Arjun Singh Editors' Forum Maria Zelenova Nicole Dougherty

How did recognizing the results of the 2020 US election become political?

Maria Zelenova – Program Editor for Canada’s NATO

Recognizing the Clear Winner Should Not be a Political Statement 

On November 7, Joe Biden celebrated a clear victory of the United States presidential election, receiving not only the majority of the popular vote but also winning over President Trump by the largest vote percentage obtained against an incumbent president since 1932. Throughout the following month, he continued to win the election over and over, culminating with the Electoral College vote affirming Biden’s win on December 15 and, finally, the recognition of Biden as president-elect by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As states completed recounts at the request of the Republican party and certified results, Trump continued to baselessly claim that the results were rigged. 

Amassing a total of 306 electoral votes and over 80 million ballots, and withstanding dozens of lawsuits challenging the results, declaring Joe Biden the winner of the election is anything but a political statement. Yet, his victory has resulted in a temper tantrum from the president and hindered the transition process, stalling Biden’s efforts to get his team ready to go by inauguration day. And while the strength of US institutions prevents Trump from single-handedly overturning the democratic process and staying for a second term, his refusal to concede breaks well-established norms, denies Biden the opportunity to adequately prepare his team, and undermines trust in the integrity of the election process. Despite an astounding lack of evidence of voter fraud, 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe that the election was free and fair: a sharp rise from the 35 percent of voters who believed so prior to November 3. 

Mr. Trump and the Republican party are setting a dangerous precedent. Conceding after losing an election is at time-tested tradition that shows grace to your opponent, signals willingness to work together, and reinforces democratic principles. Trump’s refusal to back down weakens trust in institutions, increases polarization, and potentially creates a path for a future sitting president who lost re-election to overturn the results. In response, US bureaucratic officials and media entities should take an unrelenting stance in support of the fair and tested election results, and push for a formal and transparent transition process between the outgoing president and the incoming one. 

Arjun Singh – Program Editor for NATO Operations

Constitutional Obedience

A U.S. Presidential election is, ultimately, a legal affair – following processes laid out in the Constitution and other laws passed in pursuance. In that context, the next President is, formally, never decided on the night of the popular election. Per the Twelfth Amendment, they are determined after a Joint Session of Congress in January – where the certificates of states’ Electoral Votes are opened and tabulated, after which the next President is declared. For the office of “President-elect,” there exists no other method for their determination.

As a consequence, any determination of the ‘President-elect’ outside these bounds becomes a political decision. The politicized nature of designation is compounded when the election’s fairness is subject to legal disputes – regardless of their relative merit (a subjective assessment until adjudicated by courts) or the results of past suits (which, admittedly, have been largely unsuccessful). Such as been the case with Joe Biden’s purported designation as “President-elect” by news media organizations. Pre-empting the Electoral College and Congress, they have adjudged Biden as the affirmative winner of the presidency – consequently leading him to claim victory and style himself in the same manner. 

At this juncture, some may claim that the issue of recognition concerns not the legal formalities of determining the ‘President-elect,’ but, rather, the “normative” practice of the United States – whereby, purportedly, media designation has become an ‘accepted’ practice. They would further claim that democratic systems are dependant on such norms for persistence, and thus, ought to be followed in this case. Such claims, however, lack premises congruent with the history of the American republic – which, above all, has been a positivist system where norms and institutions are only created by written legislation or judicial affirmation (in the form of written legal judgements). This is what the Founding Fathers envisioned with their creation of, in the words of the Great Seal, a Novus Ordo Seclorum (i.e. a “new order of the ages”). The nation would depart from the European parliamentary system’s unwritten, conventional practices (shaped largely by elite factions without citizens’ input), and be more democratic in character – acting in rudimentary accordance with institutional constraints. It is this characteristic that has served as the cornerstone of America’s institutional architecture for 231 years, and been sufficient to ensure its endurance amidst trials much greater (including several wars and contested elections). As a consequence, any “unwritten norms” are superfluous to institutional survival – serving, at best, as mere guidelines to maintain pleasantries. Thus, should an ‘unwritten norm’ for media-based presidential recognition even exist, it may be disregarded without concern for democracy’s endurance, and left to partisans for provincial moral contests.

Therefore, whatever the eventual result, and whether or not it validates the media, it is immaterial to the fact that process pre-emption creates no binding grounds for a President-elect’s recognition. While the informal designation of the President-elect previously occurred following a candidate’s concession, the absence of the same precludes the designation’s customary application. Until now, most readers would have recalled General Services Administrator Administrator Emily Murphy’s letter to Biden of November 23rd (granting him resources for a transition) as a definitive counterpoint. However, it must be noted that Murphy’s letter did not ascertain Biden as ‘President-elect.’ The decision, under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, must be made in cognizance of the U.S. Code covering the aforementioned Constitutional provisions. The early provision of resources has occurred, merely, to ensure an orderly transition should alldisputes be resolved in Biden’s favour.

As Murphy herself wrote, “the actual winner of the presidential election will be determined by the electoral process detailed in the Constitution.” To avoid haste, we ought to read it.

Nicole Dougherty – Program Editor for Canadian Armed Forces 

Who wins an election is not political, it is institutional!

If someone had asked me even just a couple of years ago if there would be elected political officials in the United States or any mature democracy that would not accept or acknowledge the results of a fair and free election, I would have told them that they were crazy. An American President with an authoritarian streak, who takes control over his party and rules them with an iron fist, would have seemed to be the plotline of a political thriller, something unbelievable that keeps the readers flipping the pages, not the behaviour of officials elected in one of the oldest and most advanced democracies in the world. However, this example is forcing democracies around the world to contend with a new question: is acknowledging election result a political decision or statement? 

In theory, it really should not be a question. Afterall, the strength of democratic systems is that they have institutions that exist outside of the political elements that ensure the peaceful transition of power. Indeed, even in the U.S. where this question has emerged, the institutions have acted as with the expected resilience and resistance to interference. So far, the courts and the state election officials have withstood any attempted interference and have followed the election results. 

But are institutions really at the core of the transition of power? The challenge that has emerged in the U.S. is that the political media ecosystems that have left people with different information and conclusions. Within the right-wing media ecosystem, particularly on social media, the idea has been perpetuated that acknowledging the loss of President Trump is not  only a political statement but akin to a political coup. While there is no evidence to support this perspective, it has become almost unthinkable to certain populations that the opposition could win an election or that they should support the administration of the opposition party. 

What will happen if this perspective continues? Will the support for the political institutions that help the transition of power weaken or collapse? If so, it is possible that this will critically injure the sustainability of the U.S. and democracies around the world. 

Cover image: Stop the Steal protest outside the Minnesota State Capitol (2020) by Chad Davis via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

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