More than any time to date, the president-elect directly attacked Trump and his allies — including Republican state attorneys general and members of Congress — for their groundless attacks on the result, and for going all the way to the Supreme Court to “wipe out the votes of more than 20 million Americans” in four states that Biden won. The record turnout “should be celebrated, not attacked,” he said.
“It’s a position so extreme we’ve never seen it before,” Biden said. “It’s a position that refused to respect the rule of the people, refused to respect the rule of law and refused to respect the Constitution.”
He noted that his margin of electoral votes was the same as Trump’s in 2016, which Trump called a landslide back then. Biden thanked the Republicans who finally acknowledged his victory after the Electoral College acted, and reiterated his optimism about finding common ground: “I’m convinced we can work together for the good of the nation, on many subjects.” he said.
Even so, not since Reconstruction has there been more strain on America’s elections system, nor have so many voters been skeptical of the integrity of the vote count. It may prove one of Trump’s most enduring legacies.
“There’s no question that having two-thirds of Republicans, and about a third of the country, questioning the legitimacy of the duly elected president is not healthy for a democratic political system,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster.
The electors cemented Biden’s win, by a margin of 306 to 232 votes, effectively ignoring Trump’s unabashed claims of voter fraud that have been rejected by dozens of federal and state courts. The college met just three days after the Supreme Court for a second time in a week rejected a lawsuit brought by Trump or his supporters.
It was California’s 55 electoral votes that put Biden over the 270 he needed for election, and also made the state’s Sen. Kamala Harris the first woman, first Black and first Asian American to be elected vice president. Presiding over the vote in Sacramento was Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, an African American who came to California as a child in 1951 from Hope, Arkansas, where her parents were sharecroppers.
As widely predicted, the finality of the Electoral College’s action persuaded several Republicans to acknowledge Biden’s victory, after weeks of remaining mute in deference to the defiant Trump. Even then, some were grudging. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, asked by a reporter if he recognized Biden as president-elect, said, “I don’t have to, the Constitution does.” Pressed, he said simply, “I follow the Constitution.”
But Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said, “At some point, you have to face the music. And I think that once the Electoral College settles the issue today, it’s time for everybody to move on.”
Because of passions on the right that Trump had stoked, the meetings Monday in some states were marked by tension and fears of violent protest.
Michigan closed its state Capitol to the public as its electors met, in response to credible threats of violence, and Arizona moved its vote away from the Statehouse to a secret location.
“We’ve seen increasingly escalating rhetoric and threats throughout the last week, and decided to move this for the safety of everyone,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told CNN. Electors in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania arrived to their meetings with police escorts.
The question is what bad feelings will linger among the citizenry. Trump convinced much of the Republican Party that the election was illegitimate. The fallout could undermine not just Biden’s authority as he tries to steer the nation out of a pandemic and economic distress, but also the foundation of democracy — the assumption that Americans will accept the results of free and fair elections, and support the peaceful transfer of power.
“There is always discontent after an election and always people who think the other side stole it,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor and co-director of Bright Line Watch, a group of academics who track the resilience of democratic institutions. “The question is whether elites recognize and affirm the legitimacy of that election. If a party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party holding power, democracy is in big trouble.
“My worry,” Nyhan said, “is that alleging the election was stolen and questioning the legitimacy of the other party’s victory becomes a part of the Republican Party playbook.”
Nearly two-thirds of the Republicans in the House, including their highest-ranking member, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, last week joined a widely panned Supreme Court lawsuit filed by Texas and joined by 18 other Republican-led states, aiming to overturn Biden’s win. The critics’ appraisal was confirmed by the Supreme Court’s swift dismissal of the suit Friday as constitutionally groundless.
The courts’ rejection of the cases from Trump and his allies, and the opposition to them from some Republican state election officials, are being held up by experts as signs of strength of the country’s democratic institutions. Yet behind that relief is anxiety about how this unsettling new dynamic could play out in a presidential election much closer than the one the nation just went through.
“Once this path has been illumined, it would be naive to expect that others will not try to exploit it in the future,” said Alex Keyssar, a Harvard University history professor and author of “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” “The next person might be savvier about it.”
The outlook for American democracy hasn’t been so murky in decades, scholars say. Some are skeptical, however, that other Republican leaders could replicate Trump’s unique ability to use grievance and disinformation to make so many Americans believe elections are rigged.
“It remains to be seen if there are other politicians who can really take advantage of this,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. “Elected politicians can only ride this pony for so long before they start to look like hypocrites. It calls into question the validity of their own election. They have to be deeply conflicted about attacking American elections this way.”
Scholars are watching closely to see whether voter suspicion of the results endures following the avalanche of court decisions exposing the hollowness of Trump’s claims. For hard-core Trump supporters, Stewart said, the rulings merely confirm a “deep state” conspiracy at work. But for other voters who may have favored Trump, doubts about the election’s fairness could quickly fade, he added, reflecting a longstanding pattern of skepticism immediately after an election is called among those whose candidate lost, followed by a return to confidence in the system.
If the past is any guide, Stewart said, a development as simple as victories for the Republican Senate candidates in next month’s special elections in Georgia could restore some faith among GOP voters.
Yet one thing seems certain: Trump’s attacks on the system will persist. In 2016 he predicted the election was rigged and then, even when he won in the Electoral College, he still falsely claimed he’d been robbed of a popular vote victory because millions of illegal voters chose Hillary Clinton.
Historians have to reach back nearly a century and a half for an example of a major party trying to do anything like Trump has attempted. And that 1876 controversy, when Republicans and Democrats each claimed victory in the presidential race and submitted different slates of electors, hardly compares. It happened during Reconstruction amid widespread, legitimate concerns about voter suppression. A congressional commission ultimately awarded the election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.
Keyssar had one takeaway from Trump’s attempt to use the Electoral College to cancel the election results: Perhaps do away with it and its unwieldy machinery. “It creates too many risks and sticking points, and potential for undemocratic interventions,” he said.
After the Electoral College, another hurdle remains. Congress is to meet for the ceremonial counting of the votes Jan. 6. Already, some of Trump’s most ardent allies in the House are preparing to use that event to try to deny Biden’s victory.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican who is the Senate’s second-ranking leader, said he hoped no party colleagues joined the effort. “I think that would be a bad idea,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “I just hope they realize that it would be futile and unnecessary.”
(Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols contributed to this report.)
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