Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and nine other Republican US senators or senators-elect said on Saturday they will reject presidential electors from states where US president Donald Trump has contested his defeat by president-elect Joe Biden, "unless and until [an] emergency 10-day audit" of such results is completed.
The move is largely symbolic and unlikely to overturn the result of the presidential election. Nonetheless, it adds to a sense of deepening schism and crisis affecting US democracy.
Mr Trump has refused to concede to Mr Biden, though the Democrat won more than 7 million more votes nationally and took the electoral college by 306-232, a margin Mr Trump said was a landslide when he won it over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Trump campaign has lost the vast majority of more than 50 lawsuits it has mounted in battleground states, alleging mass electoral fraud, and before the US supreme court.
On Friday, a federal judge dismissed a suit lodged by a House Republican which attempted to give the vice president, Mike Pence, who will preside over the certification of the electoral college result on Wednesday, the power to overturn it.
Nonetheless, the senators and senators-elect who issued a statement on Saturday followed Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri in committing to challenging the result.
Objections are also expected from a majority of House Republicans. Such objections must be debated and voted on but as Democrats control the House and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and other senior Republicans have voiced opposition, the attempt to disenfranchise a majority of Americans seems doomed to fail.
Cruz and Johnson were joined by senators James Lankford (Oklahoma), Steve Daines (Montana), John Kennedy (Louisiana), Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee) and Mike Braun (Indiana). Senators-elect Cynthia Lummis (Wyoming), Roger Marshall (Kansas), Bill Hagerty (Tennessee) and Tommy Tuberville (Alabama) also signed on.
“The election of 2020,” they said, “like the election of 2016, was hard fought and, in many swing states, narrowly decided. The 2020 election, however, featured unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities.”
No hard evidence for such claims has been presented. Federal officials, including former attorney general William Barr and Christopher Krebs, a cyber security chief subsequently fired by Mr Trump, have said the election was secure.
Regardless, the senators said Congress "should immediately appoint an electoral commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the commission's findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed."
The senators made reference to the most direct precedent for their demand, the contested election of 1876, which ended in the appointment of such a commission.
“We should follow that precedent,” they said.
Most well-informed observers would suggest otherwise, given that process led to a political deal which put an end to post-civil war reconstruction and led to the institution of racist Jim Crow laws across the formerly slave-owning south.
In August, the Pulitzer-winning historian Eric Foner told the Guardian: "The election of 1876 would not have been disputed at all if there hadn't been massive violence in the south to prevent black people from voting and voter suppression like we have today. Now, voter suppression is mostly legal."
Presciently, given baseless claims by Mr Trump and supporters that mail-in voting under a pandemic was widely abused by Democrats, he added: “Today, I can certainly see the Trump people challenging these mail-in ballots: ‘They’re all fraudulent, they shouldn’t be counted.’ Challenging people’s voting.”
‘Cowardice and treachery’
Mr Cruz, like Mr Hawley, is prominent among Republicans expected to run for president in 2024, and thus eager to appeal to a party still solidly loyal to Trump.
On Saturday, Christine Pelosi, daughter of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and a member of the Democratic National Committee, referred to the bitter Republican primary of 2016 when she tweeted: "Ted Cruz is defending Trump's assaults on democracy with more energy than he defended his own family against Trump's assaults on his wife and father."
The Democratic strategist Max Burns pointed to a political irony when he wrote: "The exact same Senate GOP that refused to allow a single witness during President Trump's impeachment trial now wants to delay certification and call a bunch of witnesses to 'investigate' Joe Biden's 2020 victory."
The Trump campaign tweeted: "THANK YOU!" The Arizona congressman Paul Gosar hailed the senators as "patriots".
But there was also criticism from the right. Joe Walsh, a former congressman who ran against Trump in the 2020 primary, wrote: "They cite ZERO evidence of voter fraud. 61 days later & still, ZERO evidence. Donald Trump's single greatest legacy is the destruction of truth. His second great legacy is revealing a major American political party for what it is: a craven, conspiracy-embracing cult."
Mr Walsh added: “Make no mistake. These Republicans know this is bad for the country. But they don’t care. They believe it’s good for them politically. They are placing their own interests before the country’s interests. Disloyal, plain and simple.”
Involuntarily pointing to such concerns, the senators and senators-elect said their "allegations are not believed just by one individual candidate. Instead, they are widespread. Reuters/Ipsos polling, tragically, shows that 39 per cent of Americans believe 'the election was rigged'. That belief is held by Republicans (67 per cent), Democrats (17 per cent), and Independents (31 per cent).
“Some members of Congress disagree with that assessment, as do many members of the media. But, whether or not our elected officials or journalists believe it, that deep distrust of our democratic processes will not magically disappear. It should concern us all. And it poses an ongoing threat to the legitimacy of any subsequent administrations.”
Marc Elias, a leading Democratic elections lawyer, said there was "no way" the move "changes the outcome of the election". But of Cruz, Johnson and their allies, he added: "History will remember and curse them for their cowardice and treachery." – Guardian