Heroes of the 2020 Election
We must remember the individuals who safeguarded the democratic process… and shore up our defenses ahead of 2024.
America courted disaster during the 2020 election cycle. President Trump sowed lies about election fraud in a bid to remain in power—and came dangerously close to succeeding. His attempt at election subversion failed in large part because of people who were willing to do the right thing at key moments. As we approach the anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration, we must remember the individuals and organizations who protected the democratic process in 2020, and ensure that next time, we don’t have to rely on heroic acts to preserve the integrity of our elections.
1. The Pre-Election Voting Crisis that Wasn’t: The United States Postal Service
Career staff warned states of problems, enabled mail-in voting on an unprecedented scale, and prevented multiple crisis scenarios.
With COVID-19 driving an abrupt nationwide shift toward mail-in voting in the lead up to the election, it was not a foregone conclusion that the United States Postal Service (USPS) would be able to return ballots to election administrators on time. In fact, before the election, the USPS warned many states that it simply wouldn’t be able to meet their ballot acceptance targets, causing some states to change their timelines.
In the end, the USPS’s 644,000 employees did their part. Following an order from a U.S. district judge, USPS staff eventually completed multiple daily sweeps and nightly “all clears” of mail processing facilities to find any misplaced ballots. In addition, they authorized the use of Express Mail channels to get ballots from voters to election officials, and ordered an unprecedented scale of Sunday operations before Election Day. The USPS ultimately delivered 99.89% of ballots from voters to election officials within a week.
Imagine a scenario where the USPS was unable to deliver, say, 5% of ballots on time to election officials. Those undelivered ballots would have been enough to change or, at least, cast further doubt on the election results in one or more states. At a minimum, it would have further fueled the attempts to delegitimize President Biden’s victory, making our subsequent political reality even more dangerous for democracy than the present.
2. The Election Night Disinformation Plan: Fox News’s Decision Desk
Arnon Mishkin and the Decision Desk stood up to pressure when they projected that Biden won Arizona.
In the final days before the election, President Trump reportedly planned to declare victory if he was “ahead” in the ballots counted on Election Night. Then, if he lost because of mail-in and absentee ballots counted later, he would build on that initial perception to convince not only his own supporters, but enough of the general public that he did in fact win, no matter what. In Trump’s strategy, perception would create reality.
What he did not account for was the Fox News Decision Desk: their professionalism protected reality.
At 9:20pm Arizona time on Election Night, Fox News’s decision desk projected that Biden would win Arizona. The pushback was immediate. On the air, Republican strategist Karl Rove criticized the timing of the call. Behind the scenes, not only did the Trump campaign tweet criticism of the decision desk director Arnon Mishkin, but Jared Kushner reportedly called Rupert Murdoch to pressure Fox News to retract the call. Mishkin was brought on the air and explained the mathematics of the call, closing with, “I’m sorry, but we’re not wrong in this particular case.”
When Fox News called Arizona for Biden, citing a transparent process, they created a perception—grounded in reality—that President Trump’s path to re-election was doubtful at best. Though the false election fraud narrative would stick among President Trump’s supporters, his path to being seen as the likely winner of the election by the broader public closed that night. In a world where Fox News did not stick to that call, a vicious cycle of belief in the false narrative could have reached a critical mass outside of Trump’s base.
3. Staring Down State Election Subversion: Aaron Van Langevelde and State Officials
A young GOP lawyer stood up to his party to certify the Michigan election results.
Michigan’s presidential race wasn’t especially close. Two weeks after election night, the results had been certified in all 83 counties, and Trump had lost by more than 154,000 votes.
And yet Trump met with Republican leaders in the White House on November 20, allegedly to persuade them to reject the election results and appoint an alternate slate of Trump-supporting electors. The Michigan GOP then pressured the Board of State Canvassers to delay certifying Biden’s victory, urging—contrary to state law—that Trump’s bogus claims should be investigated before the results were certified.
The decision to end the election brinkmanship in Michigan came down to one previously obscure Republican lawyer. Aaron Van Langevelde’s day job was to give legal advice to Republicans in the state legislature. He also served by appointment as one of two Republicans on the four-person board of canvassers. When the board convened on November 23, 2020, Van Langevelde stood up to his party and quickly voted to certify (Norman Shinkle, the other Republican, abstained.) Explaining his vote, Van Langevelde noted, “We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have … As John Adams once said, we are a government of laws, not men.”
There are similar stories from across the country. Soon after, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the remaining states certified their electors.
4. Protecting Lawmakers from Insurrectionists: Eugene Goodman and the Capitol Police
A quick-thinking officer lured the mob away from the Senate chamber during certification.
Finally, on January 6, insurrectionists breached the Capitol Building in order to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes. There are many stories of police valor from that day—but Eugene Goodman’s stands out.
The mob had reached a landing that offered unimpeded access to the doors of the Senate chamber where lawmakers were sheltering. Goodman, confronting a large group of insurrectionists alone, shoved the mob’s leader to get his attention. He lured the group away from the chamber doors, steadily retreating toward backup forces. We know this because of extraordinary footage shot within the Capitol that day. At the second Trump impeachment trial, we learned that moments before he confronted the mob, Goodman saved Senator Mitt Romney from running into the rioters and directed him towards safety. For his heroism on January 6, Goodman was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
We can only speculate how many lives might have been lost, including those in the mob he had confronted, if Goodman and many other Capitol police officers had not risen to the occasion. With his bravery and uncanny judgment under pressure, he may have prevented bloodshed on the Senate floor and the successful hijacking of the electoral counting process.
It is thanks to these individuals and groups—and many others equally deserving whose stories are not included here—that the integrity of our electoral process was preserved in 2020.
Looking ahead, however, we must not gamble future elections on whether similar organizational feats or individual acts of political courage happen every time. If we do, our luck will run out. Concrete action must instead be taken to head off looming threats. According to a new report, over 262 bills in 41 states have been introduced that would either shift election responsibilities to partisan legislatures, or would impose criminal or other penalties for election decisions. Congress should act at a national level to outlaw all the forms of election subversion that they can; in the meantime, state governments must reject these proposals, which would allow legislatures to politicize, criminalize, or interfere with elections, and bypass principled officials such as Van Langevelde. Congress should also update the Electoral Count Act to prevent the abuse of poorly written provisions in the law to overturn a future presidential election, as could have happened on January 6 but for the actions of former Vice President Pence.
States, meanwhile, should institutionalize their emergency expansions of voting options to be resilient against future election crisis or interference. They should continue to improve ballot-tracking and pre-processing of absentee ballots, in order to improve transparency and accuracy of results and reduce fodder for misinformation by bad actors. People who believe in a democratic republic can volunteer to serve as poll workers and election observers, or even step up as election workers or elected local officials themselves, in order to hold this line of defense for democracy. Finally, the Department of Justice should aggressively prosecute both the perpetrators of all the crimes related to the January 6 insurrection, as well as those individuals engaging in the deluge of intimidation and threats of violence against election and postal workers.
In 2022 or 2024, it is all too likely that one or more decision-makers will find themselves with the power to protect or subvert a free and fair election. But if we shore up our democracy from the federal to the local level, we will increase the chances that the democratic process will depend not on whether a hero is there at the right place and time, but on the free choices of people casting their votes. The more preventative action we take, the stronger our republic will be.
Alexandra Chandler is a Policy Advocate at Protect Democracy and coordinates staff support for the National Task Force on Election Crises.
John Paredes is counsel at Protect Democracy who focuses on voting rights and free and fair elections, and ensuring accountability for political violence.