Editorial: Hey, America, cool off and let elections officials count the votes

Supporters of President Trump kneel during a rally Wednesday outside the Maricopa County Recorder's Office in Phoenix.
Supporters of President Trump kneel during a rally Wednesday night outside the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Phoenix. Local reports say some of the protesters openly carried firearms.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

Two fundamental elements of American society are on display this week: voting and protesting. Unfortunately, both those expressions of democracy have veered off track in disturbing ways.

This election has, to state the obvious, been unusually fraught. It’s a referendum on one of the most divisive presidents in memory, conducted during a pandemic among a populace distressingly split over issues of race, class and geography at a time of great distrust of essential institutions, beginning with the government itself.

Now, two days after the election day that capped more than a month of voting in some states, the nation still does not know the outcome. That in itself is neither good nor bad (though definitely frustrating). But President Trump, who may be on the verge of losing the election, stepped to the podium in the White House briefing room Thursday afternoon and again claimed that Democrats were “trying to steal the election” and called ballots that arrived after election day “illegal votes,” ignoring state grace periods for ballots mailed before the polls closed. He also asserted, falsely, that there has been “historic election interference by big media, big money and big tech.”


His attack on the ongoing count came on the heels of his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeting: “The best thing for America’s future is for @realDonaldTrump to go to total war over this election to expose all of the fraud, cheating, dead/no longer in state voters, that has been going on for far too long.”

These inflammatory claims came after the president and his advocates, who‘d previously sought to subvert the ability of Americans in key precincts and states to exercise their civic duty, launched legal challenges that, among other aims, would stop officials in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Nevada from counting votes.

Conservative justices need to treat the right to vote with more respect.

We believe in the right to turn to the courts to redress a grievance or correct a wrong, but here Trump and his army of lawyers are trying to use the courts to undercut democracy itself. We hope judges recognize gamesmanship when they see it and resist interfering in situations that do not call for it.

Meanwhile, public distress over Trump’s verbal assault on the voting process has added fresh energy to months-long protests — including in Los Angeles — over racial injustice that were touched off by high-profile shootings of Black people by police. Some of those protests again spun off acts of vandalism in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere Wednesday night, an unacceptable mutation of our right to peacefully gather and make our voices heard.

And in response to the slow vote count, Trump supporters have been mobilizing. In some places they have acted within their rights and American tradition, such as gathering peacefully outside a vote-count site in Las Vegas. But elsewhere things got dicier. Trump supporters besieged a counting center in Detroit on Wednesday demanding access to watch the count (there were already a few hundred observers inside the facility) and another one in Phoenix where a few protesters openly carried firearms, an unacceptable act of intimidation in that context.

Remember, Trump earlier this year cheered on armed protesters who entered the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., to protest COVID-19 restrictions and a state mask mandate, tweeting, “Liberate Michigan!” And he mocked Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after federal agents disrupted an alleged plot by self-styled antigovernment militia members to kidnap her and try her on charges of treason.

Whitmer later argued, rightly, that Trump’s words made a tense situation worse and endangered elected figures in that state. And introducing firearms into moments of public contention is a recipe for disaster, which the nation saw play out with shooting deaths in Wisconsin and Oregon during protests over police violence against Black citizens and broader issues of systemic racism.

Former Vice President Joe Biden (whose team also has built a legal brigade) said Thursday that “democracy sometimes is messy. It sometimes requires a little patience as well,” and reiterated his position that “each ballot must be counted.”

But on Twitter, Trump absurdly claimed Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina “for electoral purposes” (whatever that means), adding, “we hereby claim the State of Michigan if, in fact, there was a large number of secretly dumped ballots as has been widely reported!” That magisterial declaration drew a warning label from Twitter: “Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” Might be misleading?

Of course all votes must be counted within the parameters of law, not the president’s imagination. That should be obvious to reasonable minds.

And now the U.S. Justice Department — which under Atty. Gen. William Barr has morphed into part of Trump’s personal legal team — has informed its attorneys scattered around the country that they have the authority to send armed federal agents to state and county ballot-counting sites to investigate potential voter fraud, a favorite Trump bugaboo that, of course, is not grounded in reality. So far there’s no indication that the government has deployed those agents, and we urge it to resist such a blatant act of intimidation.

This escalation of domestic tensions needs to end. Saner heads must prevail even if the president cannot, once again, control his impulses to goad, exaggerate and destabilize. Our history of peaceful transfers of power must also include a peaceful embrace of the right to vote, and that includes letting elections officials do their jobs and tally the results in peace. Democracy under the threat of violence is hardly democracy at all.