On November 4, 1986, Cecil D. Andrus won a third term as Idaho’s governor. It turned out to be one of the closest gubernatorial elections in the state’s history with the outcome in doubt far into the morning after election day. Andrus eventually won by 3,635 votes; more than 387,000 votes were cast. His victory margin was less than one percent.
When Andrus went to a Boise hotel around 10 o’clock election night to speak to supporters – I remember it well, I was the campaign press secretary – the race was an absolute dead heat. In fact, just as we walked into the packed ballroom one local television station updated its vote count and as the numbers flashed on the screen it showed then-Republican Lt. Governor David H. Leroy and Andrus with exactly the same number of votes.
Andrus made his way to the podium, thanked his supporters, said the counting would continue and advised them to go home and go to bed, which is exactly what he did.
I stayed up and went back to the campaign office. By 2:00 am we knew Andrus had a narrow lead with a handful of precincts in far flung locations – Sandpoint, Salmon, Aberdeen, Weiser – not yet reporting numbers. I rousted a state senator out of bed in Power County and asked him to check on the status of uncounted ballots there. He called back a few minutes later saying they were safely locked up in the courthouse, counted but just not yet reported. A similar check in other locations produced similar reports.
If someone had wanted to mess with those ballots they could have tried, but they would have had to enlist dozens of local election officials in the conspiracy, a degree of fraud and undemocratic behavior that in my 40-plus years’ experience is unthinkable, indeed impossible. Additionally, the long-time Republican secretary of state at the time, Pete Cenarrusa, a guy who could be a tough partisan, ran an absolutely squeaky clean, scrupulously non-partisan election operation. His deputy, Ben Ysursa, who later succeeded Cenarrusa, was simply the fairest election administrator I’ve ever dealt with.
Now, in the wake of a decisive presidential election victory by President-elect Joe Biden, the sad sack loser in the White House is hunkered down in denial, advancing hourly conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud. The allegations are absolutely absurd as everyone from the lawyers who handled the contested Florida election in 2000 to countless Republican election officials in key states have attested.
What is nearly as absurd as the president’s fraud charge is that a vast majority of Republican office holders remain unwilling to defend the thousands of local election officials and volunteers who, in the words of the now sacked election cyber security head, ran the most secure American election in history. These Republicans seem willing to accept the lies of a well-documented liar over the reality of thousands of dedicated election officials who have nothing to gain by doing their jobs except ensuring the continuation of American democracy.
Millions of Donald Trump’s brainwashed followers who apparently believe his election fraud nonsense are living in the fantasy land a life-long con man has created. Imagine for a moment what it would take to rig a national election in a half dozen states. Hundreds, if not thousands of local election officials would have to be in on the scam. Most of these people – Republicans, Democrats and independents – have devoted careers to the proposition that election security is essential to American democracy. You’d have to convince them to do the most dishonest thing they could imagine in a free society: rig the vote.
The logistics of rigging an election on a nationwide scale would require exquisite timing, all conducted in absolute secrecy. Stealing the election would mean coopting Republican secretaries of state in states Biden won, Nevada and Georgia for example. The top election officials in both states have aggressively dismissed Trump’s fiction. And if you’re going to steal the White House why not steal the Senate, too and hang on to all those House seats Democrats lost? Conspiracy theories don’t need to make sense they just have to further a grievance.
Meanwhile, Trump’s legal challenges have crumbled, while his unprincipled lackeys – read Rudy Giuliani – have beclowned themselves in front of judges and election officials from Philadelphia to Carson City.
And speaking of election fraud, Giuliani, who until two weeks ago, was peddling a mendacious conspiracy theory about the president-elect’s son, was admonished by one incredulous Pennsylvania judge who said, “At bottom, you’re asking this court to invalidate some 6.8 million votes thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the commonwealth.” The judge refused.
The election wasn’t stolen. Donald Trump lost it – decisively. Yet, the totally specious Trump allegations have planted the notion among his most fevered followers, those apparently with an election security diploma from Facebook University, that the entire election system is as corrupt as he is. To say that believing his nonsense is corrosive to the very essence of democracy is an understatement.
Those Republican elected officials who have allowed two weeks to pass while tolerating Trump’s efforts to further erode standards of democratic behavior are not merely indulging a weak, pathetic con man they are now part of the active fraud he’s peddling.
Back to that hard fought 1986 Idaho governor’s race. Andrus, an astute reader of election returns, claimed victory at 10:00 am the morning after the voting. A short time later Dave Leroy gracefully conceded. I can only imagine that it hurt losing an election that effectively marked the end of a career that at the time looked to be long and promising. “There must be a time when the vote is final,” Leroy said at the time, “and we should go forward with the people’s business.”
As the Associated Press noted, the narrow margin in the Idaho governor’s race 34 years ago could have “been grounds for a recount at state expense, but Leroy said he wouldn’t ask for one.” Allegations of voting irregularity were just that – allegations, and the defeated candidate said he wouldn’t pursue them.
Such attitudes are what mark honorable foes in politics. Sometimes your side wins. Sometimes the other side wins. Being willing to accept that fundamental reality separates democracy from where Donald Trump and too much of his increasingly corrupt Republican Party would gladly take us.