Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Marco Rubio, Trumpified

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Senator Marco Rubio wasn’t very pleased with yesterday’s edition of this newsletter.

“Left wing commentators have no shame just making things up,” he tweeted, along with a link to the newsletter. “This piece is a work of fiction. No one is stopping #Florida recount. Only thing we ask is they follow the law.”

It was the latest of many false charges that he has levied this week. I want to walk you through those falsehoods this morning. They’re important to debunk, because Rubio is doing something dangerous: Deliberately undermining people’s confidence in our electoral systems for partisan gain.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

Rubio, like President Trump, is part of a group of top Republicans who have been making baseless accusations against Democrats. “Now democrat lawyers are descending on #Florida. They have been very clear they aren’t here to make sure every vote is counted,” he tweeted Thursday. “They are here to change the results of election.” That same day, he accused lawyers of coming to Florida to “try to steal a seat in the U.S. Senate.” Yesterday, he repeated the charge, claiming “Dem lawyers” were trying to “steal an election.”

This simply isn’t true. Democratic lawyers — working for or with Senator Bill Nelson, the incumbent — are not trying to steal anything. They have filed lawsuits to make sure the state counts all votes, including ballots that were previously uncounted, misplaced or discarded for dubious technical reasons.

And the state of Florida should carefully count all of the votes. In an extremely close election, like Florida’s Senate race, it is not possible to do so on election night. Rubio, however, is trying to delegitimize a full counting of the votes — to make it look like fraud (a word he used on Twitter yesterday). His goal is transparently cynical. He knows his party’s candidate is currently ahead, and he is trying to make that lead look like the only fair outcome.

Along the way, he’s using a clever bait and switch. He has repeatedly criticized election officials in South Florida for running the vote-counting process poorly. On this score, he is correct. The process in Florida is often slow and sloppy. By now, no one should be surprised to hear that Florida could do a better job of operating its electoral bureaucracy.

But here is the crucial point: There is no reason to believe that this messiness systematically benefits Democrats or Republicans. Multiple Florida agencies have found no evidence of election-related fraud or criminal activity in the two South Florida counties Rubio has focused on. This week, a Florida judge — appointed by a Republican governor — denied a request from Rick Scott, the Republican Senate candidate, saying his campaign had produced no evidence of fraud.

Rubio is doing precisely what I described yesterday: making false accusations of nefarious activity to create political pressure that would halt a full counting of votes. While doing so, he is invoking all sorts of worthy principles — that only “legally cast” votes should be counted and that election officials should stick to deadlines. But he is mixing these principles with false conspiracy theories about scheming Democrats and county officials who are trying to help the Democrats.

There was a different path available. He could have pushed for the interpretation of election law most favorable to Republicans — like his argument that the state should not extend deadlines to count ballots — without lying about what Democrats are doing. That would have been a tough but fair brand of politics.

Instead, Rubio has chosen to employ a classic tool of autocrats. He is using the language of democracy to subvert democracy.

Senator, I may disagree with you on policy. But I’m honestly disappointed and surprised you would stoop to this level. You should be better than President Trump.

Related: The New Yorker’s Sue Halpern writes, “Although it is not clear what impact these false accusations of voter fraud may have in future elections, what they expose, right now, is a blatant attack on democracy itself.”

“Trump’s rhetoric about ballot-counting is his most dangerous rhetoric,” tweeted Eitan Hersh, a Tufts political scientist. “People who love this country and its democratic institutions should be raising hell over this.”

“Some Republican leaders want Americans to think that the only way they can be denied power is by chicanery,” The Times Editorial Board writes.

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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