This week’s biggest political story was undoubtedly the violent attempted coup perpetrated by President Donald Trump’s supporters at the U.S. Capitol. But we should not forget the legislative event that this long-planned insurrection coincided with, and indeed was largely motivated by. Some eight Republican senators and 139 Republican House members objected to the Electoral College vote confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. As has been written previously and exhaustively, these objections were always doomed to fail.
But the objections did their job of providing a public spectacle and a rallying cry for insurrectionists.
But the objections did their job of providing a public spectacle and a rallying cry for insurrectionists. It prolonged and drew attention to a process that, for nearly every presidential election, has served as a rubber stamp. It served as a chance for Republican members to signal their fealty to Donald Trump above all else. It gave them an opportunity to say that they would rather lose American democracy than see Trump lose an election.
Importantly, some members protested the presidential election results in their own states. That is, they objected to the electoral systems that put them in office. Others objected to the elections that put their new colleagues in office.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., was sworn in on Sunday as Doug Jones’ replacement — one of his first acts as a senator was to object to a free and fair election. Indeed, he did so after Wednesday’s violent events. He was one of three newly minted senators to register such objections.
In the House, the number of first-time lawmakers opposing the Electoral College vote was substantially higher. Those who objected included Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Diana Harshbarger of Tennessee.
Greene alleged that there was fraud or mismanagement in her home state’s presidential election — but that her own vote tally remains accurate. “I think our secretary of state has failed Georgia,” Greene said on Tuesday. “I believe our elections should be decertified.” She does not, however, think her race should be decertified.
Not long ago, calling for the overturning of a presidential election was seen as a risky activity, and the only people who would make such arguments were either stray cranks or those with enough experience and with respectable enough reputations to be taken seriously. For these freshmen Republicans to be doing so with just a few days of experience under their belts suggests such extremism is now a mainstream position within the Republican Party — and distinguishing oneself by undermining democratic elections is a possible path to advancement. This is highly concerning for the future.
To say we’ve never seen anything like this isn’t exactly right. On a few occasions, members have registered objections to electoral counts to express concerns about voting processes; Democrats unsuccessfully challenged Ohio’s electoral votes in 2005.
But to find another widespread objection to legitimate election results in which the bulk of a major party simply refuses to accept the other party’s victory, you’d really have to go back to 1860, as E.J. Dionne noted in a recent piece. Southern Democrats vehemently objected to Abraham Lincoln’s election because the Republican had made clear his party’s opposition to the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. The Southern Democrats were not simply objecting this his policies, however — they considered his election illegitimate, dismissing him as a sectional president who won only around 40 percent of the popular vote.
Not long ago, calling for the overturning of a presidential election was seen as a risky activity.
Some of those arguments are echoed in the words of Republicans today. Yet the Southern Democrats of 1860 took a different approach, as historian Susan Schulten noted in a recent interview. Instead of staying in Congress to protest Lincoln’s election, they largely resigned. Most would go on to serve in the Confederate Congress a few months later after secession.
We shouldn’t lionize these people, obviously — these members of Congress were agitating on behalf of human enslavement, and their actions fomented the Civil War. They were, as Lincoln observed, advocating anarchy. But in some ways, their approach was more honest. They didn’t manufacture flimsy evidence or bizarre theories to try to claim that Lincoln was improperly elected. Rather, they said that a nation that could elect Lincoln was not one they wanted to be a part of. They valued the slave economy more than they valued democracy and rather than accept a loss, they left. Today’s protesting Republicans offer no such (corrupted) principles; they want to trash democratic elections because Trump lost, even while they benefit from their own elections under the same system.
The danger inherent in the Republicans’ behavior today is not as immediate as that perpetrated by Democrats in 1860, but it is nonetheless substantial. Imagine if Republicans win control of the House and Senate in 2022 (historically quite plausible) and Biden wins reelection in 2024 by similar margins in swing states. Now imagine Republicans filing the same objections as they have this month, following the precedent they laid down in 2020, only they now have the votes to dismiss electoral votes and theoretically install a Republican president. The result is a democratic crisis, no less of one than the nation faced in the early 1860s.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of “Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”