The off-year election results will be dissected by analysts for cues about what it portends for the next year of campaigning. I’m more interested about what it means for administering good elections and ensuring the legitimacy of the process.
No election is perfect. Throughout the country, there were reports about voting technology not working correctly, pens for marking ballots without ink, voters receiving the wrong ballots, and results websites going down. These are issues that no election administrator ever wants to see happen to their voters. But they happen, and those same administrators have every incentive to rectify the issues as quickly as possible.
Even when officials can point to the source of the problem and its solution, candidates affected by those races have been quick to cry foul and “fraud” with no evidence, which serves to undermine confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome. There will be many more opportunities during the 2020 primaries and general election for candidates to attack the process—often without any tangible proof—to further their positions when they perceive they may be on the losing end of a contest.
But these baseless threats to election legitimacy damage the process and weaken our governing institutions. Elected officials, administrators, candidates, and even the press must be hyperaware of how their comments impact the voting experience.
For the most part, overnight reporting on the 2019 election did not reveal many accusations of nefarious activities. It is worth it, however, to point out two examples to show how candidates and officials can unnecessarily undermine confidence during the election process with just a few statements.
Kentucky’s gubernatorial election is incredibly close. In fact, the various news agencies that typically declare winners based on statistical models have not yet made a call on the outcome. The process for recounts and contests in Kentucky is fairly clear. The losing candidate can request a recanvass of the vote, followed by a full recount.
Why then did Governor Bevins, who is currently trailing in the vote count decide to cite otherwise unsubstantiated “irregularities” as the reason for his decision not to concede the election?
He has every right to not concede and to follow the process as defined by state law and could have framed his hesitation that way. But the feint to fraud is unnecessary and likely serves as a whistle to supporters to question the legitimacy of the election if he ultimately loses.
Similarly, the American system of elections has developed in most states to position the secretary of state as the chief election official. That’s how it is in Kentucky. In this case, the Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is responsible for much of the elections process, decided to appear on live television while election returns were still being received by the counties and compiled by the state to declare that the Democratic nominee had won the gubernatorial election.
I have had the privilege to know many secretaries of state. The idea that these officials “call” elections is just wrong and disappointing to see. Doing so while in her position will lead many to question the objectivity of her office in administering any recanvass or recount.
However, most of what happened yesterday provides reason to cheer. Voter turnout exceeded expectations even where administrators were planning for higher than normal turnout. Voters even went to polling places when their jurisdictions were not having elections yesterday.
Americans want to make their voices heard. It’s incumbent on those responsible for running a fair process and those battling for hearts and minds to remember that it all means nothing if the process is deemed illegitimate.