I have a routine that I follow every Election Day. I wake up at dawn, take a long walk to burn off nervous energy and then settle in for what I know will be a very long day that typically stretches into the night. The day moves very slowly.
November 8, 2016, was no different. Five years ago, as general counsel to the Hillary for America campaign, I began the day in Brooklyn, where the campaign was headquartered at the corner of Tillary and Clinton. Like most election days, information sporadically flowed in about voter turn-out, voting issues and the weather. That evening it became clear that the presidential race would be close — much closer than most people thought it would be. By midnight it was clear that despite a sizable popular vote victory, Hillary Clinton had narrowly lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump.
I think about that day often. Sometimes it’s when I talk with someone from the campaign, and we reminisce about the insanity of the lead-up to the election. Mostly, I think about the campaign when reflecting on the current state of our democracy and how awful things have become.
I used to joke about our country’s obsession with electoral politics by sarcastically noting that we are never more than two years away from the most important election of our lifetime. I don’t say that anymore because I know — we all know — that 2016 was, in fact, the most important election of our lifetime.
According to Donald Trump, when Secretary Clinton called him on election night to concede she said, “Congratulations, Donald. Well done.” “She couldn’t have been nicer,” he insisted. Think about that — she couldn’t have been nicer to a man who had invited Russia to hack her email account and led chants of “lock her up” at rallies.
The morning after the election, Secretary Clinton told her supporters to “accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”
Unlike Election Day itself, the weeks that followed are largely a blur. I recall spending days examining the results, looking for errors and asking what we could have done differently. Many campaign supporters wanted us to challenge the election and seek recounts. They wanted us not to give up, to fight, to contest. We thoroughly looked at each allegation, the data, and the evidence. In the end, we demurred in challenging the election because there were not sufficient grounds to do so. While the election was not perfect — no election is perfect — the imperfections did not change the outcome. We were not going to contest an election simply to satisfy our own egos or heal our own mental wounds.
When Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, initiated recounts, I wrote that “[b]ecause we had not uncovered any actionable evidence of hacking or outside attempts to alter the voting technology, we had not planned to exercise this option ourselves, but now that a recount has been initiated in Wisconsin, we intend to participate in order to ensure the process proceeds in a manner that is fair to all sides.”
Our participation involved observing the process. We did not challenge a single ballot or election return. Our observers were instructed not to obstruct the state processes or contest the results.
When Trump took office, I was clear-eyed about what it meant for democracy and the rule of law. I was prepared for his vulgar authoritarianism. I was not surprised by his clownish demands of obsequiousness from his staff. I assumed Mitch McConnell would see Trump as little more than a useful idiot in his effort to pack the federal courts. And I knew that Trump had no respect for democratic norms or rules.
Trump ended up being the worst president in the history of our country. He ridiculed the exceptionalism of American democracy, and he belittled our country and its institutions. He celebrated neo-Nazis and hate groups and politicized the Department of Justice. He appointed corrupt cronies, attempted to interfere in criminal prosecutions and investigations and tried to overturn an election he lost. As his final act in office, he incited an insurrection in the nation’s Capitol to overturn a free and fair election.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election defeat and the launch of the Big Lie. But today marks the five-year anniversary of how the national nightmare began. The Big Lie was born in the aftermath of the 2020 election, but it was conceived on Election Day in 2016. Without the 2016 election, there is no Big Lie, no violent insurrection, no unraveling of democracy.
The fact is that the 2016 election did happen. Trump was elected. He corrupted our government and transformed his party into an anti-democratic cult of personality. Five years later we are still asking why this happened and what more we could have done.
Near the end of her concession speech five years ago, Secretary Clinton offered those of us who had worked for her some direction for the future. “This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is worth it. And so, we need you to keep up these fights now and for the rest of your lives.”
After Secretary Clinton spoke, I went back to the campaign headquarters and cleaned out my office and flew back to Washington, D.C. I was fortunate that I had a law practice and clients ready to tackle the 2018 elections. Others on the campaign were not as fortunate. Some found work on other campaigns. Many left politics entirely.
For months afterward, the Secretary’s words from that day haunted me. What did it mean in the age of Trump to continue fighting for what is right? How could I play a role in protecting and cherishing democracy and the peaceful transfer of power?
As the Trump administration took shape, it quickly became clear that my role would be fighting for voting rights and democracy in public and in court.
On Jan. 29, 2017, only nine days after Trump was sworn in, I wrote that false claims of voter fraud and irregularities would be “Donald Trump’s Next Big Lie.” As Trump’s assault on democracy grew, I wrote more and spoke out more — moving from being solely behind the scenes as a lawyer to being a voting rights activist and advocate. In March of 2020, I started Democracy Docket to be the leading progressive platform dedicated to providing information, opinion and analysis about voting rights and more.
To fight Trump’s lies and Republican voter suppression in court I built an expert team of specialized pro-democracy lawyers. That legal team litigated over 150 separate voting rights lawsuits and achieved amazing results for voters in scores of them. We struck down voter ID laws in Missouri and anti-student voting laws in Florida and New Hampshire. We sued Georgia, North Carolina and Minnesota and won relief for voters voting by mail amid the COVID-19 crisis. We defended states being sued by Republicans looking to make voting more difficult in the middle of a pandemic.
After the 2020 election, when Trump and his allies attempted to subvert the election results, we litigated 65 lawsuits and won 64 of them. We provided legal support for recounts in Georgia and Wisconsin. In each instance, we fought for voters and what was right.
Republicans have spent most of this year spreading the Big Lie, enacting voter suppression laws as well as laying the groundwork to subvert election results in 2022 and 2024. They are targeting election administrators and pro-democracy leaders for harassment and ridicule. They are enacting gerrymandered maps and an additional way to thwart the electoral will of the majority. In short, they have become full-time agents of Donald Trump and his anti-democracy initiatives.
Five years later, I am still doing my job. I am still fighting for democracy, for voting rights and the peaceful transfer of power. People who know me from the 2016 campaign, especially those who have left politics, often ask me how much longer I will be doing what I do. I remind them that Hillary Clinton didn’t tell us to fight until Donald Trump was out of office and then stop. No, she told us to fight for what was right for the rest of our lives, and that is what I will do every single day.
I am still with her.