Trailing in the vote tally for Kentucky’s governorship by about 5,000 votes, incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin decided last week to play what’s becoming a familiar card: He questioned the election’s legitimacy.
“What we know is that there really are a number of significant irregularities,” Bevin said Wednesday in front of the governor’s mansion, “the specifics of which we’re in the process of getting affidavits [about] — and other information that will help us to get a better understanding of what did or did not happen.”
Bevin declined to take questions from reporters or give more specifics, other than saying that “we know there have been thousands of absentee ballots that were illegally counted.”
No Kentucky election official, including Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, has corroborated that claim in the days since Bevin made it.
Critics and elections specialists are calling for Bevin to provide evidence of the dramatic claim or retract it.
“Gov. Bevin really needs to put up or shut up. Give us the evidence, or stop making these claims of voter fraud that have no evidence behind them,” said Josh Douglas, an election law professor at the University of Kentucky.
“I think it’s a danger to the legitimacy of a democratic institution.”
Next steps in Kentucky
Kentucky is set to recanvass the votes in the election, at Bevin’s request, on Nov. 14.
That process is different from a recount; rather than recounting each of the ballots again, officials will reprint receipts from voting machines and check them over. It’s more of a clerical process, and not an uncommon one. Douglas says it would be “extremely shocking” if it were to change the underlying result.
Unless the recanvass yields major evidence that Democratic state Attorney General Andy Beshear didn’t win, Bevin’s options are slim.
Under state law, Bevin has the option to contest the election, which would put the ball in the legislature’s court. The Republican supermajority in the legislature could then set up a committee to look at evidence and decide an outcome.
Outside specialists say they hope that doesn’t happen.
“That’s a horrible idea,” says Lonna Atkeson, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy.
“And I can’t imagine that the legislature would actually move forward with such an enterprise without some sort of serious information that indicated there was fraud or some other kind of abuse or very serious election irregularities.”
The window may be closing; Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said in an interview Friday that Bevin should concede if next week’s recanvass doesn’t radically change the election results.
“It’s time to call it quits and go home, say he had a good four years and congratulate Gov.-elect Beshear,” said Stivers, in an interview with Louisville’s Courier-Journal.
Losers have doubts
Bevin isn’t the first politician to question the results of a race after the fact, and occasionally, if infrequently, those concerns have been founded in reality.
After the 2018 midterms, then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott alluded to “rampant voter fraud” that was never borne out in his Senate race.
Democrats also have continued to blame the results of the Georgia gubernatorial election on election administration issues that they say suppressed turnout.
And in North Carolina, an election for a House seat did end up being nullified because of an absentee ballot scheme.
Even after winning the 2016 election, President Trump alleged that “millions and millions of people” voted illegally in the 2016 election, which he said was why he lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
Trump has never presented any evidence for that claim, and a group his administration assembled to investigate voter fraud disbanded less than a year after it was formed, with no major result.
Overall, there has seldom been any evidence of widespread fraud in elections.
All the same, Americans’ confidence in elections has been slowly eroding over the past 20 years — and democracy-watchers put some of the blame on political rhetoric.
Douglas, from the University of Kentucky, says the state’s response to Bevin’s claims will say a lot about how the country may react to similar claims in the next election cycle.
“Say that Donald Trump is shown to have lost the 2020 election. Will he accept defeat, or is he going to also make claims of massive voter fraud?” Douglas asked. “And how are our democratic institutions going to respond to that? I think that the situation in Kentucky this year could tell us a lot about whether our institutions are able to beat back these kinds of claims.”