When a Senate Democrat Tried to Challenge an Election

Several Republican members of Congress plan to formally object to the outcome of the 2020 election today. Barbara Boxer objected to Ohio’s results in 2005—but that was different, she insists.

A portrait of the former U.S. Senator from California Barbara Boxer
Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (Getty / The Atlantic)

Several Republican members of Congress plan to formally object to the outcome of the 2020 election today. The move is controversial, even among Republicans. “Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government,” wrote Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska in an open letter to his colleagues at the end of December.

Republicans didn’t invent the idea of holding up election certifications with this kind of objection, however. In 2017, Democratic representatives including Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Barbara Lee of California attempted to challenge Trump’s presidential victory, citing voter suppression and Russian interference. A dozen or so Democrats tried something similar in 2001, after George W. Bush’s controversial win. The challenge that got the furthest came in 2005, when then–California Senator Barbara Boxer joined Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a congresswoman from Ohio, to dispute electors from Ohio, triggering a debate on the Senate floor. Boxer used her time to air concerns about long voting lines and the lack of ballot boxes in heavily Black precincts.

To justify their current actions, some of the Republicans who plan to challenge the 2020 results have pointed out that Boxer and other Democrats have previously raised questions about presidential elections. Those legislators “were praised by Democratic leadership and the media when they did. And they were entitled to do so,” said Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, the first senator to declare his intention to object, in a statement. So I called up Boxer to ask: Is this actually so different?

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Emma Green: Is this different from when you took a stand in 2005?

Barbara Boxer: There’s no comparison. It’s apples and oranges. It’s Venus and Mars. Our purpose, upfront, was to just talk about, for an hour, the voter suppression that we saw in Ohio. We didn’t ask for anybody’s votes. John Kerry wasn’t involved at all. He had already conceded. In minority precincts in Ohio, some people were standing in line for four, five, six, seven, up to nine hours in the rain to vote.

Now, you have a plan being orchestrated by a delusional president, who claims he won an election that he lost. And it’s all part of a plan to overturn the election. So it’s just nothing to do with what we did. It’s a total abuse of the law.

Green: Just to take their argument at its face, these senators have said they want to address Americans’ distrust of the results of the election by pulling together a commission to fully investigate any allegations of voting irregularities. Do you think that cause is worthy?

Boxer: Look, I could point to the Al Gore–George W. Bush race, where many Americans thought the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, stopped the vote recount. They were upset. You’ve got to be a leader. You don’t say, “Oh, the people think x, y, and z.” People could think somebody landed from Mars! Are you going to stop the election? This is as crazy as it gets.

What they’re saying, on its face, is baloney. They are part of a scheme by a delusional president to stop the election results from taking effect for 10 days, while they get a commission. This whole thing is part of a very frightening attack on democracy. They can say anything they want, but anyone with a heartbeat and pulse knows they’re just playing to an audience of one: Donald Trump. And it is the saddest thing I have ever seen. I grew up with a Republican Party that was a mainstream party, and it never did anything like this.

Green: Were you surprised by any of the names on the list of the dozen senators? People you had served with, or others?

Boxer: No.

Green: Not a single surprise?

Boxer: No.

Green: And why is that?

Boxer: They’re all puppets of Donald Trump. Why is that? You’d have to ask them. I guess they’re scared to death that they can’t win on their own. They’re afraid of a primary.

I’ve never been afraid of a primary in my life. Stand up; do the right thing. You’ll win your election. Don’t be a puppet of anybody. You’ll lose the election, because you’re weak.

Green: Do you have anxiety about the long-term effects this kind of action could have on Americans’ trust in the outcome of this election or future elections?

Boxer: You know, I’m not as worried as others, because I still believe in the institutions of democracy. If there were enough senators and House members to overturn an election, that’s when I’d worry. But at this point, I feel people have the common sense to elect people who stand for democracy.

Green: Do you think that senators have a special obligation to set the tone for the country—to ensure that public trust is maintained and protected rather than eroded?

Boxer: I think every elected official has that job. No matter whether it’s county, state, or federal—every elected official who raises his or her hand and swears on a Bible that we will support and defend the Constitution. Anyone who is going against [nearly] 60 [court] opinions, the Trump administration’s own analysis that this was the fairest and freest election ever—they’ve got another agenda. They ought to go into another business. They should get out of politics. They’re not worthy of the title of senator.

Green: Do you think that Democrats, including the Biden administration and Democrats in the Senate, should be working across the aisle with this set of senators?

Boxer: You always work across the aisle. If you don’t work across the aisle, you can’t get anything done. That’s the Senate. That’s how it operates.

Green: But is there an argument for refusing to work with people who are on this list?

Boxer: I never bought into that theory. The fact of the matter is, if you want to get things done for your people, you work with the coalitions you can put together. You don’t say, “I didn’t agree with the senator on this day or that day” and walk away. I don’t believe in that. Anyone who gets anything done knows that you’ve got to go to the issues that you can find agreement on.

Green: Do you believe the Republican Party can return to that party you say you remember from your childhood, of people who are reasonable and of good will?

Boxer: At this point, I’m very concerned. We had the GOP—and now we have what I call the TPP, the Trump Puppet Party. So, unless they get over that and declare their independence, I’m very worried. I’m so respectful of those Republicans who are speaking out. I don’t want to lose the Republican Party I grew up with.