I want to pose an honest question, one for which I have no answer. Where is the line at which wrong doing should invalidate an election result? Of course we should strive for perfection, but realistically, there has never been a major election without some level of impropriety. We know that, but we accept the election results anyway. There is a definite good in accepting election results. The peaceful transition of power is a cornerstone of our government. It would be silly to throw that away for minor infractions. But, at some point, when the infractions become major, we need to say no. We cannot peacefully transfer power to the one who perpetrated (or benefitted from) the infractions. I just have no idea how to tell when something is serious enough that invalidating an election result is a better alternative than accepting the result.
I’ve been thinking about this off and on for more than 20 years now. I think I started thinking about it when I first read about the possibility that Reagan’s 1980 campaign negotiated with the Iranian hostage takers to delay the release of the hostages until just after the inauguration. Now, I don’t put a ton of credence in the allegations. I can’t figure out why the Iranians would have negotiated with a campaign, nor why they would think that Reagan would be better for them than Carter. But if it were true and could have been proven prior to Reagan’s taking office, it would clearly be a big enough infraction to warrant the invalidation of an election result.
The last time the question was this persistent was after the 2000 presidential election. At the time, I felt like giving Bush the presidency was the right thing to do given the results of the election. I didn’t vote for Bush, nor did I support him on any level. But, I felt like whatever shadiness happened during the election, it was not egregious enough to invalidate the results. Bush’s presidency was painful, but I feel like the turmoil that would have resulted from the Supreme Court or Congress changing the result would have been worse. The thing is, I have never been able to put reasons to those feelings.
Now, Donald Trump has been elected president. That’s a terrible thing. I hope I’m wrong, but try as I might, I can’t see how I could be wrong. I don’t have the actual information to diagnose how this happened (But, come on, sexism and the press being horrifically bad at their job are obviously the two biggest reasons.). However, I can’t help but wonder about the Russians hacking of the DNC, WikiLeaks and Comey’s bizarre (and probably criminal) announcement just before the election. And that brings me back to the question of when, if ever, is it OK to invalidate an election result.
I don’t have an answer or anything close to an answer. Questioning the legitimacy of a US election would be an unbelievably big deal. So, the only way to justify it would be because of an equally unbelievable infraction. Because, let’s face it, there’s probably no going back after a move like that. We’d need a new Constitutional Convention. But, it seems that we’re no better off if we accept a tainted election for the sake of stability. If invalidating a result is only to be considered as a nuclear option, then any would be riggers know they can get away with it. Both options are bad, and I can’t see any way to tell which is worse.
What we need is a new set of checks and balances. One that can be used to ensure that our government’s legitimacy will neither be blown up nor suffocated. That probably means a longer gap between the election and the transfer of power. We need enough time to thoroughly investigate any possible infractions. And we need mechanisms to deal with any infractions that are uncovered, which probably means holding a new election. If that is the case we would need a much shorter election cycle. And we would need to extend the terms of the incumbents. It’s not like we could leave the positions vacant pending an investigation. And we would need a truly independent body to adjudicate all disputes.
The truly sad thing in all of this is we used to have these checks and balances in the form of the press. That’s the role of the Fourth Estate, to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. But, the power of that role has been withering for 30-40 years now. And the internet has only accelerated the problem. I don’t have any answers, but we have a huge problem on our hands, and I really want to know what to do about it.