The following is a transcript of an interview with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett and CBS News election law contributor David Becker that aired Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett and CBS News election law contributor, David Becker, who have a new book out on the state of American democracy. It’s called “The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie.” Congratulations to you both.
MAJOR GARRETT: Thank you very much.
DAVID BECKER: Thank you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, Major, I want to start with you, because in those just literally the first page of the book, you use the phrase, American Civil War. You go on to write that in the upcoming election in November and in 2024, trust itself is going to be tested. “Democracy no longer suffers from a lack of participatory energy. It suffers from a lack of respect, allegiance, knowledge, humanity, and, most of all, trust.” How dangerous is the moment that we are in?
MAJOR GARRETT: It feels more dangerous, Margaret, than any I’ve encountered in covering politics at the national level since 1990. David and I had to write this book, but we wish we didn’t have to. Stating what clearly happened in 2020, it wasn’t a fraudulent election, no crime was committed. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy with the result, but one of the burdens of democracy is when you’re unhappy with the result, your obligation is to win the next election, not slander, baselessly, the election you fairly lost. And we have a component of American politics now that wants to slander an election that was fairly lost, because they’re unhappy. And that unhappiness does not entitle you to drag down American democracy because if, Margaret, we enter a phase in American life where either political party refuses to accept a fair and verified election simply because it lost, then we will dismantle democracy bit by bit before our very eyes. And that’s what I am, what we are driving at when we talk about the coming contours of not a bloody civil war, but a procedural Civil War where we separate ourselves from another and the Union, the United States itself, bit by bit becomes to break- begins to break apart
MARGARET BRENNAN: And David just so people know your background. I mean, you worked at the Justice Department for some time, you’re an expert on- on voting rights and founded the Center for election innovation and research. One of our colleagues here, Nicole Sganga, interviewed Kim Wyman. She is the senior election security lead at a part of Homeland Security. She spent 30 years working in elections out in the state of Washington. And in this interview, she clearly is feeling that this threat is hitting home. Take a listen.
Kim Wyman SOT: “Some of the- some of the threats are real. You know, we’re going to hang you. I hope somebody puts a bullet in your head, that kind of thing. So it’s unnerving. It’s unnerving.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: Homeland Security official moved to tears by what she is talking about. I mean, it’s extremely powerful to me to hear that. How common is that right now?
DAVID BECKER: Yeah, unfortunately, it’s very common. I mean, people need to understand Kim Wyman is someone I’ve known for a long time. She’s a former county election official. She is a former Secretary of State in the state of Washington, she is a Republican. And she, like so many of her colleagues- and she’s seeing this because she’s working with them, are facing an onslaught of threats and harassment and abuse in the aftermath of the 2020 election that is completely divorced from the reality of their success. The election professionals all over the country, red states, blue states, Republicans, Democrats somehow managed the highest turnout we’ve ever seen in American history in the middle of a global pandemic. And the ultimate results of this election were- withstood scrutiny from 60 courts around the country. It was remarkable. And yet they have found themselves subjected to so many death threats, threats to their families, harassment and abuse over the course of the last nearly two years and it’s taken its toll.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Clearly. And you talked to election officials from places as divergent as Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just two hours outside of New York City to parts of Georgia, Weber County, Utah. All of these people are experiencing threats. What’s the scenario they fear this November?
DAVID BECKER: Well, I think one of the things they are seeing is that the reality, the transparency that they operate under they- they- they embrace aggressive transparency, they want everyone to see everything that they’re doing. And yet despite the facts, despite that transparency, all that seems to matter is that some people believe that it is impossible for their candidate to lose. And if we get so divorced from that reality, we get so divorced from our democratic principles that as Major said, we start being unwilling to accept the possibility of defeat, what might then- what- what might be possible then? And we’ve already seen this, this isn’t hypothetical. We’ve seen this on January 6th, and we could see in the future dozens of little January 6ths, not focused on Washington, on one particular date, but focused in many different places on many different dates, simply because there are individuals who are spreading the lie to their supporters that they couldn’t possibly lose.
MAJOR GARRETT: Margaret, these are anxious times. COVID created a tremendous amount of anxiety in this country, it also changed the way some states voted. And that created a sense of being dislodged a little bit, we understand that. And we, in the book, say, ‘look, if you’re curious about how something was changed, here’s the answer for why it didn’t materially affect the outcome of the election.’ But that anxiety lingers, and that anxiety could manifest itself in precincts across this country, where disagreements or just basic low level confusion suddenly become something much bigger, a much larger confrontation. And then suddenly, people are looking in from across the country wondering what’s happening in that voting, and then creates anxiety about voting in their own part of the country, which could undermine confidence in the entire midterm election process. That daisy chain is psychically real, it could play out, and that’s what I hear election officials most concerned about, things that aren’t really an issue, but people think they’re an issue or something on social media makes them a momentary issue. And suddenly, the architecture of trust that has existed around our elections for so long begins to crumble,
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to do a lightning round on some of those things you- you debunk. On the mechanics of elections, you write that hand counting is less accurate.
DAVID BECKER: That’s right. And the academic literature is actually unanimous on this. If you look at the counting of ballots, and our ballots in the United States are very complex, it’s not one race, we’re literally looking at dozens of races, sometimes over dozens of pages. And one thing humans are very bad at are repetitive activities over time, machines are really good at that. Now, that doesn’t mean we should trust the machines entirely. We have to have checks on the machines to make sure they did it right, which is what we had in 2020. They’re called real forensic audits- real audits, rather, of the- of the machine technology that compare the paper ballots- the hand- and there’s hand counts of the paper ballots compared to what the tabulators said. And in every case, they came out and proved that the- the, the actual tabulation was accurate. So hand counts are a very bad idea if you want rapid, accurate counts. If you want costly, inaccurate account accounts. Sure, do it by hand.
MAJOR GARRETT: If you want hand count, you’re introducing the possibility of someone with an agenda counting ballots. Machines have no agenda, and there’s no ghosts inside them either.
MARGARET BRENNAN: On ballot harvesting. explain that. How did you debunk that Major?
MAJOR GARRETT: So ballot harvesting has become this umbrella terminology, which gives the impression that people are rounding up ballots by some very large number, dozens, hundreds, maybe 1000s–
MARGARET BRENNAN: The phrase itself sounds–
MAJOR GARRETT: The phrase itself sounds vaguely illegitimate. And then they’re even this terminology about lack of chain of custody, or mules, like this is some sort of drug trade we’re talking about as opposed to what they are the sacred ballots of individual Americans who’ve registered legally and cast a legally acceptable vote. In some jurisdictions, you are allowed to collect either on behalf of a family member or others, a certain limited number of ballots and turn them in. That’s permissible, and states and localities regulate it according to their rules. In Wisconsin, there is a controversy about some people in nursing homes that was adjudicated before the election. And everyone knew the rules, it was not a violation of rules to collect ballots and larger numbers in that election than compared to previous elections. But ballots- ballot harvesting itself is not a problem in the 2020 election, was not a problem in the 2020 election and shouldn’t be going forward.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And David – mail-in ballots – because of the pandemic and the circumstances we were under became widespread, and then those were called into question by the former president in particular. What did you debunk about that?
DAVID BECKER: Well, first of all, we’ve been using mail ballots since at least the Civil War if not before then. Mail ballots are a part of our history. Mail ballots go through multiple validation processes in every state. You have to request a mail ballot in many states or have been verified as a registered voter and even those states that have all-mail voting, when the ballot comes back, the identity of the voter is confirmed, usually through signature matching. It is- has to be backed by a certain period of time and it is all checked multiple times to make sure it works. You have to make sure that the person didn’t vote another way. If you’ve requested a mail ballot, you can’t just show up at the polling place and ask for a ballot in person. They’re going to ask you to surrender your mail ballot or you’re going to have to vote provisionally. This is true everywhere in the United States. And another important thing is that mail voting is something that Republicans prior to 2020 really embraced and used very, very effectively. They’re the ones that encouraged mail voting in places like Arizona and places like Washington state. And mail voting was something that worked very, very well for Republican campaigns up to the 2020 election where they themselves delegitimize it without any kind of real reason.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And Major, you talk about the political benefits to calling 2020 into question particularly for the former president. But when you look at the spin forward here, according to CBS numbers in battleground states over 60% of Republican candidates on the ballot are election deniers. Two of the best known perhaps, Kari Lake out in Arizona, and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, who are running on the Republican platform in those states. Is this indulging this simply the cost of winning an endorsement from the former president who is a political powerhouse? Or do they believe it?
MAJOR GARRETT: It’s certainly the former, getting President Trump’s endorsement runs through a sieve that requires you to say the 2020 election was stolen. And if you say it the loudest of any of the Republicans also vying for that endorsement in any particular state, you’re most likely to get that endorsement. So not only do you have to say it, but you have to repeat it and volumize it to get the endorsement of former President Trump. Whether or not they believe it, I don’t know. It appears they say that they do believe it. But Kari Lake is an interesting example of this phenomenon. She said before the primary was decided that fraud was afoot. She said while votes were being counted, fraud was afoot. She was trailing, and then she came out ahead, late in the process, and said it was then, therefore legitimate. I would only say that is not a veil of hypocrisy. That is the very definition of hypocrisy. The exact process you assailed is the one that made you the GOP nominee. Therefore, it’s legitimate only because you become the nominee? That doesn’t add up.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you frame it as well in this context of where we are now as the “proxy for the future of Trumpism.” You say that calling into question isn’t about the mechanics, and the professionals you are talking about, who work on casting and counting votes, but it’s a collection of grievances. It’s just this sort of symbol of Trumpism.
MAJOR GARRETT: I’ve talked to-
MARGARET BRENNAN: Explain that.
MAJOR GARRETT: I’ve talked to many Trump supporters who don’t have a coherent or explicable idea of how the election was stolen. They just feel something is wrong, and by articulating that something was wrong there – that is an act of allegiance to former President Trump, which is very important to them, and their own political identity. And they’re not going to abandon the former president just because some nagging journalists like me, or an election law expert, like David, suggest to them that they ought to. That loyalty to Trump and Trumpism, I believe, is a collection place for the idea that something was fundamentally wrong with the 2020 election, even if they can’t exactly explain what that thing was. They don’t want to divorce themselves from former President Trump, and they don’t want the movement that they were so inspired by to disappear, therefore, they stay here, even though they can’t routinely explain why.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But David, we’ve talked in the past about Democrats who have questioned the outcome of elections. Republicans often point to that when this is discussed. How concerned are you now that this kind of language is just becoming, not normalized, but made into just a political tool? And that we could see just regular questioning of election outcomes if it doesn’t go the way the candidate wants it to?
DAVID BECKER: Yeah, I’m very concerned about that, because factually speaking right now, we have the most professional, accurate, transparent, secure election system we’ve ever had, and it keeps getting better every election cycle. But –
MARGARET BRENNAN: And it’s interesting you say that, because as you know, there has been this movement to change voting rights and to protect them. So it is becoming discussed as if there is something perhaps not working right.
DAVID BECKER: Yeah. And it’s it’s it’s really troubling in the sense that, while it’s not moral equivalence here, it’s not coming equally from both sides of the political spectrum. It is definitely coming overwhelmingly from the extreme right, right now. There certainly are aspects of it coming from across the political spectrum. And we see efforts where occasionally some people are unwilling to concede, occasionally there might be an objection in Congress to the electoral vote count in previous elections, nothing like we saw in 2020, where that was led by the losing presidential candidate. But we could get to a point that is if this is seen as politics as usual, that this is just part of the game, that if ultimately anyone losing an election might just say, well, ‘I’m not going to tie my hands around my back. They were claiming fraud when they lost, I’m going to claim something else when I lose.’ We’re going to be at a very, very dangerous point for our democracy if the losing side cannot accept defeat, especially in a country that’s divided 50-50. Where are we as a democracy? We have to be at that point, the same point that Vice President Gore was at in 2000, or that Vice President Nixon was at in 1960.
MAJOR GARRETT: The great fear I have, Margaret, is politics is a lot like the NFL, it’s a copycat League, whatever succeeds, you replicate. On the right, in the Trump world now, the fastest way to social media, fame and fundraising is to deny the 2020 election. You don’t think Democrats aren’t watching that and may be tempted by the same social media and fundraising lure- that that has? They will be. That’s why we have to stop it, back away from it, and say, not here, not this place. This part of our civic life is sacred. We’re going to inspect it and respect it and accept the results.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And you write about some of the proposed solutions as well. Thank you both, for sharing the book with us and your insights. We’ll be back in a moment.