the Federalist | by Margot Cleveland | May 12, 2022
In 2005, bipartisan leaders cautioned that systemic problems plagued American elections. The 2020 general election saw every problem they warned about come to fruition.
Recent polls confirm the majority of Americans care about election integrity. And history proves that if you don’t, you’re a bad American.
The 2020 general election revealed this reality—and not because Joe Biden prevailed or because the election was stolen from Donald Trump, but because our constitutional republic cannot survive without election integrity. That is not just the judgment of the MAGA crowd, or even conservatives or the political right—or at least it didn’t use to be.
Less than two decades ago Americans so universally believed that election integrity mattered that when the bipartisan Commission on Election Reform issued its 100-plus page report, “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections,” the twin goals of election integrity and voting access received equal treatment. While Co-Chairs Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Jim Baker explained that not all members of the Commission “necessarily support every word or recommendation,” all members, they stressed, “endorsed the judgments and general policy thrust of the report in its entirety.”
The bipartisan-endorsed fundamentals underlying the report included two unanimously accepted judgments related to election integrity. First, “elections are the heart of democracy” and “if elections are defective, the entire democratic system is at risk.” Second, and a corollary to the first: confidence in elections matters equally, and in fact “is central to our nation’s democracy.”
On this latter principle, the commission elaborated: “Democracy is endangered when people believe that their votes do not matter or are not counted correctly.” “Little can undermine democracy more than a widespread belief among the people that elections are neither fair nor legitimate,” the report stressed.
That same bipartisan report also recognized that while the losing side may be “unhappy with the results,” there is something “new and dangerous” taking place in the United States: “Supporters of the losing side are beginning to believe that the process is unfair. And this is true of both parties.”
Yet, while the Carter Commission declared that having a fair electoral process “transcends any individual partisan interest,” today, Democrats have not just abandoned any care over election integrity, they have declared such concerns racist, and that is with voting access never higher.
In light of the left’s attempt to castigate election integrity, every citizen should revisit the bipartisan judgments and policy pronouncements that formed the foundation for the “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections” report, which hold even more true today than in 2005. That report proves vital to exposing both the current lack of election integrity in America and the danger our nation faces absent a quick correction.
Further, because the Carter Commission’s report came when Democrats held a heightened concern over election integrity because of Al Gore’s loss in 2000, and because the analysis spoke to Americans without the shadow of Trump obscuring the danger, the lengthy report’s discussion of election integrity reveals the reality of the situation facing our country today that partisans seem unable to see.
Specifically, the 2005 report reveals that every concern the commission identified as threatening the legitimacy of elections played out in November 2020, notwithstanding the bipartisan commission’s declaration more than 15 years ago that the need for “election reform” was urgent. Likewise, the aftermath of the 2020 election reveals that the problems and concerns that the Carter Commission proclaimed more than 20 years ago that needed immediate redress have instead multiplied and mutated.
While the anti-Trump contingency blame the former president for prompting distrust in the 2020 election results, the Carter Commission recognized that a fair electoral process was vital to “assure the winning candidates the authority to legitimately assume office,” and that the losing candidate can accept the decision “as the will of the voters.” If you juxtapose what happened in 2020 with the defects in our electoral system of which the commission warned, the reality becomes clear: Trump was not the problem—systemic defects in our electoral system were.
Bloated and inaccurate voter rolls, nonexistent or faulty voter-identification procedures, and a lack of private voting—all issues the bipartisan commission warned threatened elections and our democracy—tainted the last election. Misconduct by partisan election officials, the use of inconsistent procedures in different precincts, and an overall lack of transparency added to the problems in 2020.
Again, these are issues the Carter Commission stressed threatened our democracy. The 2005 report also warned that absentee and mail-in voting come with the risk of fraud which, without limitations and adequate protections, would undermine the faith in our elections.
The widespread and chaotic use of mail-in and absentee voting in 2020 proved the bipartisan commission prescient. And while today’s Democrats blame Trump, less than two decades ago both sides of the aisle saw “the ultimate test of an election system is its ability to withstand intensive public scrutiny during a very close election.”
Our current electoral system fails that test, and every citizen who loves this great country should demand reform. If you don’t, you are a bad American.
Margot Cleveland is The Federalist’s senior legal correspondent. She is also a contributor to National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, Aleteia, and Townhall.com, and has been published in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Cleveland is a lawyer and a graduate of the Notre Dame Law School, where she earned the Hoynes Prize—the law school’s highest honor. She later served for nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk for a federal appellate judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Cleveland is a former full-time university faculty member and now teaches as an adjunct from time to time. As a stay-at-home homeschooling mom of a young son with cystic fibrosis, Cleveland frequently writes on cultural issues related to parenting and special-needs children. Cleveland is on Twitter at @ProfMJCleveland. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.