Perhaps the ultimate political nightmare scenario has been the specter of a stolen election, especially a presidential election. This is not something candidates have tended to talk about, mainly for good and responsible reasons.
Democracy, to a large extent, depends on trust. If citizens were to believe that their votes won’t be honestly counted, that could be an enormous destabilizing influence. That’s not something members of any party in a stable democracy normally want.
But as you may have noticed, this is not a normal election. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has said repeatedly “the only way we can lose is if cheating goes on,” and has charged that American elections are “rigged” and can be stolen.
The prospect of an unjust outcome is bad enough. But what would be worse is a situation where after November 8th, millions refuse to accept the result.
We’ve never really had that, in this nation or in Michigan. Andrew Jackson believed with some justification that the presidential election of 1824 had been stolen from him by corrupt politicians, but responded by campaigning harder and winning easily the next time.
Richard Nixon is not normally thought of as a paragon of ethical virtue. But he refused to contest his loss in the extremely close 1960 presidential election, despite being urged to do so by President Eisenhower and other Republicans. He later said he didn’t think it would be responsible to plunge the nation into uncertainty during the Cold War.
Al Gore accepted the Supreme Court ruling that deprived him of the presidency in 2000, despite clearly winning the national popular vote and clear indications that more people in Florida had intended to vote for him, but were thwarted by the infamous butterfly ballot. There has in fact been some fraud over the years; Lyndon Johnson pretty clearly cheated his way into the U.S. Senate in 1948 after pretty clearly having been cheated out of it before.
But, according to a nonpartisan survey reported in the New York Times today, voter fraud nationally is “by any measure … extraordinarily rare.” If anything, Michigan seems to be one of the cleanest and most efficient states in terms of vote-gathering. Democrat Dianne Byrum did contest her loss to Mike Rogers in what was the closest race for Congress in the nation in 2000.
They started a recount – but she asked for it to be abandoned after it produced virtually no change in his 111-vote margin of victory. Six years ago, when running for secretary of state, Ruth Johnson hinted that there were thousands of non-citizen immigrants who were illegally voting in Michigan. This was vigorously denied by election officials of both parties.
Later, a survey of more than a million voters found only a handful of non-citizens who might have voted – and in every case, they had apparently been asked by workers at the secretary of state’s office if they wanted to vote when they applied for drivers’ licenses.
Nationally, elections official agree that in the current era of universal media scrutiny, stealing an election would essentially be impossible. Complaining about the umpire is, of course, a hallowed American tradition, but one that’s essentially associated with losers.
Professionals get back on the playing field and try to win the game.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.