Viewpoint: Let’s focus on what went right this election 

By Richard S. Cohen 

America seems (so far) to have survived weeks of cynically manufactured post-election turmoil and four years of anxiety about our national future. We are not completely out of the woods, but we can now foresee a recovery that might heal some of our public wounds and return us to sound national government. In the 2020 elections, America has demonstrated institutional strength in ways many of us were afraid it might not still possess. 

It is time to thank those who stood strong: state-level election officials, and the rules by which the states hold elections. 

Our 1789 Constitution created a system of dual governmental authority, with the federal government responsible for some functions and state and local government responsible for others. It is not a very efficient system and creates opportunities for debilitating power disputes. Also, it leaves to local governments duties they sometimes have difficulty fulfilling independently, and it sometimes prevents the federal government from dealing nationally with problems that deserve uniform solutions. And so, some of us have regretted the dual sovereignty mishmash the framers created. This year’s election should prompt us to rethink that view. 

One function clearly assigned to the states by the Constitution is the administration of elections. Even there, some of us have regretted the resulting patchwork of different rules and methods the states have independently developed. It is time to admit, however, two significant things. First, that the patchwork of state election laws has proved to be, in somewhat varying ways, fair, evenhanded and dependable. I am not talking about laws gerrymandering districts or suppressing voters, which we should not forgive or forget. I am referring to laws governing the actual administration of elections and the counting of votes. They are not perfect, but they have stood effective guard this year against bias and chicanery.  

Second, and even more important, our governors, state legislators, election officials and poll workers, Democrats and Republicans alike, uniformly demonstrated honest devotion and adherence to the laws on administering elections and counting votes, all in the face of anti-democratic bully-boy efforts to thwart the will of the voters. All of them, but especially the election officials and poll workers, risked their health in pandemic times, and devoted themselves to the respect they felt for the will of the voters and their responsibility to see that it was fairly revealed. We have celebrated the faithfulness of officials in Georgia, Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania, because events there were so prominentldescribed in the press. But the accomplishments of those officials were repeated without fanfare in states throughout the country, to the distress and disappointment of people who tried to retain the power the voters decided they should not have. 

We always spend time trying to ascertain what it was that went wrong when something goes wrong, but we need to focus today on what it was that caused things to go right in this year’s election. Maybe it was a continuing respect for fair institutions that is retained by the people who know them best because they actually work within them. Perhaps it was that state and local officials take their duties seriously, or that they know they have to face their friends and neighbors tomorrow and might have to explain themselves. Whatever the precise reasons, it has become apparent, I think, that there is a stability and a feeling of personal loyalty to fair institutions and responsibility for their preservation that expresses itself best on a state and local level, while the distance between Washington and home leaves more room for opportunities for irresponsible behavior that selfish and dishonest people can more easily take advantage of. 

Another thank you is deserved by all of the judges who played it straight this year and rejected baseless accusations against election practices and officials. You couldn’t tell the Clinton judges from the Bush judges from the Obama judges from the Trump judges. And that’s the way it should be. Most of them have protection from political and personal retaliation, so their dependably evenhanded responses to irresponsible lawsuits were not as hard to predict and were not as difficult for them. But they deserve credit, too. And I suspect that if any of this nonsense reaches the Supreme Court, its members will respond to their oaths much more than to any political or personal loyalties some people expect to influence them. 

Our election institutions and our election officials were tested this year, and their fairness and honesty were confirmed. We still have the evils of gerrymandering and voter suppression to deal with, but we can celebrate the institutional resilience America showed in the 2020 elections and thank our state and local friends and neighbors who made it happen. 

Richard S. Cohen resides in Seal Cove 

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