When Donald Trump suggested at the final presidential debate this year that he may not accept the results of the election, he took the first step down a dangerous path. I’ve worked on and advised dozens of Democratic campaigns, and I’ve been involved in every presidential election since 1976. I know what it’s like to lose a presidential campaign (or two or three). But in each of those elections, the peaceful transfer of power has been a sacred and unassailable certainty, with the losing candidate accepting the result and conceding — even in the closest presidential election in modern history.
When I joined Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, I became the first African American woman to manage a presidential campaign. I left a good job and took a pay cut. I sacrificed. I endured death threats. And I worked harder than I ever had before, giving every waking moment of my life, every fiber of my being to the cause of electing the candidate I believed in.
On election night, many Americans went to bed believing Gore had won, with the television networks calling Florida for our side. I didn’t sleep that night. I remember winning Florida… and then losing Florida. I remember when Gore called Bush to concede around midnight… and when he called again an hour later to retract his concession.
The close count in Florida, a margin of just 1,784 votes, triggered an automatic recount. That recount kicked off a series of events that would send the decision to the courts, attracting a swarm of lawyers, and making us all obsessed with “chads” — hanging, swinging and (my favorite) pregnant.
By the time the Supreme Court finally handed down their 5–4 decision declaring George W. Bush the winner, I was lost, disillusioned and devastated. I’ve never been so angry. I cried. I prayed for a different reality. I thought of all the people we had been fighting for, the children we wanted to give health care to, the seniors whose secure retirements we had vowed to protect, the minimum wage earners desperate for a raise. I thought of families like the one I grew up in — families living in poverty on the outskirts of hope — and I despaired for having failed to prevent the next four years of Republican rule in the White House.
But when that decision came down, the one Democrat in the country who had sacrificed more than anyone, fought harder than anyone and worked more tirelessly than anyone, didn’t complain, or moan, or say the system was rigged. He didn’t draw out the process, demanding more recounts. He didn’t call foul or claim there was fraud.
Campaigns are not for the fainthearted. They are tough — mentally, physically and spiritually. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by more than half a million votes, and still, he gracefully accepted the results and conceded the race with a dignity and poise that earned the respect of his allies and opponents alike.
Most importantly, he clearly and forcefully made the case in his concession speech that the election was over. He told the millions of Americans who supported him, and who believed he had won, that it was time to heal our divisions, respect the election’s outcome, unite behind the president, and move forward as one nation.
And finally, he fulfilled his role as sitting Vice President and led the Senate in certifying the election results.
By showing that respect for our electoral process, he was also upholding a tradition that has long made our nation the greatest democracy on earth.
So when Donald Trump said he might not accept the results of this election, he shook the very foundation of our democracy. Worse still, he has compounded the problem by fomenting anger among his supporters with unsubstantiated claims that the system is rigged and fraught with voter fraud.
One study funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found a meager handful of voter fraud cases in all elections from 2000 to 2011. Another study conducted by an expert on voter fraud at Loyola Law School found even fewer cases: 31 credible incidents out of more than 1 billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014.
Taken together, Trump’s claims of voter fraud and his refusal to say he will accept the results set an alarming precedent. Thankfully, more Americans every day can see exactly why his candidacy is dangerous, and when the final votes are tallied, it won’t matter for much longer what Trump says about the results — the people will have spoken.