We knew it wouldn’t end on November 3. Yes. The voting would stop. The campaigns would end. But the count would take several days.
Not until mid-day on Saturday did national news networks start to make the call: Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election.
After nearly a week, Biden supporters and the even more enthusiastic supporters of his running mate, Kamala Harris, took to the streets to celebrate. But not everyone was so quick to concede.
The current president, Donald Trump, still has not conceded the race and promises to file lawsuits and demand recounts. To date, only a handful Republican senators have acknowledged the election’s results. The normal machinations of transition procedures have not whirred into motion.
The frantic flailings of a defeated man and his followers.
It will take weeks to finally finalize this election and begin the change of administrations in earnest. In the meantime, the airwaves are already rife with misinformation, false information, and conspiracy theories.
Among the more bombastic statements and glaring headlines, a subtle and sinister phrase has crept into the political discourse–one that threatens to do harm not just in the coming weeks but for years to come.
In this political moment we must avoid this phrase: “count every legal vote.”
While the words seem harmless and intuitive–of course we should count every legal vote–inserting the word “legal” implies the widespread presence of illegal votes, which simply is not true.
Several outlets have made this point including the African American Policy Forum which posted a tweet:
Stop saying “count every legal vote.” It’s a dog whistle that Trump and the right are using to get people accustomed to the entirely false idea that there is some large number of illegal votes that need to be discarded or rejected.
— African American Policy Forum (@AAPolicyForum) November 9, 2020
The Federal Election chairperson, Ellen Weintraub, said in an interview, “There is no evidence of any kind of voter fraud. There is no evidence of illegal votes being cast.”
Numerous studies and fact-checks (for instance here, here, and here) have shown no widespread or coordinated effort at voter fraud. What issues do arise do not come anywhere near significant enough to influence the outcome of a presidential election.
Justin Levitt, the author of a Brennan Center report on voting fraud, explains how a hyper-focus on bogus claims leech attention away from ensuring voting rights.
These inflated claims are not harmless. Crying “wolf” when the allegations are unsubstantiated distracts attention from real problems that need real solutions. If we can move beyond the fixation on voter fraud, we will be able to focus on the real changes our elections need, from universal registration all the way down to sufficient parking at the poll site.Justin Levitt, “The Truth about Voter Fraud”
But facts and data often lose out to myths and propaganda.
The “count every legal vote” line injects an element of uncertainty into electoral processes that should be supported and strengthened, not undermined. The phrase sneakily inserts the thought there there might be thousands of “illegal” votes that must be identified and purged.
If that sort of suspicion about elections becomes commonplace, the entire democratic system of governance loses credibility.
There are already too many ways voting has been suppressed in the US–strict voter ID laws, a reduction in polling sites resulting in hours-long lines, disfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated, the repeal of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Confidence in democratic processes does not need to be further eroded by false allegations of voter fraud.
The broader public must not unthinkingly adopt the language of “count every legal vote” because that is and has always been the standard for elections. If voters take the bait and bandy this phrase in everyday conversation, then we have ceded the terms of the debate to the enemies of democracy.
Be careful with your words. Words matter. Language crafts thought and perception. Words even shape the direction of democracy itself.