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PolitiFact VA: Democrats questioned validity of 2016 election, but not how votes were counted

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, wearing a vest, speaks
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks at a 2021 campaign stop in South Richmond. Youngkin recently gave his blessings to an “Election Integrity Unit” to investigate and prosecute violations of Virginia’s election laws. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Gov. Glenn Youngkin
Statement: “In 2016, Democrats suggested that the election was stolen.”
Date: Sept. 21
Setting: News conference

Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently gave his blessings to an “Election Integrity Unit” established by Attorney General Jason Miyares, a fellow Republican, to investigate and prosecute violations of Virginia’s election laws.

Youngkin visited Loudoun County’s Office of Elections on Sept. 20 to watch officials test vote-counting machines. Reporters asked him why the 20-person unit is needed when, as Democrats note, Virginia elections have been basically clean.

“People have concerns about the election process and oh by the way, it’s not just Republicans; it’s Democrats,” Youngkin said. “Let’s just remind ourselves that in 2016 Democrats suggested that the election was stolen.”

Did Democrats suggest the 2016 presidential election, won by Donald Trump, was hijacked? The claim is often made by Republicans advancing Trump’s disproven claims that the 2020 presidential election, won by Joe Biden, was stolen by fraudulent vote counting. Youngkin, after some initial hedging, acknowledged last year that Biden was legitimately elected.

Youngkin’s office sent us a number of recordings of prominent Democrats saying that Trump’s 2016 victory was turned by events that occurred during the campaign, especially documented Russian interference on behalf of Trump.

It’s important to point out, however, that the Democrats did not question the actual counting of ballots in 2016, as Youngkin’s statement implies, or that Trump won the election.

Let’s look at the information Youngkin’s office sent.

Hillary Clinton

In 2016, 2.8 million more people voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton than Trump, but she lost the determining Electoral College vote. During a September 2019 interview on CBS, she blamed her loss on voting restrictions passed by some states prior to the 2016 election and Russian hacking of her campaign that was later confirmed by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

Trump “knows he’s an illegitimate president,” Clinton said. “I believe he understands that the many varying tactics they used, from voter suppression and voter purging to hacking to the false stories — he knows that — there were just a bunch of different reasons why the election turned out like it did … . I know he knows this wasn’t on the level.”

In an October 2020 interview with The Atlantic, Clinton said, “There was a widespread understanding that [the 2016] election was not on the level. We still don’t know what happened … but you don’t win by 3 million votes and have all this other shenanigans and stuff going on and not come away with an idea like, ‘Whoa, something’s not right here.’” 

Jimmy Carter

In June 2019, Jimmy Carter, the former Democratic president, said, “There’s no doubt that the Russians did interfere in the election, and I think the interference, although not yet quantified, if fully investigated would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016. He lost the election, and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.”

Bernie Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is an independent who has twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination. During an ABC interview in January 2017, he twice declined to say whether he thought Trump would be “a legitimate president.”

“I think he’s going to be inaugurated this week,” Sanders said. “I have great concerns, apparently Republicans do as well, and there’s going to be an investigation about the role that Russian hacking played in getting [Trump] elected.”

John Lewis

The late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said in January 2017 he would not attend Trump’s inauguration. “I do not see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” he told NBC. “...I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others that helped him get elected. That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not the open democratic process.”

Jerry Nadler

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in January 2017 that Trump was legally elected but an “illegitimate” president.

“He was legally elected,” Nadler said. “But the Russians weighing in on the election, the Russian attempt to hack the election and, frankly, the FBI’s weighing in on the election make his election illegitimate. But he is the president.”

Nadler’s reference to the FBI concerned then-FBI Director James Comey’s disclosure to Congress, 11 days before the 2016 election, that he was reopening an investigation into whether emails stored on Clinton’s personal computer contained classified information.

Maxine Waters

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was among seven House Democrats who raised futile objections to the Electoral College count by Congress in January 2017 that certified Trump’s victory. They tried to argue that the election was tainted by Russian interference and voter suppression. They were overruled because none of their objections had required support from a senator.

Polling

Youngkin’s office also sent us an April 2022 Rasmussen poll. It showed that 72% of Democrats believe it’s likely the 2016 election outcome was changed by Russian interference, but that opinion is shared by only 30% of Republicans and 39% of voters not affiliated with either major party.

Our ruling

Youngkin said, “In 2016, Democrats suggested that the election was stolen.” He was referring to Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

Youngkin, a Republican, made the claim while endorsing the formation of an “Election Integrity Unit” by Virginia’s attorney general to investigate violations of the state’s election laws. He was at the Loudoun County Office of Elections, where he had just witnessed the testing of vote-counting equipment.

Democrats say the integrity unit is an effort to placate disproven Republican claims that Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election was caused by vote-counting fraud. Youngkin, in responding to that accusation, said concern over election fraud is a bipartisan issue.

Indeed, some well-known Democrats — including Clinton — said Trump’s 2016 victory was fishy. They mostly cited events that happened during the campaign, such as Russian hacking of campaign information and Comey’s announcement that the FBI was reopening an investigation into Clinton’s emails. They also complained that many states had passed laws that suppressed voter turnout.

But Youngkin’s contention that the Democratic response in 2016 equates with the Republican response to 2020 runs into trouble. The Democrats, while questioning events that occurred during the campaign, didn’t contend there was widespread vote-counting fraud that flipped the election.

The Democratic leaders cited by Youngkin’s office also made a distinction about 2016 that Trump and his followers did not about 2020. While the Democrats rejected the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency based on the oddities of the campaign, they acknowledged that he won the election.

All told, we rate Youngkin’s statement Half True.

Sources

Glenn Youngkin, comments in Loudoun County, Sept. 20, 2022
Jason Miyares, news release, Sept. 9, 2022
PolitiFact, “Fact-checking Trump’s election fraud falsehoods in White House remarks,” Nov. 5, 2020
Email from Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s press secretary, Sept. 22, 2022
U.S. Department of Justice, “Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” March 2019
Hillary Clinton, CBS interview, Sept. 29, 2022
Clinton, interview with The Atlantic, Oct. 7, 2020 (37:30 mark)
The Washington Post, “Hillary Clinton: Trump is an ‘illegitimate president,’” Sept. 26, 2019
The Washington Post, “Jimmy Carter says Trump wouldn’t be president without help from Russia,” June 28, 2018
Bernie Sanders, ABC interview, Jan. 15, 2017
Jerry Nadler, CNN interviews, Jan. 17 and 18, 2017
John Lewis, NBC interview, Jan. 13, 2017
Congressional Record, Jan. 6, 2017
Rasmussen Reports, “Democrats Still Believe Russia Changed 2016 Election,” April 21, 2022
Republican National Committee, “Over 150 Example of Democrats Denying Election Results,” Jan. 28, 2022
The Washington Post, “The 2020 election was neither stolen nor rigged: A primer,” Sept. 15, 2022
PolitiFact, “Democrats didn't refuse to acknowledge Trump’s 2016 victory,” Nov. 24,2020
PolitiFact, “Fact-checking the integrity of the vote in 2016,” Dec. 17, 2016