By STEVE ERKENBRACK
Our American government is the oldest democracy on Earth; we have been honing the process of fair elections for more than two centuries. In the wake of a presidential contest in which there has been much disagreement, we can all take pride in three core principles.
Since the demise of empires and colonies at end of World War I a century ago, and the resulting creation of many new nations, the basic geopolitical struggle throughout the world has been leaders in each country moving either toward democracy or toward dictatorship. Sometimes we have had to defend democracy with bullets and bombs, to thwart Hitler from establishing fascist rule in Europe, and Hirohito from establishing a Japanese empire throughout Asia.
Sometimes, we simply have had to continue our role as the brightest beacon of liberty in this struggle between fascism and freedom. Implicit in this is the right of the governed to choose their government, with a resulting peaceful transfer of power. Even when the stakes are high, and the choices in stark contrast — from Hoover to Roosevelt, from Obama to Trump — we do this time and again. We have been “a shining city on a hill” in the words of Reagan, for all the world to witness how the people pick the path forward.
Our model has been adopted around the world in nations as diverse as Germany, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, much of Africa and almost all of Eastern Europe. Of course, dictators learned how to stage the appearance of an election, but find a way to stay in power. It fools no one. The world can tell the difference between Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela; between Kim Jong-un and Angela Merkel.
Our current presidential election once again commands the spotlight of the world. There is no more important function for America than to assess and reflect the will of the people.
A key reason for the reliability and repute of our elections is the intricate brilliance of the Constitution. No one person, or office, or government, is solely in charge. There are pre-determined, transparent, crisscrossed lines of authority with 50 different legislatures, governors, secretaries of states, and state attorneys general, as well as thousands of county clerks, each exercising their specific spheres of control. Disputes can be taken to court, but not even the United State Supreme Court can intervene at will in the way a state conducts its election.
This model of diverse lines of authority with checks and re-checks of accuracy is why Americans have been summoned abroad time and again to teach how to conduct elections above board and beyond dispute.
So, let’s allow our remarkable system to work in 2020. We should not cut the process short for either side. We don’t stop counting at the stroke of midnight on Election Day rather than following the rules each state had set up. We don’t preempt re-counts or judicial review if parties want their day in court. We take the time to respect the rights of both candidates. You don’t need to trust the other side; you need to trust the Constitution.
The last chapter of a campaign is one of the toughest of all for the candidate himself. I’ve been a candidate in four local elections, winning three and losing one. It hurts to lose, especially for the hyper-competitive of the culture. Which is why we teach kids in kindergarten soccer and Little League that after the game you line up and congratulate the other side on a good game (even if it wasn’t a good game).
This is not difficult when you win. The test occurs when your side comes up short. In this regard, history shines a light of heroism on two unlikely bedfellows, Richard Nixon and Al Gore, in the two closest elections over the past century. In 1960, Nixon had evidence of fraud in both Illinois and Texas that could have changed the outcome. In 2000, Gore faced a razor-thin deficit of a few hundred votes in the winner-take-all state of Florida. Nixon refused to go to court at all, and Gore declined to continue the challenge after a Supreme Court ruling, because they both felt prolonging the dispute could create a constitutional crisis. Nixon and Gore have their legitimate critics, but each put America’s unique mission ahead of his personal ambition.
This is not just about the candidate; it’s about all of us. Once the process is finalized, it’s time for both sides to line up. However heartfelt and legitimate your criticisms of the candidate you opposed, most of us — even competitive trial lawyers — can muster the fortitude of a Little Leaguer. There will be another contest, another election. For now, the world is watching. Our shining city on the hill is once again in the spotlight. Our fathers and grandfathers won the war for democracy 75 years ago. It’s up to us to win the peace … every four years.
Steve ErkenBrack is an attorney in western Colorado, where he settled in 1979, after clerking at the Colorado Supreme Court. He has served as a trial attorney, as the elected District Attorney, as a health insurance CEO, and as Colorado’s Chief Deputy Attorney General. He was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995. He is currently Of Counsel at Hoskin, Farina & Kampf in Grand Junction.