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How (Not) to Lose an Election

Accusations of voter fraud and voter suppression have become annoying common, but it’s often the candidates themselves who are to blame for their own defeat. No one wins by crying foul. Running an effective campaign, not post-election litigation, is the key to victory.

April 2013, at an election night party at Murphys Pub in Rockford, Illinois, I approached an acquaintance to see how he fared in that day’s race. He ran for Harlem Township Supervisor, the latest in a series of offices for which he put his name on the ballot. He wanted so badly to get elected to public office.

That year, there was a debate in Machesney Park, located in the boundary of Harlem Township, whether or not to allow homeowners to keep chickens in their yards. Joe disagreed, in contrast to his Republican and Tea Party base. When the final vote was tallied that night, he lost by four votes: 2,045 to 2,049. He looked up at me through smeared Coke-bottle glasses, his eyes strained from staring at a laptop for hours, with a look of utter devastation on his face and gasped, “It was the chickens!”

No one likes to lose, especially when you pour your heart and soul into running for office. Candidates put their reputations, time, and often their personal finances on the line with no guarantee of success. I should know. In 2012, I ran in the Republican primary for county board and lost 43% to 57%. In 2013, I was the Republican candidate for Mayor of Rockford and received 18.32% in a three-way race.

Perhaps defeat would have been a more difficult pill to swallow if those races had been closer, but I’ve always thought the best thing to do in the face of defeat is congratulate your opponent and move on, learn from your mistakes, and maybe try again next time. After the 2016 election, I criticized Hillary Clinton for blaming everyone but herself for losing to Donald Trump. After the 2019 local elections in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi, I wrote that the Republican Party only has itself to blame for its recent electoral defeats.

Since before November 2016, when the Clinton Camp was laying the groundwork for the Russia narrative and investigations that would consume news coverage for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Clinton has questioned the integrity of that presidential election. In a September 2019 interview with CBS, she called Trump an “illegitimate president.” In May 2019, she warned Democrats “You can run the best campaign, you can even become the nominee, and you can have the election stolen from you.” And just before this election, she warned Democrats not to let Trump “sneak or steal his way” to a second term in office.

Now Trump is facing defeat and refuses to admit it, opting instead on a strategy that includes a flurry of lawsuits in swing states (many of which have been withdrawn or dismissed) and press conferences alleging massive voter fraud conspiracy.

It’s become too common for candidates and their allies to preemptively allege some type of voter fraud in case they lose. Remember rumors that Trump’s appointees at the U.S. Post Office were locking or removing mailboxes to “suppress the vote” and prevent Democrats from using mail-in ballots? (Biden went on to win the popular vote by over 6 million.) Trump himself preemptively claimed his opponents would try to cheat to win in both 2016 and 2020, and then claimed he would have won the popular vote in 2016 if not for millions of illegal ballots.

Former Democratic candidate for Governor of Georgia Stacey Abrams has never conceded the race she lost by 55,000 votes. Yet she was invited to deliver a joint keynote address at the 2019 Democratic National Convention where again she claimed we live at a “time of voter suppression at home.”

None of this is particularly good. It stinks of sour grapes on the part of candidates and spreads suspicion and distrust of our electoral system. But there is no law or Constitutional provision requiring losers to be conciliatory, concede, or be happy with their opponent’s victory. They are free to make accusations and even file lawsuits in court. As long as we litigate such claims in court, put measures in place to prevent fraud like signature verification or voter ID, and conduct audits and recounts of the results, I believe our electoral system can withstand scrutiny.

I’m not a lawyer and I’m not interested in litigating every claim of voter fraud in this election. I do know that Trump is currently 38 electoral votes away from 270. To win, he would need to overturn the results in at least three states, including Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. The margin is closest in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona. If Trump was able to flip those states, it would result in a tie and throw the election into the House of Representatives.

If it was a matter of overturning the results in one state, like Florida in 2000, maybe it would be a worthwhile strategy to pursue. But the odds of Trump and his lawyers getting enough ballots thrown out in three states are astronomically high, and they are running out of time. On Friday, November 20th, Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, certified the election results after concluding an audit that slightly shifted vote totals but showed Biden was still the clear winner.

In the end, the Electoral College will vote on December 14th and whoever wins that vote (likely Joe Biden) will become president. That’s how our presidential elections work. It’s not the outcome I expected or wanted, but I’m 99% certain Joe Biden will be inaugurated our next president on January 20, 2021.

When a candidate runs for political office, there could be hundreds of factors determining victory or defeat. The responsibility is on each candidate to craft a message that appeals to a majority of voters, to enthuse supporters, and motivate them to get to the polls. As my acquaintance learned in 2013, victory or defeat can come down to one mistake, and the margin of defeat can be frustratingly small. You learn nothing by not taking responsibility, blaming others, and claiming fraud without enough compelling evidence to meaningfully affect the outcome. It shows strength of character to learn from defeat, recognize where you can do better, and try again next time.

2 replies on “How (Not) to Lose an Election”

Well, it didn’t help that prominent Republicans were helping my opponents, but lack of money was an issue too. I didn’t work as hard as I should have, definitely could have been more convincing/articulate in my arguments. It was a longshot from the getgo, but despite all that I think I did pretty well considering the circumstances.

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