Former GSA Administrator Reflects on Ascertaining the Election in 2016
“If there’s anything that I would point to, it is really how important this activity and moment is,” said Denise Turner Roth of the presidential transition.
Denise Turner Roth led the General Services Administration during the Obama administration the first time President Trump was on the ballot for president and now, four years later, she’s reflecting on her experience amid this unique post-election period. As millions of Americans have learned over the past few days, it’s the GSA administrator who determines when to begin the formal transition to a new administration.
That’s a determination Roth’s successor at GSA, Emily Murphy, has yet to make six days after multiple news outlets called the election for former Vice President Joe Biden after he met the threshold for receiving 270 electoral college votes. Murphy is facing increasing pressure to ascertain Biden as the winner so he can receive critical funds and transition services—including intelligence briefings. While President Trump and his legal team dispute the election outcome, claiming widespread fraud, thus far they have produced no credible evidence of it and multiple courts have thrown out cases brought on behalf of the president.
The last time there was a significant delay in GSA ascertaining a winner was during the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore when the popular vote was exceptionally close and neither candidate met the 270 electoral college threshold until the Supreme Court stopped the vote recount in Florida.
Government Executive spoke with Roth, now a senior executive at the engineering services firm WSP USA, about her experience during the 2016 election and the importance of an orderly presidential transition. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the process like to ascertain the election in November 2016?
So in particular, as it relates to the election itself, I had worked with our general counsel and other senior advisors—career government employees who have been there for a long time—the right path of determination, the what ifs—what if it got dicey?
What was clear was that the administrator really had a lot of discretion in this space. It was based on reasonable judgment of the administrator. And I said, “So what are the types of things that went into the determination? What's reasonable?” And it was in the area of major news outlet reporting, reporting from the states, in terms of the final count that the states were reporting, and then, certainly, concession itself. Those are sort of the three areas that we were monitoring through the night to come to a determination.
How did you prepare before the election to make the decision?
I read about what happened in 2000 and I had the general counsel's office research and debrief me on what was the scope and expectation of the Transition Act. And then [I talked] to career employees who have been through transitions before. All of that research went into my thinking as we entered election night.
How do you perceive what’s been happening during this post-election period?
There have been suggestions that [ascertainment] is not important, that this is just signing paper and transferring some office space, and that the Biden administration's already experienced [in government] so it's not a big deal. So if there’s anything that I would point to it is really how important this activity and moment is, especially now in American history.
GSA is responsible for the smooth and ongoing operations on the federal government, full stop. The federal government’s made up of over 100 agencies, 4 million employees, if you [count] the military, and this ascertainment impacts those operations continuing forward.
The Presidential Transition Act was written in 1963 specifically with the idea that there needed to be an orderly transition of government—in preserving our democracy, but also ensuring that there was not an interruption in the services that the American public could rely on from the federal government. That alone is enough, but then you layer on top of it the fact that we are in a pandemic. And we're at the point where, hopefully, we have a vaccine and really what we should be working on is the logistics [of distributing it].
The ability for the senior leadership from the Biden transition and the existing administration to sit down and confer on what's happening, what the thinking is, what might happen next, is what's being impacted. That's what's not occurring. And so without the transition, they'll have to figure all that out on January 20. We can do better than that.
Transitions are considered a vulnerable time, correct?
The 9/11 Commission pointed to a delay in basically the ramp up of the [George W. Bush] administration. Again, I think it goes to the fact that it's the things that are not happening that creates the biggest risk. Our public health is at risk, our economy is at risk, and specifically in response to the pandemic, we are in such a unique time that it's even more critical and it puts our security at risk.