Trump’s Big Lie Is Trashing a Major National Achievement
The 2020 election was an American triumph that set new standards despite a pandemic and civil unrest
The November 2020 election was nothing short of miraculous. It was conducted at an extraordinarily difficult time when a pandemic was raging, civil protests were erupting and the economy was nosediving. Yet it was the most accessible, safe, secure and smooth election in the country’s history.
But instead of coming together in this moment of national triumph and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we have become more fiercely divided than ever, thanks in part to former President Donald Trump’s accusations that the election was stolen from him—a lie he is expected to repeat at a speech on the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup on Jan. 6, which he played a major role in instigating.
More than a year after the election, 68% of Republicans still believe the election was stolen, even more than in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot. Support for the Big Lie has become a litmus test for Republican candidates running for office. The major issue in Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial primary, for example, is which candidate peddles Trump’s voter fraud claims more.
All sides in the past have questioned the fairness of the election process when it has produced an outcome they didn’t like. They’ve groused and complained, but ultimately they accepted their fate, delivered a concession speech and, in the case of the presidency, showed up at their opponent’s inauguration. Not so with Trump, who mounted a massive subversion and disinformation campaign to discredit the 2020 outcome. And no matter how many times his claims are debunked, he refuses to back off.
The upshot is that America’s best election has become its most nastily disputed one, suggesting that the country has entered a surreal, post-modern phase where trust in its fundamental institutions has become disconnected from their integrity or performance. Reforming these institutions, therefore, is not the only or even the main challenge for restoring trust in them. The far bigger obstacle is combating the disinformation campaign against them.
An Election Miracle
There was every reason to fear that after a disastrous primary season, Election Day would be a complete debacle. The primaries saw:
· A meltdown of new voting technologies in California and Iowa, with the latter unable to even declare a clear winner in the Democratic race.
· Long lines thanks to fewer polling places in Georgia.
· Disputes over mail-in ballots in New York because the state, hilariously, waived postage stamps and so the post office didn’t postmark them, resulting in 20% of the ballots being thrown out in some precincts because of uncertainty about whether they were mailed before the deadline.
Observing these and other breakdowns, Garrett M. Graff, a historian and a writer, predicted in Politico four months before the election: “Nov. 3, even if it proceeds as scheduled, is likely to bring bureaucratic snafus and foreseeable chaos unfolding on a hundred different fronts at once, in a thousand voting precincts.”
He turned out to be wrong. But he was hardly an alarmist, given that the entire country’s election infrastructure had to be revamped on short order to deal with the pandemic, even as the pandemic made the revamp extremely difficult. Moreover, given the hot passions on both sides, this wasn’t an election that Americans were planning to sit out. So, the country also had to also expand its voting infrastructure to provide the widest possible access while avoiding creation of super-spreading hot spots and protecting against possible election-day violence.
On every front, it succeeded spectacularly.
Over 160 million Americans voted—66% of all eligible voters—the highest turnout in a century, without any major incident. (Indeed, the main super-spreading events were Trump’s campaign rallies and the Rose Garden ceremony where he unveiled Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) Meanwhile, not a single race has been overturned after a record number of recounts and audits.
How did America pull this off? Through an incredible outpouring of private philanthropy, citizen activism, and intricate planning by local election officials, who came up with innovative ways to adapt to a rapidly changing situation.
Building a New Electoral Infrastructure
The first big problem that municipalities confronted was money. Elections, for the most part, are locally funded. But thanks to the sudden, pandemic-induced economic downturn, jurisdictions were pinched at both ends—tax revenues were down while the expense of implementing social distancing and sanitation measures soared. The upshot was that many counties ran out of funds during the primaries.
An infusion of funds, both public and private, saved the day, says Benjamin Hovland, a Trump-appointed commissioner to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent federal agency created two decades ago to facilitate the exchange of election best practices and technologies among states. In an interview with The UnPopulist, Hovland said it was not just that Congress appropriated $400 million for election relief in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated a similar amount. Zuckerberg’s grants, distributed to 2,500 election offices nationwide from Alaska to Florida, funded protective gear for poll workers, public education campaigns promoting new methods of voting during the pandemic, and trucks to haul voting equipment.
This private philanthropy, Hovland maintains, was crucial at every level regardless of how much some conservatives pan Zuckerberg’s largesse for helping blue states. Indeed, if Zuckerberg had been trying only to help Democratic prospects rather than beef up the election infrastructure, he could have found ways to directly hand the money to Democrats to boost their side’s turnout.
An even bigger problem was a shortage of workers. Usually, the elderly comprise more than half of all poll workers. But seniors were the most at risk from the coronavirus and were therefore more likely to stay home. Replacing them required urgent recruitment drives. Hovland notes that his commission launched a national recruitment day, and he personally appeared in live sessions on Reddit and Instagram to appeal for volunteers.
States undertook their own efforts. Michigan launched a Democracy MVP drive to attract younger workers. North Carolina held “Democracy Heroes” events. Celebrities got involved too. Ultimately, a lot of young people showed up, and, Hovland says, a whole new generation has been trained for future elections.
Having enough workers was crucial, especially since states had to experiment with new voting arrangements. And regardless of what they chose—expanded in-person, mail-in or some combination thereof—each posed significant logistical and other challenges that increased the need for workers. Expanded in-person voting meant opening polling booths for days and weeks ahead of Election Day, which of course meant more poll workers. But states that opted to expand their use of mail-in ballots or went all mail-in (Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah) also required more workers and had to face myriad other hassles.
Consider what they confronted:
In states where they are used, completed ballots have to be inserted in a secrecy sleeve, which is placed in an envelope, which is then slipped into another envelope before being sealed. All of this requires lots of hands to open the ballots once received. But that is the least of it.
The demand for ballots is more or less stable, and there is an existing network of vendors able to meet it. But there were very few vendors who could scale up production of the secrecy sleeve and envelopes for mail-in ballots. Even procuring suitable paper was hard during the pandemic. In other words, the pandemic made the switch from in-person to mail-in both necessary and difficult.
“We had to deal with massive supply chain disruptions before the rest of the country even understood the issue,” says Hovland. Furthermore, when the ballots were printed, many clerk’s offices didn’t have enough storage for them. This might not sound like a big deal, but when accusations of election fraud were flying around, finding a secure way of storing these ballots until they could be dispatched to voters was both necessary and difficult.
Ingenuity of the States
But the real fun with mail-in ballots begins after they are returned. With in-person voting, the process of counting and tallying the ballots is automatized. Not so with mail-in ballots. Simply opening the multiple envelopes is time-consuming and laborious. Utah for a few years had been using a special kind of automated envelope slicer. But if not used properly, notes Hovland, it could end up slicing the ballots, making more work and costing more time as the ballots would have to be pieced back together.
Hence, states had to not only acquire this technology in a hurry, but train workers to use it properly. A clerk auditor in Weber County, Utah, Ricky Hatch, took the initiative and put together a demonstration video, and circulated it to other states. “This was just one example of how states served as laboratories of democracy and shared best practices,” says Hovland.
However, in case a ballot did get chopped, states new to mail-in voting had to get a bipartisan team to agree in advance on procedures for reassembling it, as required by law. All these details had to be painstakingly hammered out ahead of time to avoid election-day clashes.
But arguably the biggest problem that states relying on mail-in voting faced was getting the filled-in ballots returned in a timely fashion, given that the U.S. Postal Service hadn’t hit its own on-time delivery goals in five years, let alone during a pandemic. Yet delays in calling races would raise suspicions of election fraud and abuse.
Many states turned to drop boxes as a supplement. These boxes looked like oversized mailboxes and were bolted to the ground, monitored by cameras and emptied by election workers regularly. Some states even required election monitors from both parties to be present when the ballots were transferred. But that didn’t stop Trump from launching a jihad against their use in multiple states. Indeed, he went after all mail-in voting, tweeting that it was a Democratic ploy to steal the election and would become the “scandal of our times.” But such attacks against absentee and mail-in voting are ironic, notes Hovland, given that Republicans have long used such methods, often to their advantage.
But whether states used in-person or mail-in voting, they all faced a huge challenge in maintaining transparency during vote counting. Usually, observers from both parties are present in the room during ballot counting. But given the need to maintain social distancing, polling places were fitted with large windows and doors and livestream cameras so that election workers could be watched without endangering public safety.
None of this stopped Trump and his acolytes from mounting their accusations of widespread voter fraud and election irregularities, of course—never mind that according to the Brennan Center for Justice the incidence of voter fraud is generally between 0.0003% and 0.0025%. That makes it more likely that an American would be struck by lightning than commit voter fraud. And this is not just the contention of liberal organizations. Trump’s own Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity spent nearly two years after the 2016 election looking for evidence of widespread voter fraud and came up empty.
Still, to get to the bottom of Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, The New York Times called top election officials in every state—red and blue—and asked whether they suspected or had evidence of illegal voting or any other election wrongdoings. Not a single official anywhere reported anything more than minor incidents. (Texas didn’t respond although officials from Harris, its largest county, did.)
Likewise, the Associated Press reviewed every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump and found fewer than 475 suspect ballots out of a total of 311,257 votes cast in those states. Four hundred and seventy-five! Even if all these ballots had gone for Trump, it would not have made one iota of difference to the outcome.
Nor did the Trump camp stop at lobbing general accusations of voter fraud. It cooked up wild conspiracy theories. It accused Dominion Voting Systems’ ballot counting machines of switching Trump votes to Joe Biden. (Dominion recently won a key legal battle in its $1.7 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, whose coverage the company claims helped spread this lie).
Trump backers even went after individual election workers. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani accused two Black election workers in Georgia, by name, of swapping Trump votes with suitcases full of Biden votes that he said they had sneaked into the polling place where they worked. He likened the duo, who were mother and daughter, to “drug dealers” “passing out dope,” opening them to a volley of vicious racial slurs and physical threats by incensed Trump supporters. So relentless were the attacks that the mom was forced to flee her home and move into a safe house.
Georgia audited and recounted its votes three times and certified Biden as the winner each time. Likewise, in Arizona, Cyber Ninjas, (yes, that’s it real name!) a firm that helped Trump spread election conspiracy theories, followed up several official recounts with its own audit of Maricopa County—and estimated even more votes for Biden.
In fact, the 2020 election was more airtight than usual because 92% of the ballots had both electronic and paper backups. After the 2000 hanging chad debacle when the country relied mainly on paper ballots, there was a national push to abandon punch cards and move to Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machine systems. But the downside of that technology was that it had no paper backups. So, in the event of a hack by some malign domestic or foreign player, it would be difficult to reconstruct the ballots.
Many states therefore in 2020 deployed optical scanners, a device that registers marks on a page when processing voters’ paper ballots and then stores the results electronically, creating dual copies of each vote. Other states used ballot-marking devices, in which voters select their choice electronically on a screen, but rather than storing the selections electronically, the machine then prints a paper ballot, like a receipt, which is then either hand counted or scanned by a computer.
Training election workers to use this new, upgraded technology during the pandemic was no mean task; yet every precinct using these new technologies managed to do so, adding new layers of security. That’s why election officials were outraged with Trump’s fallacious attacks on election security.
Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency was so incensed that it circulated a statement signed by local, state and federal election officials, including Hovland, stating that the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history” and that there was “no evidence” that any voting systems were compromised. Hovland further notes that this was also the “smoothest and the most well-run election of his career.”
Safeguarding American Institutions
There is always room for improvement of course, but the 2020 election was a great testament to American ingenuity, administrative prowess and can-do spirit. Election professionals and volunteers at every level and at every turn had to learn new skills and solve new problems that had never before been encountered, and yet they managed to put on a seamless show. Not just that, they redefined election best practices in the United States and arguably set the gold standard for the rest of the world.
If Trump can trash this national accomplishment, then no institution is safe from his disinformation campaign. He attacks not just the inevitable imperfections in the system but also efforts to address them. Either way, he has something to blame for his defeat.
This means that restoring trust in America’s institutions—the press, the judiciary, the civil bureaucracy—is not merely a matter of reforming and improving them but also protecting them from political vandals hell-bent on tearing them down when they don’t serve their purposes.
Trump is very likely to repeat the Big Lie to mark the anniversary of the horrific events of Jan. 6. Repudiating Trump’s outrageous charges and appreciating what we already have would be the first step in Making America Great Again.
Photo Credit: WikiCommons. Tyler Merbler