Thursday, November 08, 2018

Never Concede While Votes Still Count

If we really cared about American democracy as much as we all say we do, it would be perfectly normal for a political campaign not to concede electoral defeat until all the votes were actually counted. Instead, a refusal to concede quickly is almost always controversial. This is part of the cultural sickness that infects American political life: we'd rather bullshit each other than actually do the work to count the damn votes and figure out who won. Waiting until the votes are verified is considered bad sportsmanship, despite the fact that in the face of all our machines and broken processes, we don't actually know the final counts for days after an election.

But we're so socially obsessed with the perception of winners and losers, we want to see an immediate result, and we want to see it even if we know the process we used to get there was pure garbage. In order to pretend that garbage doesn't exist, our toxic culture bullies people into giving up early even if the score could be close. We would never accept that kind of behavior in sports, but we do it all the time in politics. That's because our society views sports as more comfortable competition than politics, and despite the hours of political news we see every day, that news is a mile wide and an inch deep.

One reason I am thankful for the transformative Stacey Abrams campaign: every election cycle we see endless examples of our badly managed voting process from state to state. Just like clockwork, once every election cycle is over, the news rolls right past those critically important stories about our democracy breaking down. That sort of mass media amnesia helps give an impression of legitimacy to what are essentially preliminary election results, and generally keeps citizens from correctly identifying - and then fixing - those problems.

Not this time.

Even if Republican Brian Kemp ends up moving in to the Georgia governor's mansion eventually, the whole of his campaign - orchestrated from the Secretary of State's office that manages elections - casts a lasting shadow over the supposedly democratic process of electing leaders at the ballot box. It is tough to take the election day faux pas trophy any time Florida goes to the polls, but Kemp pulled it off. Not to take anything away from him on that matter: Kemp has been dedicated to destabilizing Georgia elections for a long time.

Promoting civic participation in voting should be the core mission of civil government, but Georgia under Kemp failed that test very badly. From the byzantine voter registration rules that allow citizens to be thrown off the voting rolls, to the voting purges that somehow started in the states of the So-Called Confederacy as soon as the Voting Rights Act was sunset, to leaving voting machines in the warehouse to ensure long lines in population centers and predominantly minority neighborhoods, to suspiciously forgetting to include power cords with voting machines that were actually delivered to population centers and predominantly minority neighborhoods, so many things contributed to put obstacles in the way of voter participation it strains credulity to believe these were accidents. This wasn't a new fight, either, as Kemp has spent years accusing Abrams of encouraging too many citizens to vote. He even threw up a Hail Mary in the last days of the campaign, accusing Democratic Party members of hacking voting machines in a howler of a political attack so unsubstantiated it may have well been an interview for a job at Fox News.

Still, despite all of those structural advantages, Kemp is only the "apparent" winner of the Georgia governor's election. The decision itself was such a razor-thin margin, there are enough outstanding votes, provisionally cast votes, and absentee votes still uncounted, there's little faith in the actual outcome of the election at this point. And what happens when your Secretary of State has already vaporized his own credibility? How do you even trust the folks who are counting the ballots?

And that was Abrams' next big move: she refused to concede until every vote was counted.

A refusal to concede a razor thin election until every vote is counted is such an important stand for a Democratic candidate to take, it bears mentioning that Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum initially conceded his election chances before he even realized the margin was so thin, Florida law requires an automatic recount. It is almost as if every Democratic candidate has been more scared of being called a "Sore Loserman" than they were interested in actually winning elections. That's not a good look for the political party that should be making a bigger deal of counting every vote, encouraging more people to engage in American civic life, and investing policy solutions to address widespread structural voting obstacles.

Abrams is changing the culture on this point with her refusal to concede, and her affirmation that every vote must be counted. This is a critical stand to take, and a critical time to take it. With so many eyes on Georgia, she is focusing the lens on an issue our American public life would prefer to ignore. I hope future candidates and campaign workers are paying attention. Especially on the Democratic side of politics.