When Michigan and Pennsylvania certified their election results this week, they proved that our democratic processes are resilient, capable of withstanding the onslaught of lawsuits and other measures by President Trump and his legal team to toss out votes.
But voting rights advocates and activists still worry that even if the president’s efforts to undermine the vote in predominantly Black communities didn’t succeed, they could still have a negative long-term impact.
The Trump team’s questioning of the legitimacy of the votes in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta without presenting any evidence in court of large-scale illegal voting “really is a dangerous and racialized narrative about voter fraud,” says Monique Lin-Luse, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed a lawsuit against the Trump campaign on behalf of Black voters in Michigan.
The message those efforts send is that “the will of those voters are not to be seen as legitimate; their political will as expressed at the ballot box doesn’t have the same weight,” said Lin-Luse. “It’s antithetical to a functioning democracy where every vote is supposed to count.”
The suit filed by the LDF last week argues that the efforts made by the Trump legal team to pressure local officials not to certify the election results violated provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlaws voter intimidation, threats, and coercion.
The president called a Republican member of the Wayne County canvassing board who initially refused to certify the results before ultimately approving them, and then tried to rescind her approval. “It changes the result of the election in Michigan, if you take out Wayne County,” Trump campaign lawyer Rudy Guiliani said at a press conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters.
Mr. Trump also invited Republican leaders in the Michigan State Legislature to the White House in a move seen as a possible attempt to interfere with the way in which the state awards electors. But upon the certification of the results by the Michigan State Canvassing Board on Monday, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who met with the president, said the legislature “will uphold the law and respect this result.”
Unverified claims by the Trump team of voter fraud were dismissed by courts. In Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann excoriated the president’s case, which he said offered “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.” He continued, “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state.”
It’s clear that the systems and infrastructure for the election worked as they should have, too. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) called the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.” (Within days of that statement, Christopher Krebs, the head of the agency, was fired by Mr. Trump, who called his statement “highly inaccurate.”) While legal and election systems ultimately protected the votes, the continued disparagement of the process by the president could still have an impact on some voters.
Election experts and voting rights advocates think the efforts of the president and his campaign to alter the election results shouldn’t go unpunished.
“It’s not about whether they are successful in overturning the election,” says Lin-Luse. “It’s important to establish the guardrails on our democracy on our elections.”
“It would be hard to tell minority voters, particularly African Americans in urban areas who have seen this happen before, who have heard the rhetoric, that they shouldn’t be concerned. They should be concerned,” says David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and a CBS News contributor.
Becker notes that Trump actually improved his numbers in Philadelphia and Detroit in 2020 compared to 2016. Of Pennsylvania and Michigan, he said Mr. Trump “didn’t lose those states because of Black voters in Philadelphia and Detroit…he lost those states because of suburban voters.”
“Without a racial element to the targeting, it’s hard to see how the facts support targeting those areas,” Becker added.
“It was like, going back in time. I mean, it was literally a scenario where we were watching elected officials argue about whether our votes should count or not,” said Rev. Charles Williams, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit and president of the Michigan Chapter of National Action Network. “This is no different than having to count how many pieces of candy that are in the jar before I can vote.”
Heading into the election, a CBS News/BET poll found that Black voters, especially younger voters, were concerned that their vote wouldn’t be counted properly. A majority said they worried about intimidation at the polls.
Williams says the efforts to undermine the results threatens to worsen underlying fears and could have a lingering impact beyond this election.
“Every election in the Black community, we have to prime and coerce and engage people in such a way that we let them know that their votes [count],” said Williams. “There’s a high bit of skepticism out there from folks who don’t believe that the process is fair. Not that the process is rigged, not that anybody’s trying to cheat. But that the process is fair. And it’s unfair that cities like Detroit, cities like Milwaukee, cities, like Philadelphia, cities like Atlanta..have to be targeted in such a way where our votes could possibly be thrown out of the window.”
He hopes the events over the past several day push the Biden administration to urge Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The measure would restore provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 that required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal approval to change voting laws.
“We’re going to make sure we are putting that message out there loud and clear,” said Williams. “But more importantly, we’ve got to educate our community and make sure that they understand that that can never happen again.”