The top 6 reasons why democracy's guardrails held after the election
Still, it's worth acknowledging the guardrails that have held fast against the nation's severe democracy stress test, and against Trump's specious and ongoing fraud allegations. There's no guarantee these railings would hold against a more sophisticated adversary, and the need to shore up voting rights and election administration remains urgent.
But the fundamentals of American democracy appear to have prevailed, thanks to key institutions that upheld the law and relied on the facts. These are the six most important:
The military: As early as August, Congress received assurances from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the military would play "no role" in any post-election disputes.
And after Trump raised fresh alarms with his post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and some of his top Pentagon aides, Milley declared pointedly on Veterans Day: "We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king, or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. ... We take an oath to the Constitution."
The courts: The long list of judges who rejected Trump's election challenges include several conservatives nominated by Trump and his GOP predecessors, who debunked the president's legal claims as baseless in the extreme.
As attorney Mark Aronchick, who represented Philadelphia in several Trump campaign cases, told The New York Times, the president's legal challenges were "very much a stress test on what I will shout from the rooftops is the best legal system the world has ever seen, in terms of independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. And at both the state and federal level, the system has come through with flying colors."
The states: Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, has drawn justifiable notice for withstanding personal threats and calls for his resignation to certify his state's election results, stating memorably: "Numbers don't lie."
But Raffensperger is only one of more than two dozen GOP secretaries of state who rejected Trump's false fraud allegations. Rank-and-file election administrators, poll workers and even volunteers, who managed to run an election that generated record turnout amid a pandemic with few significant problems, also carried democracy on their shoulders. State legislators, too, refused to step in and overrule voters, sensing public backlash but also in some cases resisting White House pressure.
The media: Mainstream news outlets, and even in some instances conservative Fox News, have choked the Trump campaign's Russia-style firehose of campaign disinformation with relentless fact checks and around-the-clock reporting.
The misrepresentations continue, and the president's fabrications of voter fraud have been swallowed whole by millions of Republican voters. But fact-based reporting has made it harder for the Trump campaign to advance its false claims in court, and helped mobilize voters to hold public officials accountable.
The hardware: An estimated 95 percent of votes this year were cast either using a mail-in paper ballot or a voting machine that produced a verifiable and auditable paper trail — equipment installed thanks to decades of lobbying by voting rights advocates and election security experts.
Voter-verifiable paper trails are considered an essential backstop against voting machine breakdowns, the best possible guard against hacking and as a crucial tool for audits and recounts. Existing state requirements vary, and counties in some states still use paperless voting machines despite the risk, pointing to the need for federal guidelines. But in Georgia, where a new system this year allowed voters to cast ballots with a verifiable paper trail statewide for the first time, paper records proved crucial in facilitating not one but two watertight recounts, and in debunking on its face Trump's unfounded claim that Dominion Voting Systems had somehow altered the state tally.
The voters: Almost 160 million voters turned out in this election, at almost 67 percent the highest percentage of the eligible population since the first presidential election of the 20th century.
Thousands of public and private players helped turn out voters, from business leaders to campus organizers. High turnout is at least one reason why President-elect Joe Biden's win over Trump — a margin of 4 percentage points, or 6.2 million nationwide, translating to 306 electoral votes — was sufficiently solid to withstand almost three dozen legal challenges in the past month. A closer margin could have made it much easier for Trump to manipulate the outcome. Voters have also remained engaged, exerting public pressure on GOP legislators to refrain from intervening in election certifications.
The success of these and other democracy guardrails may be small consolation, given the extent of Trump's assault on the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power and the basic right to vote. Trump has created a playbook for some future would-be autocrat to follow, election law experts warn, and recent Supreme Court rulings may also jeopardize voting rights by giving state legislatures new powers to restrict access to the polls.
In the minds of good-governance advocates, all this points to the need to shore up democracy's guardrails still further in plenty of time for the 2022 midterm election.
The likeliest place to start is with the revival of HR 1, the House's catchall democracy reform package. That bill proposes automatic voter registration nationwide, expanded early and absentee voting, and funding to modernize election systems, among other changes. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled she'll move it to the front burner early in the new Congress, but even if her narrowed House Democratic majority passes it again the measure would still face stiff opposition in a Senate where the GOP will hold at least 50 seats.
Many other policy changes will be needed as well -- including the sort of new executive branch ethics rules that Biden advocated during the campaign — in the wake of Trump's destructive presidency. But for the moment, at least, the system's guardrails have held.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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