What is more important to the nation's security and well-being than the assurance of fair elections? Nothing. Without the fair administration of our electoral system, the blessings of democracy sour.
On whom should this great burden of electoral fairness fall--on government or on the aggrieved individual? To be sure, government can hardly afford to take up multiple challenges on spurious charges. But neither can it afford to cover up the real problem of voter fraud.
If the margin of electoral victory is exceedingly narrow and the propensity for fraud exceedingly high, then the legitimacy of an outcome is inherently in question. The case of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, and more recently those of Ellen Sauerbrey and Michael Huffington, in Maryland and California, respectively, come to mind.
In these cases, the burden of proving fraud falls on the individual, not on the system. To set aside the election results and call for a new race, the challenger must demonstrate that the election was unfairly conducted, that fraud occurred and that such fraud made the critical difference in determining the winner. It is an impossible burden. Worse, it puts the challenger in the untenable position of seeming to dishonor the system.
In 1960, Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy by 113,000 votes, the equivalent of less than half a vote in every electoral precinct. Although there was evidence of widespread fraud in Illinois and Texas, Nixon took the high road and didn't challenge Kennedy's victory. Nixon knew that the burden of recounting votes and of being cast by the media as a "sore loser" would not only destroy his future in politics but also throw the country into turmoil.
But a presidential election is different from a congressional election. The nation's government and its credibility at home and abroad will never rise or fall on the basis of a handful of congressional challenges. In non-presidential elections, a different sense of balance must prevail. If the burden of proving an unfair election falls solely on the challenger, regardless of the margin of victory or indications of voter fraud, then the candidate and the electorate might well at some point be deprived of their constitutionally guaranteed right to state and federal office based on fair and free elections.
What the American public overlooks is that no candidate, no matter how wealthy or resourceful, can match the resources of the federal or state government in demonstrating that the electoral system was operating properly. Often the system will have a vested interest in deflecting any challenge.
What is needed is a mechanism that could be triggered to remove the presumption that the election was necessarily fair. Where the margin of victory was slight--say 2% or less of the total vote cast and the charges of fraud credible--the burden would then shift to the government.
Something has gone terribly wrong when we would sweep the faults of our system under the rug, when we won't admit that our electoral system is capable of abuse and we are prepared to derisively dismiss challengers as "sore losers." Sauerbrey, Huffington and others who lose by razor-thin margins in an electoral system where fraud is evident are not the real losers. We the American people lose because we have given our candidates an impossible burden to bear.