The news media should stop amplifying President Donald Trump’s numerous postelection lawsuits — at least until a judge rules that any of them have merit. It seems that the true goal of these cases is to undermine the integrity of the election and sow discord and distrust. Giving these challenges significant airtime simply plays into that dangerous narrative.
“Trump’s lawsuits are getting mixed results,” reads one headline. “Trump campaign brings legal challenges in several battleground states with success in 1 suit,” said another. And cable television seems to be providing wall-to-wall coverage of these cases to fill the time. Those messages do not tell the entire story and make people unnecessarily question the validity of the legal vote-counting process.
Trump has filed suits in at least Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia and threatened one in Nevada. Some involve minor issues about observing the vote count. Others involve very small numbers of absentee ballots that are highly unlikely to make a difference. Besides securing an order to let the campaigns observe the vote-counting process from a safe distance, none of the lawsuits so far have any merit — and given vote totals right now, it’s extremely unlikely that any would make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the presidential election.
Reputable news organizations should not be talking about them as if they might. The real goal of this flurry of lawsuits seems to be to undermine people’s faith in the integrity of the election process. Trump has told us for months — years, in fact — that he would not accept a defeat and would blame it on unspecified voter fraud. These lawsuits may be intended to continue that narrative.
Let’s ignore them, at least until a judge finds that any of them have any force. Many states have not even finished their count yet, so we don’t know if the results will be within the “margin of litigation” in any of them. Recall that the Florida 2000 dispute involved a lead of 537 votes out of millions cast.
Of course, Trump has also said we should “stop the count.” But that’s not a legal argument. Election officials always count ballots after Election Day. That’s a normal and legal part of the process. His arguments are also all over the place: stop the count in places where he is ahead, but continue the count where he is behind. He claims unspecified fraud without evidence. Filing lawsuits — and then reporting on them as if they have any validity — gives credence to those unfounded claims.
Imagine if a baseball team were down 10-5 going into the ninth inning, and then they sought to protest the game because they think the umpire missed a strike call in the second inning. The argument would have no force. Although it’s possible the losing team could score runs in the ninth inning, we wouldn’t report on the game as if the losing team might suddenly win because of the protest.
Instead of calling what it is — a futile attempt to change the likely outcome and a blatant maneuver to divide the country and undermine people’s faith in the election — media outlets are breathlessly reporting on every courthouse move. That style of reporting merely plays into Trump’s hands.
How about we ignore it all and instead focus on the heroic work of election officials to finish the count in a transparent, fair, and legal way? That’s the story right now.
Perhaps it’s ironic to write about these lawsuits in an effort to minimize their coverage. That’s a fair point. But hopefully, a full recognition of the danger of that coverage will lead journalists and the general public to take a step back and see them for what they are: a last-ditch attempt to claim “fraud” to explain a likely election loss.
Spreading stories about them without proper context about their baselessness just adds fuel to the fire.
Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law. He is the author of “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” Find him at www.joshuaadouglas.com and follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas.