American Opinion: From here to the inauguration
Summary: Above all, keep this in mind. The U.S. is getting to a point where no election is ever won legitimately in the eyes of the losing side — and that's how you destroy a democracy. The remedy is better electoral systems, referees content to be referees, voters who reward wisdom and prudence, and leaders who now and then find it possible to put their country's interests above their own
Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the presidential election. Ideally, that question would now be closed, and all attention would turn to the new administration's agenda. But for the next short while, things aren't quite that simple. Though it's hard to imagine this result being reversed, America's complicated election processes aren't yet wrapped up. Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 20, the country's voters and political leaders need to be patient.
Thanks to his success in Pennsylvania, with its 20 Electoral College votes, Biden has what looks like an unassailable lead. Once that was clear, the Associated Press and other media outlets were right to declare him the winner. But this declaration isn't formal and final. The deadline for states to certify their vote counts is Dec. 8, and the last step — a joint session of Congress to declare the result — won't happen until Jan. 6. Meanwhile, recounts and legal challenges are under way.
Ordinarily these next steps would be of little consequence and arouse no great controversy. The election shambles of 2000 showed it isn't always so. And 20 years later, these complicated and protracted processes have to be managed amid severely heightened mistrust. This makes the coming weeks especially hazardous.
Some of this mistrust is all too understandable — even if, in the end, it proves to have been ill-judged. American elections are supervised by politicians, not unimpeachably independent officials. Each side presses for every advantage, before and after votes are cast, and embittered losers are apt to suspect they've been outmaneuvered rather than outvoted. This year, in an especially disturbing development, Republican voters see many of the big media outlets declaring the winner as political opponents, not disinterested referees. In some measure, that's an accusation the news industry has brought on itself.
All this makes it crucial to lower the temperature. As the process grinds on, voters must be patient and leaders on both sides should exercise restraint.
Nobody expects this of President Donald Trump. But if he persists in saying, without proof, that the election was rigged, he surely risks disappointing and alienating even many in his own party. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey has already criticized the president, saying, "There's simply no evidence anyone has shown me of any widespread corruption or fraud." Former President George W. Bush and Sen. Mitt Romney have made clear that Biden is the president-elect. If Trump cares anything for his reputation — among his own supporters, if not in the country at large — he'll let the process run its course and prepare to admit defeat. And the people around him will press this advice as firmly as they can, for his own sake and for the country's. This includes encouraging the General Services Administration to allow the official transition process, which only it can authorize, to begin.
A measure of restraint on the winning side would be good too. Biden struck the right note in his address on Saturday, calling for unity and expressing sympathy for voters on the losing side: "I've lost a couple of times myself," he said. Of course, let the country celebrate Biden's win. And let the transition move forward. Biden and his team have a lot to do before the new administration is installed. At the same time, count the votes carefully, and recount where necessary; investigate whatever anomalies there might be; let the lawyers and the courts do their work. These things can proceed side by side.
Above all, keep this in mind. The U.S. is getting to a point where no election is ever won legitimately in the eyes of the losing side — and that's how you destroy a democracy. The remedy is better electoral systems, referees content to be referees, voters who reward wisdom and prudence, and leaders who now and then find it possible to put their country's interests above their own.
This editorial is the opinion of the Bloomberg Opinion Editorial Board.
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