When we constructed the Bipartisan Index our operating principle was that bipartisanship must not be the same thing as centrism. Some observers may not distinguish between the two. While centrism involves positioning one’s votes and activities so that they appeal to voters of both parties, bipartisanship is determined by how much effort one makes to cooperate with the other side. Senator Richard Lugar defined bipartisanship simply as “the suspension of the pursuit of political advantage in the interest of doing something necessary for our country.” In our view, bipartisanship can and should be practiced by politicians from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other.
In fact, in 2019, our Bipartisan Index found that 117 members of the House representing “partisan” districts according to the Cook Political Report, nevertheless earned a positive Bipartisan Index score. These members, who had little political self-interest in reaching out to the other side, were nevertheless doing so frequently when constructing legislation. This group includes numerous members who have an uncompromising position on abortion. It includes ardent Second Amendment defenders and gun controllers. It includes supporters of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All on the Left and supporters of a border wall and deeper tax cuts on the Right. None of these positions are at odds with a simultaneous devotion to working with the other party when agreement can be found.
But if there is one action that does disqualify an elected official from being considered bipartisan, surely it is the participation in or acquiescence to an attempt to undermine the sanctity of the vote. This includes discouraging or intimidating eligible citizens from voting, taking steps to interfere with or truncate an accurate count of the vote, or circumventing normal procedures after the election that ensure the outcome is determined by ballots cast.
Occasionally there will be irregularities or failures of local voting systems as there were in Florida in 2000. There also are fine points of voter eligibility and fraud prevention that are appropriate subjects for debate. Even as Federal, state, and local governments should be embracing measures and technologies that simplify voting procedures and expand voting opportunities, not every proposal to increase voter access is necessary and not every charge of voter suppression is legitimate.
But in unprecedented ways, President Trump has mythologized and weaponized the question of voter fraud, repeatedly accusing his opponents of attempting to steal the election even before it has been held. He has, contrary to any evidence, claimed that 3 to 5 million illegal ballots were cast in the the 2016 election and declared there will be massive fraud in the expanded mail-in ballot systems many states are using as a necessary means to ensure voting access during a pandemic.
To be clear, there is no basis for this. Trump’s own election fraud commission disbanded after a year without producing any evidence of significant voter fraud. This effort has been continued within the Department of Homeland Security with similar results. Moreover, it has long been routine for both parties to employ an army of election lawyers and experts who look for voting anomalies and investigate possible cases of fraud. These processes don’t guarantee that small-scale election fraud can’t happen, but it is important to understand how difficult it would be to engineer a statistically meaningful voter fraud operation that would go undetected. Leading Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsburg stated in a September 8, 2020, op-ed in the Washington Post: “The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged. Absentee ballots use the same process as mail-in ballots — different states use different labels for the same process.” Ironically, Trump’s election lawyers came to the same conclusion after the 2016 election. Writing in response to a recount petition filed by Jill Stein, they said: “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”
Beyond his baseless claims of fraud, the President has refused to say in advance of the election that he would concede if he loses. He and his allies have sought to hamper Post Office funding and operations to weaken vote-by-mail efforts. At the first debate he ominously told his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” raising fears that the Republican party’s 50,000 poll watchers could be used to intimidate voters or even foment violence that would be used as a pretext for closing areas of traditionally Democratic cities on election day. “The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump said at the Republican National Convention on August 24.
Both parties are capable of hyper-partisan behavior. But in this election, the President’s actions have gone far beyond the usual jousting over voting and election systems. They involve the use of presidential powers to undermine confidence in the fairness of U.S. elections and set up an alternative reality to justify the potential invalidation of mail-in ballots or even the subversion of election results by state legislatures friendly to the President. Such raw political instability is unthinkable to most Americans. Strong American traditions have protected electoral outcomes during the lifetime of every living American. Surely it is “necessary for our country,” as Sen. Lugar said, for both parties to put the fundamental legitimacy of electoral democracy first.
The most fundamental bipartisan act in our democratic system is the losing party and candidate stepping back to say: “You won, I lost, I will try to beat you again at the ballot box in the next election.” The natural response is a magnanimous reciprocation from the winning party, including expressions of inclusivity and serious offers to members of the vanquished party to join the cabinet, cooperate on legislation, etc. Nations that fail to maintain such a transition as an unassailable norm do not do well on the global stage or at home. They become poorer, more ungovernable, and more vulnerable to internal strife.
After losing to Barack Obama in 2008, Sen. John McCain acknowledged the historic importance of electing our first Black president and the “special pride” felt by African Americans. "I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him,” he said, "but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences." Just eight years ago, Mitt Romney, after losing to President Obama in 2012, was gracious in his concession speech: "At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
Such statements, made by losing Democratic and Republican candidates alike, are not just niceties designed to turn the page on a failed election and better position their party for the future. They are a recognition that deciding who won an election can be a tricky proposition. They recognize that the smooth transfer of authority on which our peace and prosperity depend requires not just adherence to law, but also widely respected norms that inhibit attempts to use methods beyond the ballot box to take or retain power. They recognize that these norms must be reinforced after each election if chaos is to be avoided and the long-term strength of our democracy is to be maintained.
Perhaps Trump or Biden will win a victory that will be so widely recognized that post-election machinations will be irrelevant. But the laws governing how ballots are counted and the circumstances of certifying slates of electors vary widely between the 50 states and contain a great deal of ambiguity. Moreover the electoral college calendar, with its December 8 deadline for states to certify results and name its electors creates time pressures for resolving disputes that could be exploited by a partisan state legislature that is willing to substitute its preference for the will of voters to stave off national defeat.
Some Republicans have pushed back on the President’s voter fraud fiction and its implicit threat to invalidate the outcome dictated by votes cast if he loses. But most Republican leaders have avoided this uncomfortable topic in advance of the election. In the absence of a wave for one side or the other, Republicans may have to make a stark choice on which the future of our democratic system depends. We will then have the answer to the question of whether the sanctity of the vote is still the unassailable bipartisan foundation of our democracy or whether a national election in the United States can be reduced to a victory-at-all-costs power grab.