This expert says the lies about 2020 are a threat to democracy
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A new book out Tuesday examines how the falsehoods about election fraud in the 2020 election now threaten democracy.
Written by David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, and CBS chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett, the book, “The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie,” also offers remedies to the challenges the country faces.
Becker’s organization works with election officials of both parties on how to run accessible and secure elections. He’s also had a front-row seat to the difficulties swamping election officials in his role managing a network created last year to provide free legal help to election supervisors and workers who face harassment, threats or frivolous criminal prosecution.
I reached out to Becker to talk about the new book what can be done to avert danger to our democracy.
Here are the results of the exchange, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Q: There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding coverage of American elections. But in your book, you say our “elections are more secure, more transparent and more accessible than ever before.” Describe what you mean by that.
Factually speaking, there’s no question that the 2020 presidential election was the most secure, transparent and verified election in American history. Ninety-five percent of all voters, including the voters in all the battleground states, cast ballots on verifiable and secure paper ballots, compared to less than 80% of voters in 2016. That’s the highest number of verifiable paper ballots in our nation’s history, with Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia all moving to paper ballots statewide since 2016 (when most or all voters in those states voted on digital or non-paper ballots that couldn’t be fully audited).
Those paper ballots were audited, with 43 states and DC conducting the largest number of ballot audits in history, confirming that the voting machines counted the ballots properly. And then there was more litigation than ever before, by both parties, clarifying the rules of the elections prior to Election Day (with Republicans winning over 85% of those cases), and more litigation than ever before confirming the results of the election, in over 60 cases, before judges of both parties, including several judges appointed by the former President himself.
Somehow, professional election officials around the country managed the highest turnout in American history, by a large margin, and oversaw the most verified and scrutinized election in history, in the middle of a global pandemic. Regardless of the outcome, the 2020 presidential election was a triumph of American democracy.
Q: What do you say to voters who are consumed by the false idea that the 2020 election was stolen?
Despite the facts, the losing candidate and grifters that surround him have weaponized and monetized the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. But these lies crumble under even minimal examination. Election deniers claim rule changes implemented due to Covid altered the election landscape, but those rules were made out in the open, months before the election, and could have been legally challenged — and many were legally challenged.
Both sides disliked some of the rules, as Republicans challenged philanthropic grants to election offices or expansion of mail voting, and Democrats challenged limits on mail ballot drop boxes, but both sides had their day in court, and both sides knew the rules on Election Day.
Election deniers claim the voting machines altered the results, but all the battleground states had verifiable paper ballots and audited those ballots to ensure the count was accurate, with Georgia counting all of its presidential ballots three times, once entirely by hand to confirm the results.
Election deniers claim there was fraud in large cities in 2020, but the losing presidential candidate actually did better in Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and other cities in 2020 than he did in 2016 when he won the presidency. And it appears that the losing candidate realized he lost at the time, as he had a legal right to request full statewide recounts of the ballots in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and declined to request a statewide recount in any of those states.
Finally, Republicans on the ballot did very well in the 2020 election, with the exception of the presidency, outperforming expectations up and down the ballot, winning every swing House race and expanding their majorities in state legislatures. In fact, many of the legislators raising false concerns about the election were elected on the very same paper ballots that they’re complaining about.
For all these reasons, the former President’s own Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, attorney general and his campaign and members of his family all stated that they saw no evidence of widespread fraud or problems that would change the outcome of the election. And in the nearly 700 days since the 2020 election, nobody has presented a shred of evidence to any court or law enforcement that would call the election or the counting of the ballots into question. If a voter thinks the 2016 election was secure, and Trump was legitimately elected (and he was, winning a majority of votes in states that comprised a majority of the Electoral College), then the more-secure and more-scrutinized 2020 election must also have been legitimate.
Q: The book talks about “strengthening the guardrails of democracy” by, among other things, revising the Electoral Count Act. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working on that. What must their legislation include, in your view?
I think the bipartisan group of senators working on revising the Electoral Count Act have done a remarkably good job of clarifying and refining the Act.
It makes clear that the vice president does not have the right to reject the will of the voters in the states and choose the next president. It strengthens the process to make clear that the joint session of Congress on January 6th is ceremonial — that the electoral vote is set in December, when the states send their certified slates of electors to the National Archives. And to prevent a small number of members of Congress from subverting the will of the voters in the states, it raises the threshold for objection, requiring a critical mass of members of Congress to agree to object.
While the Electoral Count Act currently ensures that the vice president and Congress do not have the ability to subvert duly certified votes of citizens in the states, the revision worked out by the bipartisan group of senators makes that crystal clear, and I hope they work diligently to pass it in this Congress.
Q: You also talk about limiting “sore loser” lawsuits. Explain.
In any election, both sides know the rules of the election before Election Day. They might not like some of the rules, but they have a chance to challenge them legally, and by Election Day those rules are set.
Republicans might not have liked the expansion of mail voting during the pandemic, or that philanthropy stepped in to assist election officials when Congress and state legislatures failed to provide them with enough resources. Democrats might not have liked limitations on mail ballot drop boxes in places like Ohio and Texas, or that the Electoral College governs the election of the president. But those are the rules we all play by, and we must accept them.
Post-election, losing candidates should be restricted from raising any objections to rules they knew or should have known about before Election Day, and should be limited to only those legitimate claims arising from variation from the rules during the casting and counting process. And there should be a strict time limit, requiring any claims to be timely, brought shortly after an election is certified, so that those duly elected can take office and govern.
We don’t have to like the rules, and we don’t have to like the outcomes, but our American democratic tradition requires that we accept outcomes and work to campaign for the next election. Candidates like Vice President Nixon in 1960 and Vice President Gore in 2000 understood that. The former president does not.
Q: You work closely with election officials around the country who are busy trying to administer the midterms — while juggling other challenges that stem from the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen. What are you seeing? What sort of help do they need?
I speak with election officials at the state and local level, of both parties, all over the country. And despite their achievements in 2020, they are weary and exhausted from the unending abuse, harassment and threats they’ve faced from election deniers and those they’ve conned.
They find themselves, their staffs and their families stalked, photographed, videoed, doxed, slandered, and their offices are overwhelmed with an endless onslaught of frivolous and duplicative public records requests designed to take up all their bandwidth as they plan for a major election. I’ve had election officials tell me that they’ve had to reassign staff from important election procedures like ballot preparation and recounts to work on public records requests about an election that took place nearly two years ago.
The abuse election officials face caused my nonpartisan nonprofit organization, the Center for Election Innovation & Research, to form the Election Official Legal Defense Network a year ago, to pair election officials who need it with a licensed pro bono attorney who can help advise and represent them. And we just announced that EOLDN will also pair election offices with communications professionals who can assist them in combating disinformation and keeping their voters informed with trusted and accurate details about the voting process.
But in addition, in light of the ongoing harassment, what election officials need most is support from others in government, including more resources and funding to ensure they can hire and retain key staff, and pay for new requirements (like 24-hour surveillance of drop boxes and voting sites) required in some of the new legislation passed in the last two years.
Q: What can everyday American citizens do to help strengthen our democracy?
There are three things that every adult American citizen, regardless of party, can do to strengthen our democracy and fight back against the forces that seek to weaken it.
First, use the tools and information in our book and elsewhere to push back on false claims that the election was stolen, and do so with grace toward those that have been lied to for so long. So many good Americans were sincerely disappointed by the outcome of the presidential race and live in a bubble where the lies are the only story they are hearing. Sadly, these same supporters of the former President are the targets for his grift, and many election deniers are profiting off the sincere disappointment felt by his supporters. Engaging with them, with understanding, could be helpful.
Second, volunteer to be a poll worker. Election offices need more poll workers, always, and getting new people to volunteer, is very important. More importantly, when one is trained to be a poll worker, one sees the many checks and balances, redundancies and transparencies that exist to ensure that there are no illegal votes, and no hacking of the machines, that could enable someone to “steal” an election. Once one sees the process from the inside, and understands how many checks and balances there are, it becomes clear how impossible it would be to “steal” a major election.
Third, and this may sound trite, but VOTE. During a four-year period, there’s almost always only one election where over half of all eligible voters participate — a presidential election. In all other elections, even midterms, voter turnout is usually under 50%. Show up and vote, particularly in primaries, where turnout can often be below 30% of eligible voters. The more voters that participate in nominating primaries and general elections, the less likely it is for a passionate but extreme minority to nominate candidates that would rather divide us than unite us.
Register to vote
Speaking of voting, Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day — a day designated by a coalition of national civic and business groups to encourage Americans to sign up to vote.
The steering committee is led by Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, and includes individuals representing an array of companies and nonprofits from the National Urban League to Twitter.
The details, including how to register to vote in your state, can be found here.
New rules in Wisconsin
This battleground state has seen a series of legal skirmishes between conservative groups and the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is charged with overseeing elections.
In the latest move, the commission voted 4-1 last week to withdraw its longstanding guidance to election clerks to fill in missing address information on absentee ballots, following a September 7 court ruling that deemed the practice illegal.
As Molly Beck of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote recently, the ruling was a “victory for Republican lawmakers who have spent months pushing for tighter voting rules since former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss to President Joe Biden.”
Biden flipped the Badger State by nearly 21,000 votes in the last election.
Voting rights advocates say the change could have a big impact on the state’s more than 3 million registered voters and the outcome of future elections in a state often decided by slim margins.
Last year, state auditors examined a sample of nearly 15,000 absentee ballots cast in 29 municipalities in 2020 and found that about 7% had partial addresses for witnesses.
You need to read
- “Welcome to fascism.” That’s a warning from outgoing Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican, about the kinds of extreme measures Trump-backed GOP candidates could enact should they win key midterm races. CNN’s Marshall Cohen has the story — pulled from a CNN special report by Jake Tapper, “American Coup: The January 6th Investigation.”
- This analysis by CNN’s Daniel Dale that found more than half of Republican nominees for the US Senate have rejected, cast doubts upon or tried to overturn the 2020 election.
- This New York Times story on Republican candidates running for governor and Senate seats who won’t commit to accepting the results of the November election.
- This story by CNN’s Gregory Krieg, Eric Bradner and Dan Merica giving the seven takeaways from the 2022 primary season following the last primary night last week.
- This report by CNN’s Kristina Sgueglia on an alleged voter fraud scheme in New York that led to an arrest of a Republican elections official.
CNN’s Shania Shelton contributed to this edition.
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