The Trump campaign continues to contest the election results. The litigation underway is not “corrosive to our institutions.” The opposite is true. Lawsuits filed in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and elsewhere appeal to the rule of law. They do not weaken or undermine it.
I can understand why Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans wish to dismiss Trump’s claim that Biden’s presumed margin of victory depends upon counting illegal votes. They want their candidate to win. And they don’t want Biden’s victory to be shadowed by doubts about its legitimacy.
But we should disregard their claims that Trump’s legal challenges somehow harm the body politic. In the main, the legal challenges are likely to strengthen rather than weaken our democracy.
If the lawsuits are without merit, they will be dismissed, in some cases by Republican-appointed judges. This process of review and adjudication adds legitimacy to the election’s final outcome.
Where lawsuits seem to have merit and judges order the vetting of ballots and recounting of votes, we’re likely to get a more accurate result. This may not affect the outcome. But it will shine a light on trouble spots in our electoral system and will motivate reforms.
In 2000, lawyers descended on Miami and the whole country debated “hanging chads.” There were protesters yelling and angry words exchanged. Gore and Bush partisans raised the temperature with hyperbolic claims about “stealing the election.” But the rule of law prevailed. The Supreme Court eventually decided in Bush’s favor.
Having appeared in an unflattering light, Florida’s election officials embarked on reforms. Today, Florida reports early and accurately. Perhaps legal challenges in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere will produce similar reforms.
Litigation may also help us understand whether or not mail-in ballots present unique challenges to election security. The more we know about what went well and what went poorly in the 2020 vote count, the better able we will be to improve the system for future elections, giving our democracy still greater legitimacy.
After the 2016 election and Trump’s narrow victory in crucial battleground states, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans howled that his victory was made possible by Russian interference, which, they claimed, was coordinated by the Trump campaign. The mainstream media spent two years flogging the narrative. Some believed the charges of Russian influence, perhaps, but others cynically repeated the allegations because they wanted to undermine the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.
Protracted litigation over vote counts in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and elsewhere will help prevent false conspiracy theories from overpowering the imaginations of partisans on the right. If lawyers debate in the sober precincts of America’s courtrooms, conservative opinion leaders will have a more detailed and firmer understanding of claims and counter-claims about cheating. This will allow us to exercise more responsible partisanship going forward than the left did after the 2016 election.
Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani have claimed that the election was “rigged.” This sweeping claim is unsustainable, given the dispersed and chaotic nature of our electoral system. At most, one can say that establishment power in 2020 did everything it could to ensure Biden’s victory. But we’ve known since 2016 that the Great and the Good oppose Trump and will do everything they can to drive him from public life.
Their anti-Trump animus has poisoned public life far more than the president’s intemperate tweets. It legitimated collusion between Democratic party operatives and our intelligence agencies. It has encouraged journalistic partisanship unprecedented in my lifetime and given license to many in our university-educated elite to express bilious hostility toward Trump voters. If the most rabid have their way, Trump and his supporters will be subjected to sustained retribution, including the use of legal means to settle political scores.
Given the intensity of anti-Trump hysteria in our ruling class, I’m not inclined to disbelieve claims of cheating. It is imaginable that election officials in some jurisdictions felt they had permission—perhaps even a duty—to put a finger on the scale in Biden’s favor. Of course, that does not mean that illegal votes put Biden over the hump in the key battleground states.
But enough empty speculation. We need to calm down and allow the lawyers to make their cases in courtrooms. In all likelihood, we’ll soon have a better sense of the merits of the Trump campaign’s challenges. Far from undermining our system of government, light shed by the lawsuits will give us greater confidence when the Electoral College votes on December 14.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?