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Heated rhetoric around midterms could erode public confidence in elections

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, left, Board chair Judge Betsy Benson, center, and Board member Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, sign off on a sealed bin that will be sent to the capitol as ballots have begun to be sorted before counting, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Lauderhill, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A Florida judge urged all parties involved in the recounts of the state’s Senate and gubernatorial elections to “ramp down the rhetoric” Monday amid unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and heated tweets from the president of the United States declaring without evidence that the vote count is “massively infected.”

Judge Jack Tuter addressed the roiling controversy at a hearing over Republican Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott’s request to impound voting machines in Broward County when votes are not being counted, which Democrats claimed would essentially put them under Scott’s control. Tuter rejected that motion, and attorneys on both sides agreed to allow three additional Broward County Sheriff’s Office deputies to monitor the counting site until the recount deadline Thursday.

The Florida Senate race, in which Scott leads Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson by about 12,500 votes, is one of several contests still too close to call nearly a week after Election Day. Republican candidates also lead in the Florida and Georgia governors’ races, and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is ahead in Arizona’s Senate race against GOP Rep. Martha McSally.

President Donald Trump has lodged fraud allegations against Democrats in all these races, baselessly accusing them of fabricating votes and trying to steal elections. Scott and other Republicans have echoed these claims, pointing to mismanagement by election officials in Broward County and elsewhere, but Tuter said Monday he has seen no evidence of criminal activity.

Some county election officials have done themselves no favors by displaying a lack of organization and transparency. A judge ruled Friday that Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes was violating public records laws by withholding information about vote-counting from Scott’s campaign.

"I understand Gov. Scott's frustration that there are people who are breaking the law, violating the Constitution... So I think he's right to be upset," Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump has also complained about vote tallies tightening in Georgia, where former Secretary of State Brian Kemp has declared himself the new governor but Democrat Stacey Abrams has not conceded. If Kemp’s share of the total vote falls below 50 percent, the two will be forced into a December runoff, so Abrams’ campaign is aggressively hunting for any valid ballots.

Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz, Hawaii, and Cory Booker, N.J., asked the Justice Department Monday to investigate “potential voting rights abuses” in the Georgia election, alleging policies imposed under Kemp violated the Voting Rights Act. Abrams has also filed a lawsuit to delay certification of the vote count, raising fears some legitimate votes will not be counted.

Trump and the Republican National Committee alleged fraud in Arizona as well, but some prominent GOP figures—including retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, whose seat the election is intended to fill—have pushed back, defending the state’s standard but relatively slow vote-counting process.

“There is no evidence of ‘electoral corruption’ in Arizona, Mr. President,” Flake tweeted Friday. “Thousands of dedicated Arizonans work in a non-partisan fashion every election cycle to ensure that every vote is counted. We appreciate their service.”

As President Trump furiously casts doubt on the legitimacy of a Florida election that would determine whether Republicans hold a 52 or 53-seat majority in the Senate, critics warn his reaction could be a preview of his response to a much higher-stakes election in 2020.

“It’s important to understand that Trump is trying set the stage for calling into question the integrity of the 2020 election if he loses,” former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted Friday.

Questions about the credibility of U.S. elections and claims of election theft have come from both parties in recent decades. Nearly 20 years later, Democrats still point to the 2000 election and the Supreme Court decision that halted a manual recount to question the validity of George W. Bush’s presidency.

President Trump began alleging widespread fraud months before the 2016 election, insisting he could only lose if Democrats rigged the system. After he won, he continued pushing unproven conspiracy theories about voter fraud and formed a controversial and short-lived commission that failed to validate his claims.

Despite the rhetoric flying over Florida, Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections for advocacy group Common Cause, said voters should feel confident that when they voted this year, it was counted. She added, though, that there is a lot of room for improvement in election systems and a fairly urgent need to get started.

“By and large, I don’t want voters to worry We clearly have problems with our elections, with our systems, problems that should have been fixed years ago, decades ago,” Chapman said.

The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database of what it says are more than 1,000 verified instances of voter fraud stretching back to the 1940s. Critics say the list is misleading and exaggerated, and the Brennan Center for Justice notes only about 50 of the cases involve the sort of in-person fraud that voter identification laws favored by Republicans would address.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have asserted election fraud of the sort Trump alleges is exceedingly rare, but they maintain voter suppression targeting traditionally Democratic minority populations is an epidemic that weakens democracy.

“The vote suppression tactics have got to come to a stop The aim I think over the past ten years has been to chill voters, to stop them from showing up,” Chapman said.

Advocates often accuse GOP legislatures and governors of imposing restrictions on voting that disenfranchise lower-income communities, but Republicans counter that they are just trying to protect election integrity. According to Chapman, voter ID laws and other policies that make it harder to vote damage confidence in elections, as do cases of officials like Kemp and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—who unsuccessfully ran for governor this year—overseeing their own elections.

In 2018, Kemp’s effort as Georgia’s secretary of state to purge the voter registration rolls of entries he claimed were outdated and invalid was met by allegations of voter suppression that continue to hang over the governor’s race there. Technical and logistical problems in heavily Democratic areas on Election Day added more fuel to claims Kemp was trying to manipulate the system in his favor, something he adamantly denied.

“Kemp was on notice about this from the get-go,” Chapman said, citing years of warnings from experts and litigation over vulnerabilities in the state’s election systems.

The 2016 election added another factor to debates over election integrity with the active intervention in the presidential campaign by the Russian government, which intelligence agencies believe was intended to benefit Trump. The president has often expressed skepticism about those findings, but some Democrats believe Russia’s efforts helped flip the outcome of a very tight election.

Foreign interference remains an overarching concern for U.S. lawmakers, with several reports of suspected hacking and propaganda attempts in the months before the midterm elections and persistent questions about the security of electronic voting methods. Chapman stressed her organization’s concerns about election security are not partisan and it has not suggested the 2016 election was stolen.

“We and others in the voting rights community have said from the get-go, fix your machines,” she said. “This is a problem that’s fixable. Whether a Democrat or a Republican is overseeing the system, it’s got to get done You have to make sure the electorate feels safe showing up.”

Polls show overall public confidence in elections has held relatively steady in recent decades, but the side harboring more doubt has shifted based on which party is in power. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats were more likely to doubt their vote would be fairly counted, while Republicans grew more concerned about that prospect after 2008, and Democratic fears are rising again now.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last month found 67 percent of Americans expected foreign governments to try to influence the midterms, but 72 percent were still confident votes would be counted accurately, with Republicans being more confident than Democrats. About six-in-ten respondents said the Democratic Party is at least somewhat committed to fair and accurate elections, while 56 percent said the Republican Party is.

An October poll released by the University of Chicago and The Associated Press showed 58 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans were very concerned about hackers affecting election systems, a reversal from 2016 when Democrats were the ones more confident votes would be counted accurately. The survey also found significantly more confidence in paper ballots or voting machines that provide a paper receipt than paperless machines.

According to Gallup, 70 percent of voters were somewhat or very confident vote counts would be accurate in 2018, in line with a historical average of 68 percent since the question was first asked in 2004. Strong partisan differences were observed, though, 72 percent of Democrats saying they were concerned about foreign countries interfering in the election, compared to 41 percent of Republicans.

The 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll conducted by YouGov over the summer for the Baker Center for Leadership and Governance at Georgetown University also found stark differences between political parties. About three-quarters of Republicans were satisfied with American democracy, while only 44 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents said the same. The survey also found more than half of Republicans believe Trump’s inaccurate claim millions of illegal votes were cast in 2016.

Even winning the election did not stop Trump from alleging widespread voter fraud. On Twitter Saturday, he falsely claimed Broward County officials intended to submit fake ballots in 2016 but did not because he won by too wide a margin.

Experts who study authoritarian governments worry about how Trump would react if he loses his re-election bid in 2020 and what a GOP base that has grown to trust him over other sources of information would do if he announced the election was invalid.

“It’s a disaster that a man with despotic instincts is in the White House and he is inevitably going to act in dangerous ways in 2020 if he loses,” said Brian Klaas, co-author of “How to Rig an Election,” on Twitter.

Thomas Pepinsky, author of “Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes,” called Trump’s stance on the undecided midterm races “almost incalculably bad for American democracy.”

“It is now the official White House position that constitutionally-mandated recounts are illegitimate,” he wrote in a blog post, adding that electoral legitimacy is nearly impossible to get back once it is lost and the consequences of such a shift are unpredictable.

Still, Chapman is optimistic 2020 will run more smoothly than others predict, and she sees much states and elected officials can do to preserve public faith in election integrity.

“I have to be hopeful,” she said. “Otherwise I’m in the wrong business.”

States can act now to fix and upgrade their voting machines, ensure they have a paper trail to audit results, and patch vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks. Chapman also highlighted efforts to re-enfranchise voters in some states, automatic registration laws, and Florida’s successful ballot initiative to restore voting rights for more than one million felons as positive developments ahead of the 2020 election.

“We don’t want to have even a scintilla of the headaches we had in this midterm,” she said.

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