Al Cross: As most see democracy threatened, KY’s election chief says keep calm and listen

At a time when most Americans think democracy is threatened, Kentucky Republicans' point man on election issues is Secretary of State Michael Adams, "a voice of calm and reason," writes columnist Al Cross.
by Al Cross,

Millions of Americans went to the polls this week, no longer confident that their votes would be accurately counted, because so many Republicans believe Donald Trump’s baseless lie that the last election was stolen from him. That belief is a threat to democracy.

In October 2020, 89% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans told the NBC News poll that their vote would be counted fairly. The latest poll, Oct. 23-26, had the same percentage for Democrats, but only 41% for Republicans. And 50% of Republicans said they didn’t think their vote would be counted accurately.

Al Cross

A Marist College poll for PBS Oct. 18-22 found likewise. Asked “If your candidate for president does not win in 2024, do you trust that the results are accurate, or not?” only 33% of Republicans said yes; 68% of independents and 82% of Democrats did.

I’m in my 50th year of covering American elections. I have high confidence that there is no reason for such lack of faith in the election system. No system is perfect, but fraud is very rare. Trump had his chance to prove otherwise and didn’t. Instead, he tried to thwart the election result by extra-constitutional means, and was rightly impeached for it.

He wasn’t convicted, because Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who knew he deserved it are scared of him and the voters he misled. Now those voters and the big lie have spawned a bunch of state laws that make it harder to vote and easier to scuttle proven election results, creating the specter of a real steal in 2024, this time for Trump.

Some of those laws were passed to reverse changes made due to the pandemic, but Republicans tend to believe that easy voting isn’t good for them, so that was surely part of their motive, too. Democrats accuse them of voter suppression, and that view has taken hold among their partisans.

In the Marist poll, 55% of Democrats said voter suppression is the greatest threat to democracy. Among Republicans, 29% said it is “vote tampering by the opposing political party” and 17% said “vote tampering by local election officials.”

Those divergent results add up to a chilling sort of agreement: 81% of Americans think democracy is threatened. That is more likely among Republicans, showing the power of the big lie. Asked if refusing to concede an election harms democracy, 86% of Democrats said yes, but only 56% of Republicans did, and 24% — Trump’s core supporters — said refusing does more good than harm.

Affirming Trump’s big lie — or at least not disputing it — has become a test of tribal loyalty among Republicans. McConnell, who declared before and after the Jan. 6 insurrection that Trump was fairly beaten, hasn’t done that since the end of the impeachment trial. He does say that the 2020 election should no longer be debated, supposedly for fear that belief in the lie will depress Republican turnout in 2022. But it stokes anger for 2024, which Trump wants.

McConnell’s home state is a contrast to fever swamps elsewhere. Kentucky Republicans’ point man on these issues is Secretary of State Michael Adams, a voice of calm and reason.

At a University of Kentucky event last month, KET’s Renee Shaw asked Adams if the presidential election was fairly conducted. He said, “Joe Biden won the election, but there are some things that we can do better. . . . There were mistakes made, but I don’t think any of those mistakes changed who won the election.”

I asked Adams Tuesday what those mistakes were. He cited “logistical errors” such as delayed counting of absentee ballots, and “problems as to perception,” such as a lawsuit by his Democratic counterpart in Pennsylvania to overturn the state’s voter-ID law. “I’m not talking about fraud,” he said.

A week earlier, Adams told the Senate Rules Committee that vote fraud in Kentucky is limited to races “where only a few votes can typically tip a race,” involving an office with patronage, and in poor places “where votes can be bought for a small amount of money.”

Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee baited Adams with partisan questions, but Adams didn’t bite. He cited his cooperation with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on emergency changes for voting in the pandemic, and Beshear’s pushback on allegations that having only one in-person voting place in Louisville (the huge Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, a local decision) amounted to voter suppression: “It was one of his finest hours in his job as governor, having the courage to stand up to the national media and out-of-state groups and call ‘em on it and say this is false.”

More courage is needed. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said election officials are being threatened with violence because “people are being told something that’s untrue, that (a) there was massive fraud, and (b) that election officials were in on the fraud.” He said that could be alleviated “if our leaders would simply tell the truth to their followers.”

Adams is doing that. His website has a rumor control page, and he told me that he generally opposes state laws “taking the elections out of the hands of people whose job it is to run the elections.” But in line with McConnell’s view, he said he also opposes the proposed federal law that would countermand such state laws.

Republicans who have passed those laws say they are responding to voters’ concerns. Adams said, “I can’t just dismiss people’s concerns, even if they’re not well founded.” He said they need to see action, “calibrated in a reasonable way,” and that guided his work on a 2021 election bill that passed with huge bipartisan majorities.

As for Democrats’ concerns, Adams said the threat to democracy is being overblown. “People don’t know what’s in these bills,” he said. “What they see is one party trying to rig the rules to suit themselves.”

Asked how much of the division stems from Trump, he said, “When Democrats oversell the notion of voter suppression, it helps their turnout; when Republicans oversell the notion of vote fraud, it hurts their turnout. . . . It’s a bad strategy to tell your voters their votes don’t count.”

Al Cross: As most see democracy threatened, KY’s election chief says keep calm and listen

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