Who Shall Govern?
I was eleven years old in November 1960 when my father and I watched Richard Nixon concede the presidential election to John F. Kennedy. My father, a former FBI agent, shook his head. “Another victory for Mayor Daley of Chicago,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means Mayor Daley stole the election,” he answered.
“Then why doesn’t Nixon do something about it?” I asked indignantly.
“Because it would tear the country apart, and no one wants that.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” he replied. “Nixon is being a gentleman.”
Of course, it wasn’t just my dad who felt that way. I heard his sentiment echoed many times after that election by teachers, news commentators, and my friends’ parents. The election might have been stolen, sure, but these things happen. Move on.
I didn’t agree with that thinking then, and I don’t agree with it now. Is it gentlemanly to allow an election to be hijacked right before your eyes? And what does “tearing the country apart” mean? A civil war? Why? Because someone finally pulls back the curtain on corruption that we’ve lived with for decades?
If the citizens are the body politic of democratic republic, voting is its life’s blood. Voting gives vitality to a free country, expressing the will of the people in a tangible way that, as we are often reminded, has consequences. Steal the vote and you sap America of its energy and purpose. What’s the point of living in a country that is ostensibly self-governed if our votes don’t count?
My own run-in with the vagaries of the voting system came as I prepared to cast my first ballot for president in 1972 in the city of Philadelphia. I was excited. I was a grown up. I was voting! My enthusiasm dimmed, however, when I was met outside the polls in by a burly gentleman blocking my way into the building.
“I’ll go into the booth with you,” he said. Stunned, I stammered and sputtered with rage. Absolutely not! My vote was secret and sacred. This is America! He smiled benignly and said, “How will I know you voted the right way if I don’t go with you?” Furious, I stomped home and returned with my husband, who made sure I was allowed to vote alone. Then I dutifully reported the incident to the Committee of Seventy, a “watchdog” group for Philadelphia elections. The person I spoke with laughed and said, “Well, you got to vote, right? This is Philadelphia, after all.”
“This is Philadelphia, after all.” We might expand that to say, “This is America, after all.” What do you expect? An honest election? Even among those who don’t pay much attention to politics there is a sense that all is not as it should be in our electoral process. We learn of post-election prosecutions for vote fraud that center on the previous election, or the election before that, or the election before that. Penalties are imposed years after the fraud itself, long after the damage is done. And trying to challenge an election is, to put it mildly, an uphill and generally losing battle, as we are seeing today.
The end result of all this background noise is to increase cynicism about elections and undermine trust in the process. Indeed, the strategy of what we might call covert disenfranchisement is so effective that we have to wonder whether it isn’t exactly what both parties want. A discouraged, unengaged electorate can be manipulated or disregarded as needed. What better way to develop skepticism about voting than to have the two major parties promote and then ignore violations of the law?
The 2020 presidential election was notable for its unusually high voter turnout, fueled in part by an expensive, unrelenting mail-in ballot campaign in a number of states. That campaign was conducted under the guise of a COVID precaution, though the much-revered Anthony Fauci, MD, of the CDC, assured us that voting in person was no more risky than a trip to a grocery store. Nonetheless, the follow-the-science crowd chose to jettison science in this instance and promote mail-in voting.
Mail-in voting is so prone to fraud that it was cited in a 2005 Report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform as something to avoid. Chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the commission’s report was titled, “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections” -- an oblique reference to the fact that confidence might not be very high. The commission noted that voting by mail is likely to “increase the risk of fraud and contested elections.”
In 2020, however, the Carter Center, smelling blood in the water, reversed that recommendation and decided that mail-in voting was okay after all, “where safeguards for ballot integrity are in place.”
Safeguards for ballot integrity. That would be controls like, say, signature matches and postmarks on mail-in ballots, as specified in the 2005 report. But in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic administration was determined to take the potential for vote fraud to a new level, off came the safeguards for mail-in voting. Changing the election laws at the 11th hour by doing an end-run around the Republican legislature paved the way for mailed ballots to arrive three days after the election, with no signature match or postmark required. In the past, an unmatched signature or illegible postmark were grounds for disqualifying a ballot. No more. If you don’t match signatures or require a postmark, how do you prove fraud? Answer: You don’t. So fraud is effectively engineered into the system, and unless the electorate rises up, it is likely to stay there permanently.
The 2005 commission also recommended other precautions, like strict voter ID and purging voter rolls to ensure election integrity. Yet just about every effort to implement any of these recommendations, including cleaning up the voter rolls, is met with cries of “voter suppression.” Who knew Jimmy Carter wanted to suppress the vote?
A history of corruption in elections and a concerted effort to remove the guardrails on securing the vote led us directly to the election of 2020. Only a very small percentage of Republicans believe the election was free of fraud. Some of them are angry; others are threatening to disengage from politics altogether. In fact, the vast majority of Americans go into a four-year political hibernation between presidential elections anyway. If you’re one of them, don’t do it. We are where we are today because our collective inaction has allowed the machinations of the few to go on far too long. There is no shortage of ideas on how to ensure election integrity. What has been in short supply is the will to fight for it.
It’s possible that 2020 election was finally a bridge too far. I’m sure that even my father, if he were here today, would say “enough.” If nothing else, it is a tipping point. Either we stop the kind of skullduggery that went on in this election, or we effectively cede the country to the elite few who are willing to take the time and effort to steal it from us. If a sizeable portion of the more than 70 million Trump voters put their minds to it, we can change the system. If not, we have handed over control of the country to the people who don’t want to hear from a pesky electorate who still thinks elections should be honest.
This election, more than any other national election in our history, poses a question that should have been asked long ago. Who shall govern? Them or us?