First, rhetoric about stolen elections feeds a growing cycle of mistrust and delegitimization of the election process, an attack pushed by President Trump and other Republicans who have been yelling “voter fraud” every time they are behind in the count. I’ve already set out my fear that Trump could refuse to concede the 2020 presidential election if he is ahead in the count on election night and then ballot counts inevitably shift toward Democrats as the counting continues. A democratic polity depends on losers accepting election results, even if the election was not conducted perfectly. I would hold “stolen” election rhetoric for conduct even more outrageous than Kemp’s decisions, which, while odious, either have not been found to be illegal or that courts allowed to remain in place for this election.
Second, the rhetoric about a stolen election is unproven. Although Hillary Clinton declared that if Abrams “had a fair election she already would have won,” we don’t know that Kemp’s suppression efforts cost Abrams the seat. As Ari Berman recently put it, “We don’t know yet—and might never know—how many people were disenfranchised or dissuaded from voting in the state. But it’s clear that Kemp did everything in his power to put in place restrictive voting policies that would help his candidacy and hurt his opponent, all while overseeing his own election.” Saying Kemp tried to suppress Democratic votes and saying the election was stolen are two different things, and making charges of a stolen election when it cannot be proved undermines Democrats’ complaints about suppressive tactics. If Democrats can’t prove it, some people will think the suppression is no big deal when it really is.
This ties in with the third and final problem I see with “stolen election” rhetoric: It focuses attention on the wrong question: whether there was enough suppression to change election outcomes.