In January 2005, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., objected to counting Ohio's electoral votes for President George W. Bush. It made Page A19 of the New York Times. It didn't haunt her for the rest of her career. I didn't remember her involvement myself, until the current Republican challenge to Joe Biden's electoral victory brought it back into the news.
That challenge has drawn a ferocious reaction. The Republicans behind it are being accused of subverting our form of government and lacking patriotism. They're asking why they are getting so much more heat. Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who was the first senator to say he would object to the certification of Biden's election, made a point of citing Boxer and other Democrats who acted similarly after Republicans won the presidency. A lot of Republicans say they're being treated more harshly because of media bias. That's part of the explanation.
But there are other reasons the Republican campaign against 2020's electoral result is a bigger story, and a more alarming one, than previous Democratic election protests.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz, in his letter with 10 other Republican senators explaining why they will vote against certifying the election results, put his finger on the key difference: This time the belief that the election was stolen is widespread. They cite a poll that found that 39% of the country — and 67% of Republicans — agree that "the election was rigged." After the 2004 election, by contrast, two-thirds of Democrats accepted that the election was conducted fairly.
The senators say that there are so many allegations of fraud and irregularities in voting, and so many people are concerned about them, that the election should not be certified.
The allegations are, however, nonsense. None of them have withstood the slightest scrutiny, and in court lawyers for President Donald Trump have slunk away from their shocking claims about voter fraud. Presumably that's why the senators' letter does not hold up any particular allegation as credible. It doesn't claim that Trump actually won the election, as he keeps insisting. It doesn't even say that there's a strong probability that an audit would show that a single state was wrongly put in Biden's column.
The argument rests entirely on the facts that there are a lot of allegations and that many people think there is something to them. Those facts are accurate, but they cut against what Hawley, Cruz and their confederates are doing.
The reason so many Americans have doubts about the election — "tragically," as the Cruz letter puts it — is that Trump and his allies have been sowing those doubts. Trump has made one wild claim after another, offering no evidence of any of them and not correcting the record when proven wrong. He recently attacked Georgia's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, by saying his "brother works for China." There is a Ron Raffensperger who works for the Chinese tech firm Huawei, but he is not related to the Georgia official.
They have doubts, as well, because too many Republicans and conservative media outlets have echoed Trump and too few have contradicted him. With a few exceptions, such as Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Republican senators have generally been unwilling to say what all the evidence indicates: Biden won, there was no widespread fraud and Trump isn't telling the truth about the election.
Republicans who refuse to certify the election aren't dispelling doubts; they're reinforcing them. They're telling Republican voters that there is good reason to think Biden stole the election, without offering any such reason. The commission that many of the senators say should look into election irregularities is a dodge. If Republican politicians aren't willing to call the delusion that Biden stole the election what it is, they won't be willing to say it after a commission report.
There are three potential harms from refusing to certify a valid election, as Boxer did and many Republicans are now doing. First, the effort might succeed in preventing a legitimately elected president from taking office — a catastrophic possibility, but thankfully one that is remote now, just as it was in 2005. Second, by legitimizing the tactic of not certifying election results that displease senators, the effort might keep a future elected president from taking office or at least cause severe political instability. Boxer was the only senator to object in 2005. For a dozen or more senators to follow her example now (and to cite her approvingly, as Hawley has) would raise this risk considerably.
Third, the effort could spread the poisonous and false idea that votes are not counted fairly in U.S. elections. That danger increases the more officials till the ground for the idea, as Trump and many other Republicans have done. What Boxer did in 2005 was irresponsible, and should have been widely condemned. What Republicans are doing right now is worse.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.