When is it acceptable to question the legitimacy of an American election outcome? The proper answer is “almost never.” Or, more precisely, never do it without overwhelming evidence of fraud or misconduct that’s substantial enough to alter the outcome of the election. The person claiming decisive fraud or vote suppression bears a heavy burden of proof. Any other standard risks contributing to an already-toxic political environment that is leaving all too many voters paranoid and susceptible to believing unverified and inflammatory conspiracy theories.
Applying this standard, it’s past time for Democrats to dial back their rhetoric about the Georgia gubernatorial election. It was reckless for Hillary Clinton to declare that “if [Stacey Abrams] had a fair election, she already would have won.” It was absurd for both Cory Booker and Sherrod Brown to say the election was “stolen.” Indeed, this claim is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom in parts of the Left. In the words of The Nation’s Joan Walsh, they believe the “system was rigged against her.”
Abrams lost her race by more than 54,000 votes. That’s a gap far outside the margin of fraud or suppression. Yet she fed the narrative that there was something fundamentally wrong with the election, asserting in her speech acknowledging the election results that “this is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.” Instead, she was ending her race simply because her “assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”
“Democracy failed Georgia,” she said. She was wrong.
If Georgia’s Brian Kemp is a vote suppressor, he’s the least successful vote suppressor alive. Turnout in Georgia was immense. In the previous gubernatorial election, Republican Nathan Deal won with 1.3 million votes. In November, Abrams lost with 1.9 million votes. There were roughly 2.5 million total votes cast in 2014. In 2018, more than 3.9 million Georgians voted. That almost matches the total votes cast for president in 2016.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 55 percent of eligible Georgians voted, a whopping 21-point increase over the 1982–2014 midterm average. Moreover, according to preliminary exit polls, a record-high 40 percent of Georgia’s electorate was nonwhite. Georgia’s 55 percent turnout exceeded the national average of 47 percent.
Given this reality, Abrams’s unprovable argument is that turnout would have been even more immense absent Kemp’s nefarious actions. But her real beef is with Georgia state law and even with her own Democratic allies, not with Kemp himself. The case against Kemp largely falls apart under scrutiny.
What is that case? This viral tweet from Mother Jones’s Ari Berman states it succinctly:
1.5 million purged by Brian Kemp
53k registrations on hold
4.5 hour lines
214 polling places closed
Dems falsely accused of cyber crimes
Candidate overseeing own election
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) November 16, 2018
Is that what happened? Is Brian Kemp responsible for disenfranchising that many people?
Well, no. In his role as secretary of state, he applied state laws that, in fact, don’t truly disenfranchise any eligible voter. The first number — 1.5 million voters “purged” — refers to the state’s so-called “use it or lose it” law. The law was passed by a Democratic legislature and signed by a Democratic governor. Under it, voters who have no contact with the electoral system for three years are mailed a notice and given 30 days to respond. If they don’t respond and don’t vote for two more general elections, they are purged from the rolls.
But even if purged, voters can reregister, including by using Georgia’s online registration system.
Again, it’s important to note that this process is mandated by a state law created by Democrats. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake notes, “A similar purge of the voter rolls in Ohio was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year.”
What about the “pending” registrations? In a meticulously researched piece in October, the Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren described the issue:
A federal law passed by Congress in 2002 requires states to maintain an official voter registration list and to regularly remove duplicate or ineligible voters. In Georgia, individual counties administer elections, including voter registration, but the secretary of state’s office manages the verification process for those registrations.
In 2010, the Department of Justice cleared Georgia’s process, which requires voters to submit either a driver’s license number that can be verified by the state or a Social Security number that can be verified by the feds. Six years later, the NAACP and other civil-rights groups sued the state over this process, arguing it was too restrictive. Kemp’s office settled, and in 2017 the Republican-controlled general assembly modified the verification process in line with the settlement. The principle remains the same: Certain relevant information (like last name, first initial of first name, and date of birth) . . . must match exactly with the appropriate database. If there’s a mismatch, voters are informed by their county elections officials and have 26 months to fix the incorrect information. Meanwhile, their registrations are designated “pending.”
But every “pending” voter can still vote. They merely have to show up at the polling place and present a valid ID that’s a “substantial match” with the voter-registration record.
As for the long lines and closed precincts, those have virtually nothing to do with Kemp. Precincts are controlled by local officials, not by the secretary of state. And while it was true that some voters sat in long lines while “hundreds” of voting machines “sat unused, locked up in government warehouses,” it turns out that happened because Democratic activists filed a lawsuit arguing that the machines were vulnerable to tampering or hacking:
There were about 1,050 voting machines in Cobb precincts Tuesday while about 550 were sequestered. The county could have deployed a total of about 1,400 voting machines if they had been available, Eveler said.
Another 700 direct-recording electronic voting machines were out of service in Fulton, along with 585 in DeKalb.
The machines are set aside because of an order by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg [an Obama appointee] last December that called for preservation of evidence in a lawsuit seeking to move Georgia from electronic voting machines to paper ballots. Totenberg denied a motion in September to immediately throw out the state’s voting machines, but the lawsuit is still underway.
As for the claim that Kemp falsely accused Democrats of cyber crimes, Berman is referring to this story — a side issue late in the campaign where Kemp (on dubious evidence) announced an investigation “that the Democrats were under investigation for allegedly trying to hack the state’s voter registration files.” While the “investigation” may be little more than a political stunt, there’s no evidence that it affected voter turnout in any way.
The claim that Kemp was “overseeing his own election,” meanwhile, is more than a little overbroad. The actual voting is overseen by local officials. The secretary of state does certify the results, but the voting process itself is largely a local matter.
The bottom line? There’s no meaningful support for the claim that the election was “stolen.” I agree with Blake:
However you feel about the underlying issues, saying the election is being stolen skips over all of that and can’t help but undermine confidence in American elections. Democrats might say it deserves to be undermined, given Kemp’s conduct, but it’s a very serious accusation that has implications for our entire political and legal system. If leaders of both parties are alleging this kind of thing is possible in huge races in neighboring states and implying that legal remedies are insufficient to stop it, that’s a recipe for widespread mistrust of elections.
One final note: I’m writing this piece fully aware that Republicans hardly have clean hands when it comes to making bad-faith or poorly supported allegations of electoral misconduct. President Trump has been among the worst offenders in stoking fears, for example, of illegal immigrants voting by the “millions” and other forms of voter fraud. These allegations, too, are irresponsible and damaging for all the reasons Blake outlines above.
But right now it is the Democrats who are claiming that a specific American election was stolen. It is Democrats who are claiming that election was rigged. It is a Democrat who refused to offer a proper concession to a race she lawfully lost. That’s baseless. That’s wrong. And it should stop.