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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Voting and the Capitol Insurrection

Ann Ravel

Mike Stewart/Associated Press

Ann Ravel (@AnnMRavel) is an Advisory Board member for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and was formerly the chair of the Federal Election Commission. Views are her own.

Voting is a sacred part of our system of government. Democracy’s essential feature is the equal participation of all citizens in the electoral process to ensure that elected representatives respond to the will of the people. The Federalist papers are clear that the Framers intended political power to reside in “the great body of [white male] people,” and not solely with the elites. Voting is one of the most direct methods for people to have an effective voice in the governmental affairs of their country, state, or community. Encouraging universal turnout is an essential way to make a difference in our country. Yet the history of voter participation in this country has been dismal. In the 2016 presidential election, the United States had one of the lowest turnouts in developed, democratic countries in the world.

Social science research, public polling, and federal court decisions indicate that there are underlying, pernicious factors that suppress the vote, particularly for the young, minorities, and lower-income citizens. This kind of voter suppression, while not as overt as historic direct voter suppression methods, such as poll taxes and violence toward minorities at the polls, has the same impact and purpose as direct voter suppression: to affect the voter’s desire and ability to cast a ballot for the purpose of suppressing participation in the democratic electoral process.

Distrust in the voting process results in many citizens choosing not to vote. Many people say that because of the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, their representatives are “bought and paid for by the wealthy,” so their vote doesn’t count. The failure of some state and federal election authorities to disclose hacking incidents in the 2016 election also led many to distrust the systems themselves, and to stay away from the polls. The deluge of targeted misinformation and false political propaganda online in the 2016 and 2018 elections, which came from not only foreign but also American sources, affected the way people voted on highly charged social issues, and caused Blacks in swing states to stay home from the polls. These online communications were intended to sow dissent and anger and to exploit partisan and racial divides among voters. All these factors indirectly and directly worked to suppress the vote for political reasons, or to increase tensions surrounding voting. In a December 2019 survey, the Voter Study Group found that one in ten members of both parties said that there would be “a lot”or “a great deal”of justification for violence if the opposing party won the 2020 presidential election.

It is no accident, then, that some of these same mechanisms were employed in the 2020 election to dissuade voting and to sow anger, and to increase the already low trust in government and government institutions to influence the vote. The script to impact the vote in the 2020 election had been established in the 2016 and 2018 elections. A 2017 Gallup poll revealed that confidence of Americans in most major institutions was low: our major institutions had only an average 35% confidence rating overall. Lack of confidence extends to the United States Supreme Court, the presidency, organized religion, and Congress. And the Pew Research Center concluded, based on this abysmal lack of confidence, that it “speaks to the broader dissatisfaction Americans have with the state of the nation more generally”. These are additional factors influencing both how people vote and whether they will vote at all.

In addition to these already existing dissatisfactions, in 2020 the nation was in the midst of a pandemic, which led to a change in our lives, and the rise in reliance on Internet platforms for social communications. Increasingly, there is disagreement over facts, a blurring of the lines between opinion and fact, and declining trust in respected sources. COVID made it unhealthy and dangerous to vote in large numbers in polling places, so voting by mail was a reasonable alternative to comply with the stay at home directives. But in early April, during a daily coronavirus briefing, Trump said, “No mail ballots, they cheat. OK, people cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they are cheaters.” He followed this up by encouraging Republicans to “fight very hard,” when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. This statement was preceded by him forming a commission (and then disbanding it) early in his presidency to examine voting irregularities, even though there has been no evidence of much voter fraud in this country. A five year study on voter fraud commissioned by President George Bush found that, “The Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” Nonetheless, the president tweeted that mail-in ballots could not be verified and so were a major threat to the election. He also claimed that people received unsolicited ballots and it was a “total fraud in the making.” He dismissed unfavorable poll results as “fake”. Studies have found that all of these allegations are false, and also that there was little evidence that mail-in-ballots helped one party over another. Yet until the day of the Capitol attacks, the President continued to speak and tweet many hundreds of times about the “steal.”

These falsehoods continued to be spread on Internet platforms, from April until January of 2021. The unproven allegations were spread to millions of people, and were repeated and spread by many elected public officials. But by December, the lawsuits which alleged that the election was rigged failed. Courts which examined the evidence found no basis for the claims. The US Supreme Court, including Trump-nominated Justices, refused to hear appeals of these cases. Yet these reasoned decisions were either insufficient to persuade many elected officials that the allegations of fraud were unfounded, or they were willing to lie for their own self interest and so continued to argue the falsehoods in public forums. During the debate which ended in the certification of the Electoral College determination and affirming Biden’s electoral victory, this behavior caused Representative Conor Lamb to state that the objections to Biden’s electors are underpinned by the same lies that inspired the attacks on the Capitol, and that "the members who are repeating those lies should be ashamed of themselves."

This election and it’s aftermath has clearly shown the negative and worrisome ramifications of the untruths that seems to have become a hallmark of our electoral process. Hana Callaghan, in her book, Voting for Ethics, wrote that “ethical campaigns are those that serve to create an informed electorate,” and "political lying also diminishes trust in government in general.” What Hana did not expect was the way that voter suppression, misinformation, outright lies about illegal ballots, and the way that internet platforms optimize the spread of inflammatory disinformation targeted to private groups were meant to undermine our government and democracy.

As President Obama has observed, however, many members of President Trump's party have spoken up forcefully to restore a common purpose to our politics. It brings to mind the Declaration of Conscience speech given by Senator Margaret Chase Smith, in 1950, objecting to the serious “national condition” posed by McCarthyism. Senator Chase Smith, who said she was speaking as a Republican and a woman, did not want to see a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty. She did not want to see a Republican Party that rose to political victory on what she called the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear. Such institutional checks are an important way to protect our democracy.

Senator Chase Smith demonstrated political ethics and integrity. This is exactly what our country urgently needs to assure fair elections and encourage everyone in this country to participate in our political process. We must demand truth in politics from our elected officials, and only vote for those who are ethical. The Biden Administration should emphasize democracy and emphasize civic engagement, restore trust in government and government transparency, and encourage tolerance and respect. Our fragile democracy depends on it.

Jan 11, 2021