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Trump allies' Electoral College certification challenge follows in Democrats' footsteps

Before going full-throttle on the attack, Democrats should examine their own recent behavior — which also includes a dose of governing by temper tantrum.
Trump supporters demand Congress decertify the state's election results during a rally in Harrisburg on Jan. 5.Jose F. Moreno / AP

Republicans have largely behaved like sore losers in response to President-elect Joe Biden's clear-cut White House win on Nov. 3. Many Senate Republicans took six weeks to recognize it. In the House, 64 percent of Republican lawmakers signed onDemocrats challenged Electoral College votes first — and set the precedent for this mess to a lawsuit, quickly dismissed, effectively asking the Supreme Court to overturn the election.

Democrats would still do well to admit their past wrongs if they are to wield the full force of moral authority in calling out Republicans' egregious behavior now.

Now, 12 Republican senators, led by Josh Hawley of Missouri, plan to object to certifying the Electoral College results Wednesday in some states Biden won. They'll be joined by dozens of House Republicans in trying to thwart the usually ceremonial final step of counting the Electoral College votes delivered by the states to seal the presidential victory.

Democrats are rightfully complaining, vocally, about these democracy-defying moves. But before going full-throttle on this line of attack, Democrats would be well-served to examine their own recent behavior — which includes a healthy dose of similar governing by temper tantrum. While it reaches nowhere near the degree of brazenness displayed by President Donald Trump and his backers, it did contribute to the vivid and lamentable erosion of democratic norms now underway.

It was two Democrats who, in 1969, first contested electoral votes, not Republicans. A senator and a representative raised a technical objection after an elector went rogue and didn't cast the expected ballot for Richard Nixon. Congress rejected the objection.

And it was another Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who was the first to raise a nontechnical challenge to counting the Electoral College votes. Like Wednesday's group of Senate Republicans, Boxer in 2005cited several problems with voting procedures in President George W. Bush's re-election win over Democratic nominee John Kerry. Boxer did so in conjunction with Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, delaying final certification by nearly four hours.

Boxer said her intention was simply to raise awareness about long lines for voters and questionable ballot machinery in the pivotal state of Ohio. Boxer also cited, without evidence of wrongdoing, allegations of voting irregularities, including disqualification of provisional ballots and misallocation of voting machines between wealthier and poorer communities.

Electoral College Vote Count
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., left, announces that she is joining Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, in her objection to certification of Ohio's electoral votes on Jan.6, 2005.Scott J. Ferrell / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

It's a position Boxer still defends, saying in an interview Thursday that there's "no comparison" to Hawley's opposition to Biden's win because Kerry had already conceded, while Trump is "orchestrating kind of an overthrow of the election." But while Boxer might have seen her move as merely symbolic, the Electoral College challenge 16 years ago offers a cautionary tale about setting precedent over the legitimacy of democratic processes that the opposition can later exploit at a much greater cost to the civic good.

Hawley cited Boxer's challenge as a basis for his actions now. "Democrats in Congress objected during the certification of electoral votes in order to raise concerns about election integrity," Hawley said. "And they were entitled to do so. But now those of us concerned about the integrity of this election are entitled to do the same."

Disputing electoral counts isn't the only way Democrats have helped normalize aberrant political behavior in recent years. While Trump's refusal to concede is utterly unsurprising, he follows Democrat Stacey Abrams' refusal to concede the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, even though, like Trump's, her defeat wasn't particularly close.

Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by 50.2 percent to 48.8 percent, or by about 55,500 votes. Abrams claims the election wasn't fairly conducted, including mass voter role purges by Kemp's office when he was secretary of state. But she can't prove that this and other actions by Kemp denied her the governorship.

It's true that the vast majority of purged voters were Black and most likely supportive of Abrams. But it's impossible to say how many would have participated in the 2018 gubernatorial election, especially since they hadn't voted in several previous contests. And according to The Washington Post's Fact Checker, "Even if every provisional ballot not counted and every rejected absentee ballot had been awarded to Abrams, it would not have necessitated a runoff," which occurs when no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, "much less overcome Abrams's vote deficit."

Refusing to concede a governor's race, of course, isn't the same as refusing to concede a presidential race, in which the global implications are orders of magnitude greater. But the refusal to concede by Abrams, a rising Democratic star, in a race that garnered national attention does raise questions about the validity and reliability of the American election system, as well as the practice of legitimizing an opponent's win.

Democrats have also made much of Trump's strong suggestions that he won't attend Biden's inauguration. Democrats say Trump should attend. But Democrats have themselves periodically boycotted inaugurations, ceremonies symbolic in the peaceful transfer of power and cornerstones of American democracy. In 1973, for instance, dozens of House Democrats didn't show up to Nixon's second inaugural, citing delays in Vietnam peace talks and other policy differences.

Twenty-eight years later, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the 1960s civil rights movement, declined to attend Bush's swearing-in because the 2000 Florida recount controversy made Bush's election suspicious in his mind. Lewis had considerably more company in boycotting Trump's inauguration. Nearly 70 Democrats skipped the event, citing what they called the incoming president's contempt for civil rights policies and the aid he got in the 2016 campaign from Russian agents.

To be sure, an outgoing president's skipping the inauguration of his successor isn't comparable to some House members' doing so, not to mention that Republicans have occasionally done the same thing, such as in 1997, when about 25 House GOP lawmakers skipped President Bill Clinton's second inauguration.

But Democrats would still do well to admit their past wrongs if they are to wield the full force of moral authority in calling out Republicans' egregious behavior now — and laying a new, stronger foundation for universal adherence to democratic norms as the country recovers from the Trump administration.

George Washington is considered to be among the greatest presidents because of the precedents he set as the first person to hold the office, including voluntarily ceding power after two terms and otherwise demurring from actions to expand his power. Democrats have a pretty good role model here as the post-Trump era begins.