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A Great Election, Against All Odds

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The 2020 election was not simply free of fraud, or whatever cooked-up malfeasance the president is braying about at this hour. It was, from an administrative standpoint, a resounding success. In the face of a raging pandemic and the highest turnout in more than a century, Americans enjoyed one of the most secure, most accurate and most well-run elections ever.

Don’t take our word for it. Listen to the state and local officials of both parties in dozens of states who were tasked with overseeing the process.

“Numbers don’t lie,” Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, said on Friday when he certified his state’s vote total following a hand recount of about five million ballots. Joe Biden won Georgia by a little more than 12,000 votes.

Same story in Michigan. “We have not seen any evidence of fraud or foul play in the actual administration of the election,’’ said a spokesman for the Democratic secretary of state there. “What we have seen is that it was smooth, transparent, secure and accurate.”

Over all, the 2020 election “was the most secure in American history,” according to a statement put out this month by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is made up of top federal and state election officials. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

A bipartisan consensus like this may tempt some people to conclude that the dire pre-election warnings were overblown, that the risks to the election were never that serious. The reality is the opposite. The threats were many and real. There were massive logistical hurdles to running an election during a deadly disease outbreak. There was chaos sown deliberately by a sitting president to undermine Americans’ faith in the integrity of the democratic process. There was good reason to fear an electoral meltdown.

That the meltdown didn’t materialize was thanks to months of hard work and selfless commitment by tens of thousands of Americans across the country: state and local elections officials, volunteer poll workers, overburdened postal carriers, helpful neighbors and generous philanthropists.

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Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Together, this ad hoc democracy-protection network fanned out to expand access to mail-in ballots, helping more than 100 million Americans, nearly two-thirds of all voters, to vote early or absentee. They took on poll worker shifts so that older Americans would not have to risk their lives to keep precincts open. They volunteered time to ensure votes would be counted as quickly and accurately as possible. It was a heroic effort, and the people who worked its front lines deserve Americans’ everlasting gratitude.

It is neither wise nor realistic to count on this sort of mobilization happening every four years. “The smoothness of the election was not self-executing,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an organization that supports voting rights. “Don’t lose sight of how much work we did to make it this way.”

The nation will need to prioritize voting rights and election administration to a degree it has never adequately done. For example, why are Americans still waiting for hours in line to cast their ballots? In 2014, a bipartisan commission said no one ought to have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. Six years on, the country is nowhere close to that goal.

The solutions are not a mystery. Here are three of the most obvious ones.

More money. In the first wave of the pandemic last spring, elections experts and officials pleaded with Congress to provide up to $4 billion to help ensure a smooth election. Lawmakers approved one-tenth of that amount. “We get what we pay for,” said Justin Levitt, an election law scholar at Loyola Law School. “We poured trillions into pandemic recovery, and a teaspoonful into the democracy that makes it work.”

Some of the shortfall was made up by private philanthropists, who gave hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local governments. Professional sports teams offered up their empty arenas so voters could safely cast ballots in person. Donors provided masks and other protective gear for poll workers. All of that was welcome, and yet the American people pay taxes for just this purpose; they shouldn’t have to rely on the beneficence of the wealthy to keep their democracy intact.

Less voter suppression. It wasn’t so long ago that both parties supported the protection of voting rights. In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Today, the Republican Party is awash in conspiracy theories and — there’s no other way to put it — fundamentally distrusts the American electorate.

In hundreds of lawsuits filed over voting and election procedures in 2020 — the most ever in an election season — Republicans consistently sided against voters. In too many cases, the courts let them have their way. They blocked reasonable, targeted measures to make voting easier during the pandemic, like extending ballot-arrival deadlines or increasing the number of drop boxes.

President Trump has spent the past five years building a fantasy world in which he can lose only because the other side cheated, and far too many people are content to live in it. In the absence of a whit of evidence, a majority of Republicans say they believe Joe Biden’s victory is the result of fraud. That’s why Mr. Raffensperger, a committed Republican, is being punished for his defense of Georgia’s electoral process with everything from death threats to a potentially illegal request by Senator Lindsey Graham, a top Republican, who Mr. Raffensperger said tried to persuade him to throw out legally cast ballots.

The United States needs members of both major political parties to support voting rights and access to the polls — not just because they believe it helps democracy, but because they believe it helps them.

Thwart disinformation. America needs a far more aggressive and coordinated response to the massive disinformation campaigns polluting social media and people’s dialogue with one another.

Social-media giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did more in 2020 to combat these campaigns than ever before, and yet it wasn’t nearly enough. When a lie can race around the globe in minutes, anything less than an immediate response is too slow. The labels applied to misleading or factually untrue content were often vague, and did not necessarily refute the disinformation.

Also, it’s obvious that most of the disinformation right now is coming from one side of the political spectrum. Social media companies need to confront that reality head-on and stop worrying about being called biased. That’s especially important when it comes to the accounts of high-profile figures like President Trump, who have the power to deceive huge numbers of Americans with a single tweet.

Democracy is a fragile thing, and it requires constant tending and vigilance to survive. Americans were lucky this time. They were also well prepared. When pushed to the brink, they mobilized to protect their democracy. For this moment, at least, tune out the president, his flailing dishonesty and his bottomless disregard for the American experiment. Instead, express gratitude to the millions of Americans who still believe in that experiment, and who did all they could to make this election succeed in the face of daunting odds. Then help make sure they don’t have to do it by themselves again.

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