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Stacey Abrams, Donald Trump, and the Assault on the Democratic Process

Raising doubt in our election system
May 7, 2019
Stacey Abrams, Donald Trump, and the Assault on the Democratic Process
Donald Trump on Election Day, 2016. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A specter haunts the imagination of some Democrats: Donald Trump loses the 2020 election but refuses to concede.

“I won,” he insists, despite election results that show he lost both the Electoral College and the popular vote.

He offers no evidence that he actually won more votes, but declares: “I have sufficient and I think legally sufficient doubt about the process to say that it was not a fair election.” He claims the election was stolen. He explains his refusal to concede: “I do not concede that the process was proper, nor do I condone that process.”

No, wait. That’s not Trump. That’s Democrat Stacey Abrams, and it is a problem for Democrats. Abrams was defeated in last year’s election for Georgia governor. “So let’s be clear,” she said after her defeat, “this is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper.’’

‘‘Democracy failed Georgians,” she declared. She still insists that she ‘won,” and she continues to challenge the legitimacy of the process. Her complaints have been echoed by other Democrats, including Kamala Harris, who now says that “without voter suppression, Stacey Abrams would be the governor of Georgia; Andrew Gillum is the governor of Florida.”  

But this is the problem with norms. Unless both parties respect them, or at least pretend to give them deference, they turn out to be surprisingly fragile.

Over the weekend, Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the possibility that Trump would refuse to respect the results of the 2020 election. Reported The New York Times:

In recent weeks Ms. Pelosi has told associates that she does not automatically trust the president to respect the results of any election short of an overwhelming defeat. That view, fed by Mr. Trump’s repeated and unsubstantiated claims of Democratic voter fraud, is one of the reasons she says it is imperative not to play into the president’s hands, especially on impeachment.

She worries, the Times reported “that Mr. Trump would not give up power voluntarily if he lost re-election by a slim margin next year.”

CNN’s Chris Cillizza indulged in similar speculation.

It’s not much of a stretch then to imagine that Trump, if he does come up short in the 2020 election, wouldn’t be willing to simply go quietly into that good night. For Trump, refusing to admit defeat and hand over power voluntarily would be the final sacred cow he could slaughter.

This concern is not new. Flashback to 2016, when Trump declined to commit to accepting the defeat that everyone expected he would suffer at the hands of Hillary Clinton. One of the Democrats to criticize Trump was Abrams, then the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, who tweeted that “Trump’s refusal to concede the election if he loses proves he is a petty man uninterested in our national stability.”


Over the weekend Abrams was challenged on the point.

In an interview in the New York Times Magazine, reporter David Marchese asked Abrams: “Is there any fear on your part that using that kind of language fans the same flames that President Trump has fanned about delegitimizing our elections?”

Abrams’s answer is a bit convoluted but worth quoting:

I see those as very different. Trump is alleging voter fraud, which suggests that people were trying to vote more than once. Trump offers no empirical evidence to meet his claims. I make my claims based on empirical evidence, on a demonstrated pattern of behavior that began with the fact that the person I was dealing with was running the election. If you look at my immediate reaction after the election, I refused to concede.

Now, I cannot say that everybody who tried to cast a ballot would’ve voted for me, but if you look at the totality of the information, it is sufficient to demonstrate that so many people were disenfranchised and disengaged by the very act of the person who won the election that I feel comfortable now saying, “I won.” My larger point is, look, I won because we transformed the electorate, we turned out people who had never voted, we outmatched every Democrat in Georgia history. But voter suppression is endemic, and it’s having a corrosive effect. If we do not resolve this problem, it will harm us all.

Marchese pushed back on Abrams’ answer: “It’s one thing to say you lost that election unfairly, and it’s another to say you won because you increased voter turnout. But can you clarify for me exactly what you’re implying when you say you ‘won’ that election?”

Abrams immediately backed off on her claim to have ‘empirical evidence” that the election was stolen. She admitted, “I have no empirical evidence that I would have achieved a higher number of votes” But, she insisted, “ I have sufficient and I think legally sufficient doubt about the process to say that it was not a fair election.”

Abrams and her supporters do raise important questions about the closure of polling places and the purging of inactive voters. But the reality is that there is precious little evidence that votes were, in fact, suppressed. Despite the removal of 1.4 million voters from the rolls, black registration rose from 62.3 percent in 2014 to 68.4 percent in 2018. Even more impressive: Black turnout in Georgia jumped from 43 percent in 2014 to 60 percent last year. (Black turnout exceeded the 56 percent turnout among white voters.)

So, there are two parts to Abrams claim that she “won.” On one level she is claiming that she won a moral victory, which is more or less anodyne, sort of a political participation trophy.

But the second part is her ongoing refusal to concede defeat and her claim that the election was tainted. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a direct attack on the legitimacy of the process.

Isn’t this what Democrats fear Trump will do next year? Of course, Trump would put his own twist on his attempt to undermine confidence in the system, and Democrats will find any attempt to equate Abrams with Trump to be deeply offensive.

Ultimately, though, the problem here is the assault on public confidence in the democratic process. Democrats and Republicans may have different reasons to distrust the election results, but isn’t the endgame the same?

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.