Editor’s Note: Joshua A. Douglas is a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights, and constitutional law. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” Follow him @JoshuaADouglas. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
It’s quite possible that voter suppression made the difference in the Georgia gubernatorial election, which Republican Brian Kemp narrowly won over Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate who was seeking to become the nation’s first female African-American governor.
Yet instead of simply conceding, Abrams has cast a cloud of illegitimacy over Kemp’s victory, refusing to answer CNN’s Jake Tapper as to whether Kemp legitimately won the election. Instead, she simply said that he would be the “legal Governor of Georgia.”
That hedging is itself harmful to democratic legitimacy. While Abrams may have valid points – Kemp, for example, improperly used his position as secretary of state to influence the campaign, and promulgated voter registration rules that potentially shut out thousands of minority voters – our democracy depends on the losers recognizing the winner’s rightful claim to the elected office.
Other candidates who have lost under a cloud of electoral improprieties have not questioned the final result in the same way. Most famously, Al Gore almost certainly should have won the 2000 presidential election, if not for the “butterfly” ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida that confused voters who meant to vote for him.
Many saw the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, which ended the recount, as fundamentally unfair. George W. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes, which gave him an Electoral College majority. Yet in accepting his loss, Gore did not refuse to acknowledge Bush’s win as “legitimate.”
Of course, the situations are not exactly analogous: Unlike Kemp, Bush wasn’t creating the rules of the game in the very campaign where he was a candidate (though arguably it is similar given that the person running Florida’s elections at the time, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was also serving as the co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign). To be sure, others suggested that Bush was not a legitimate President. But the losing candidate himself graciously accepted defeat.
We will probably never know for sure if Kemp’s actions, leading to voter suppression, may have changed the result in Georgia. Yet that’s not as important as the underlying problem: voter suppression is never appropriate and we must do everything we can to make it easy for all voters – and especially racial minorities, given our sorry history of discrimination – to participate in our democracy.
It’s heartening that Abrams apparently plans to file a lawsuit to change Georgia’s election processes and make it easier to vote. But there’s a meaningful difference between challenging Kemp’s voter suppression tactics and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of his election while conceding the race. It’s possible for Abrams both to lament the voter suppression that occurred – while pledging to fix it – and still recognize Kemp as the legitimate winner this year.
I’ve not been shy about criticizing Donald Trump and other Republicans for lying about voter fraud as a political maneuver to justify voter suppression. Though it’s not exactly the same, Abrams’ refusal to acknowledge Kemp as a legitimate winner also undermines the public’s confidence in our electoral structure. Of course, that was likely Abrams’ point – to draw attention to the election problems in the state. But the answer is to work harder for positive voting rights changes, not to question whether the winner actually has a rightful claim to the office.
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“Voter fraud” has been the mantra of many Republicans who lose and do not want to accept the outcome. That has set a dangerous precedent, undermining the public’s confidence in our elections. Democrats shouldn’t follow their lead.
As Abrams said in her CNN interview, words matter. Losing candidates should recognize the legitimate claim of the winner to the elected office. Then they should double down on their efforts to make our electoral system as inclusive and democratic as possible.