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Sunday, December 3, 2023
Dec. 3, 2023

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Westneat: Democracy on win streak

The last of the Donald Trump-inspired ‘Big Lie’ cases falls


Remember after the last presidential election, when even here in blue Washington, scores of Republicans sued contending that the election had been stolen?

The lawsuits, filed by a group called Washington Election Integrity Coalition United along with some GOP congressional candidates, contended that “6,000 votes were flipped, over 400,000 votes were added and/or thousands of votes were removed in one or more statewide races.”

No evidence was provided for any of this, so judges across the state started tossing the cases as frivolous. Several times they fined the people involved for wasting everybody’s time.

But one of the cases forged on. Incredibly, the one in King County persisted for nearly two years, through the filing of more than 100 documents and pleadings as well as a nearly three-hour-long deposition of the King County director of elections, Julie Wise. Apparently it survived so long because it included a public records dispute as well as the meritless rigged-election claims.

In any case, it, too, has now been tossed — dismissed on June 16 by a King County judge. “No responsive pleadings or evidence was presented by these plaintiffs,” the judge said in a refrain that sums up the entirety of the “Stop the Steal” movement.

The ruling means that finally, more than 2½ years on, all the Donald Trump-inspired “Big Lie” lawsuits here have been dismissed (pending any appeals). Justice took that long, even though no one ever provided any hint of proof that Washington’s 2020 election was compromised, tilted, botched or rigged.

The commitment to this contrived obsession has been cultlike. But today, I’m going to look at it from a different angle. Which is: Chalk up another win for democracy.

Nobody said democracy was going to be a garden party. I like to think of it as a dive bar. No drunken statement is too ridiculous to be considered. But bouncers are stationed at the door for a reason.

Back in early 2022, Cornell Clayton, a Washington State University political science professor who has studied democracy for 35 years, told me that things looked bleak. “All the lights are blinking red” on the American experiment, he said. I asked him this past week to give democracy a follow-up checkup.

“I guess I’d say it’s no longer blinking red quite as urgently,” he said. “Maybe it’s blinking yellow. It’s definitely still saying, ‘Proceed with extreme caution.’ ”

On the plus side, both the courts and voters have rallied to democracy’s aid. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against gerrymandering and rejected the right-wing “independent state legislature theory” that could have emboldened states to pursue “fake elector” schemes, as some tried to do for Trump in 2020.

Congress also reformed the Electoral Count Act, making it tougher for any candidate to mess around with congressional certification of the vote.

“These things are extremely important in preventing any further erosion of democratic norms,” Clayton said.

The problem, he said: “After everything that’s happened, Donald Trump is still leading the Republican Party. The way democracies die is when parties become consumed by a proto-authoritarian figure like this, and the rest of the party leaders not only won’t denounce it but start to double down on anti-democratic strategies. That’s what’s still happening with the GOP.”

Still I’ve been impressed by how “preserving democracy” is no longer an academic debate but a major voting issue with the public.

At the “lights blinking red” depths in the winter of 2022, Democrats in Olympia proposed to fight back by making lying about election results a crime, with jail time up to a year. This seemed, to me, to be using anti-democratic extremism to counter anti-democratic extremism.

Instead, the bill didn’t pass, and then a wondrous thing happened: Voters took matters into their own hands. They booted out five of the Legislature’s most obsessed election deniers.

It’s why in this year’s legislative session, zero time got wasted on election conspiracy theories, nor were there fact-free proposals floated for the sole purpose of creating doubts about the voting system. It wasn’t because the deniers had been muzzled. It’s because the people had bounced them right out of the bar.

That’s democracy, baby. Just the way the Founders drew it up. Not only has democracy made it alive for another year. It’s on a winning streak.

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