Polls had barely closed in the U.S. when President Donald Trump falsely alleged voter fraud and claimed prematurely to have won the election, saying “We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.”
The results of the election had not yet been called, and the counting of legally cast ballots will continue for quite some time, as is typical. State elections officials and voting experts say the vote count may take longer this election year because more people voted by mail due to the pandemic. As the vote counts continued, Trump has repeatedly taken to Twitter to make more false claims of fraud, leading the social media company to attach warnings to his tweeted messages.
Statements like those fly in the face of norms about democracy, said University of Kentucky law professor and elections expert Joshua Douglas.
“It’s extremely concerning that the president is making these statements,” Douglas said. “It is undermining the legitimacy of the elections and people’s faith in it.”
The Ohio Valley ReSource reached out to governors, senators and representatives across the region for their responses to the president’s startling rhetoric. While many Democrats criticized Trump’s comments, Republicans’ responses varied, with some GOP lawmakers dismissing them, and others tacitly agreeing.
In Kentucky, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had just won a seventh term in office, called the process of challenging vote outcomes “the American way.” At a Wednesday morning press conference, the senator responded to several questions about the president’s comment.
“You can anticipate in close elections, both sides will be lawyered up and will end up in court,” McConnell said. “It’s happened over and over and over again, nothing unusual.”
West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who won reelection Tuesday, went further, agreeing with some of Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud:
“A lot of these mail-in ballots and everything, not verifying signatures and everything,” Justice said, “whether they are or they aren’t is not an argument for me. Whether it could be an invitation for fraud, it can be. That’s all there is to it.”
In fact, voter fraud is rare, mail-in ballots are secure, and there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Other Republican officials stressed the need to count all the valid ballots and follow the established legal processes in each state.
“I believe that every legal vote should be counted before either candidate declares victory,” said Kentucky Rep. James Comer, a Republican. “But the media must also hold themselves to the same standard and not prematurely project winners when a significant amount of ballots have yet to be counted.”
“Under our Constitution, state legislatures set the rules and states administer our elections,” said Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman. “We should respect that process and ensure that all ballots cast in accordance with state laws are counted. It’s that simple. I hope we can reach a final resolution as quickly as possible.”
In a statement from a spokesperson, Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said he believes that “whatever process a state uses, we should let the process work.”
Some lawmakers took a firmer stance against the president’s statements.
“Everybody’s vote should be counted. I think it’s that simple,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat. “We have a way and place in Kentucky right now where it happens democracy counts on people voting. Let’s not try to quiet their vote.”
In West Virginia, a spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin urged patience. “While it does take longer to tally the votes there is no evidence to suggest any fraudulent behavior. Senator Manchin urges Americans across the country to remain patient as we await the final results,” said Manchin spokesperson Sam Runyon.
Ohio’s Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown called on his colleagues across the aisle to dismiss the president’s claims. “I would hope that if the president of the United States tries to short circuit [elections procedures] and just declare we’re not counting all the votes that maybe some of my colleagues, Republican colleagues, who’ve not exactly shown a stiff spine in standing up to this president, maybe they will now.”
The strongest response to Trump’s remarks came from Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, the state’s only Democratic member of Congress and a frequent Trump critic.
“Donald Trump lied to get elected, has lied every day of his administration, and barely even waited for polls across America to close before he began lying about the integrity of this election,” Yarmuth said in a statement. “The American people are making their voices heard in record numbers, and every single one of their votes needs to be counted. I have full faith and confidence in the successful administration of this election in each state — no matter its political leanings — and look forward to our democratic process ridding us of this absolute failure of a leader.”
Ever since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, political scientists, historians and legal scholars have argued that Trump’s attempts to undermine the election process, along with other behavior, constitute the signs of early authoritarianism shown by despots in other countries.
In their book “How Democracies Die” Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify the key characteristics of authoritarians: a weak commitment to democratic rules, denying the legitimacy of political opponents, sanctioning violence, and a willingness to stifle the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
Under that definition, Trump’s Wednesday morning comments are among his most blatant signals towards authoritarianism.
Douglas, at the University of Kentucky Rosenberg School of Law, said Trump’s comments came during a “red mirage,” or an early lead for Republicans while mail-in ballots are not yet counted.
“Mail-in ballots that we know tended to be skewed towards Democrats,” Douglas said. “And that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now.” Douglas tweeted his alarm in the wee hours after Election Day, calling Trump’s statement an “existential threat to our democracy,” and calling on prominent Republicans to speak out.
This is an existential threat to our democracy.
We need prominent Republicans (looking at you President Bush) to speak out NOW to demand that every valid ballot is counted. https://t.co/8q2Tx6C8Bp
— Josh Douglas (@JoshuaADouglas) November 4, 2020
“I’m hopeful that some Republicans will put country over party and demonstrate that if it is correct, if the election officials do declare that Joe Biden has won the presidency that, that the Republicans and the Democrats accept that result and call out any suggestions that there’s fraud without any sort of evidence,” Douglas said.
Ohio Valley ReSource reporters Brittany Patterson, Alana Watson, Corinne Boyer and Liam Niemeyer contributed to this story.