U.S. election coups? Really?

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Neither Republicans nor Democrats want to admit the shocking truth about 2020: The U.S. election system performed well. Americans went through a pandemic and had to change voting procedures in response to it, with all the partisan controversy that entailed. Both parties made irresponsible statements during the campaign that eroded trust that it would be conducted fairly.

Given all of that, we might have expected a catastrophe. Instead, a record number of Americans voted, and a determined search for evidence of a significant amount of voter fraud has not turned up any. Liberal worries about “voter suppression” and conservative worries about a lack of “election integrity” both proved overblown.

Nobody’s celebrating. Instead, Republican state legislators have been trying to change voting procedures in the name of deterring fraud, and Democratic legislators in Washington have been pressing for big changes of their own to rescue what they say is a democracy in crisis. Neither party is attending to the relatively small-bore legislative changes that the aftermath of the election actually calls for.

The parties’ misguided focus is a consequence, of course, of Trump’s campaign to convince people that he won a “landslide” in an election he actually lost. Republican legislators, even those keeping their distance from this delusion, say their voters’ doubts about the election buttress the case for policies they have long supported, especially a requirement that voters show photo identification. Democrats say the Trumpist threat to democracy justifies reform of everything from the Senate filibuster to gerrymandering to campaign finance.

The neoconservative foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan recently made the case for a coalition including Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans that would cooperate on pro-democracy measures at a minimum, and ideally reach “a temporary governing consensus” on a range of other issues.

While giving credit to Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska for voting to convict Trump after impeachment for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, he faults them for not having shown any interest in this project. They have, in his view, taken too much comfort in Trump’s failure to overturn the 2020 election and not enough alarm at how “it could easily have gone the other way.” Kagan speaks for many in saying that “Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year.”

It ought to be possible to be alarmed by Trump’s conduct, and the number of Republicans who have indulged it, without such overstatement.

No Republican state legislature sought to overturn the verdict of the voters. There were no dueling electors. The courts were all unanimous in dismissing Trump’s legal challenges. Vice President Mike Pence rejected the lawless course that Trump and his associates were pushing: that he should throw out the electors from seven states that went for Biden.

It would have been another blow to the health of the American political culture if he had gone along. But even in that case, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would have presumably called an end to the farce by suspending the joint session of Congress. Trump would not have stayed in power after Jan. 20.

To say that Trump’s effort to reverse the election results was doomed to failure isn’t revisionism. It’s what his opponents were rightly saying through much of the period between the election and the end of his term, even though everyone knew full well that Trump wanted to challenge Biden’s electors. 

To the extent that Trump’s post-election campaign compels any policy response at all, it is a reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which contains confusions and imperfections that an unscrupulous and nimble political leader could exploit. It should, for example, be amended so that it takes more than one senator to force a vote on an objection to a state’s electors. The bar for Congress to throw out a state’s electors should also be raised.

But Democrats have not been pushing for this kind of narrow reform. It is not included in either of the main “voting rights” bills that Congress has taken up. It’s hard to fault Sasse and Romney for “balking,” as Kagan puts it, at legislation they have not even been asked to support.

Democrats have put more effort — which is to say some effort — into getting taxpayer funding for congressional campaigns. As with the Republicans and voter identification, they prioritized a longstanding policy priority over anything responsive to Jan. 6. If American democracy is in crisis, nobody is acting like it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.