Regardless of whether Donald Trump wins or loses in November, we face a dangerous period after the election that will test an electoral process wholly unprepared for a President intent on breaking the systems of Democracy.
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2020 has been one of the worst years in American history. It has managed to bundle a once-in-a-century pandemic, an incompetent president, and the worst economic crunch since the beginning the Great Depression. The good news is we’re more than halfway to 2021, and the end of the Trump administration may be in sight. The bad news is that recent actions by said administration have effectively guaranteed things will get much worse.
Because the U.S. government has failed to contain the virus, economic recovery has stalled out. Businesses are declaring bankruptcy at a record clip, and it’s expected to get worse. There is little hope that people out of work now will readily find new jobs, and economists expect unemployment to remain above 10 percent through the end of the year. Without another stimulus in place, the additional unemployment insurance benefit and moratorium on evictions provided by the CARES Act expired on July 31. This failure to act is the worst-case scenario for economists who believe this will cause further decline in personal consumption (further slowing the economy and hiring), exacerbate food insecurity, and encourage a wave of evictions and job losses.
Thus, with a large number of Americans in desperate straits, the situation is more volatile than anything we have seen in living memory. As Langston Hughes asked, when bereft of relief and possibility of change, does hope “dry up like a raisin in the sun? … Or does it explode?” If the protests of this summer are any indication, it’s the latter.
One of the few things preventing the situation from completely boiling over is hope the election will usher in a new administration—Democractic presidential candidate Joe Biden is leading in the polls and running on a message of a return to decency—and a Senate that will actually address these issues. (And no, President Donald Trump’s toothless, illegal, infeasible, symbolic publicity stunt of an executive order doesn’t count.) Unfortunately, there’s zero reason to believe President Trump will leave the White House willingly, and this portends trouble like we’ve never seen.
Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to accepting the election’s results. He’s already labeled the election fraudulent because of numerous states increasing access to mail-in ballots during the pandemic and called for a delay. He appointed campaign contributor Louis DeJoy as postmaster general, who many observers say is deliberately destroying the Postal Service at Trump’s behest to stop mail-in voting. At the same time, the administration and the GOP at all levels of government are using a five-pronged attack to prevent as many people as possible from voting, while working to ensure there is uncertainty and confusion on election day.
Republicans know there is almost no chance to win the popular vote, and winning the Electoral College without interfering is highly unlikely. Thus, the GOP’s goal isn’t to win a legitimate election: It is to cause as much uncertainty as possible to “ratfuck” the system. Their goal is to gain the president a second term in office, using any number of nightmare scenarios necessary. A recent war-game scenario, for example, showed Trump will likely use a flurry of lawsuits to challenge ballots and the legitimacy of elections in swing states. At the same time, his team will try to persuade GOP governors and legislators to refuse to seat electors or send competing sets of electors from states with Democratic governors and Republican legislatures.
Yet the worst nightmare scenario occurs if Biden wins, but because of ambiguity over electors caused by gerrymandered legislatures, neither candidate has 270 votes. This will result in the U.S. House of Representatives deciding the election. This might sound like a good thing, but unfortunately, the Constitution says the vote in the House is by state delegation, where each casts one vote determined by the majority of the representatives in that state. Currently, there are 26 states that have a majority Republican House delegation. Even if Democrats were to hold all their 2018 gains and then some, Republicans would still hold a 24 to 26 delegation majority.
Such blatant attempts to destroy democracy might seem unbelievable, but they are entirely plausible given the autocratic instincts of this administration and his GOP’s single-minded desire for permanent, single-party rule. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly prevent rule-exploits like the one described above. They’re well aware they won’t have this chance again, as demographics slip further and further to the left.
Stealing the presidency this way, in the middle of an economic depression during a pandemic where people are starving and homeless, could set off civil unrest unlike anything Americans have experienced outside of the Civil War era. Trump’s government might assume they can call up the National Guard or federal “police”, shoot their way out of it, and get on with creating the dystopia their base (white evangelicals and oligarchs) demands. As Mary Trump noted in a recent interview, “The only thing that matters to him [Trump] is saving his own skin. He is the kind of man who, if he feels he is going down, he’s going to take all of us down with him.” This scenario would be the most dangerous in our history.
As autocratic as the Trump regime strives to be, however, the fallout of the election is more likely to look like Venezuela in 2019. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tried to rig the May 2018 election to win over Juan Guaidó, but both sides claimed victory. There were massive protests and riots, but Maduro was able to ride them out. Now, there are two competing governments both claiming to be the rightful rulers of the country, though Maduro remains functionally in power (possession is nine-tenths of the law, as they say).
Which brings us back to what we can expect in this November’s election in the U.S. There are indications that most of the people intending to vote by mail are Democrats. These votes often need to be counted by hand and will draw out how long it takes to get an accurate tally. This means that on the night of November 3, the election will look a lot closer than it really is. It will probably take another two weeks to finish counting absentee and mail-in ballots in some states.
Trump and the GOP are already planning to exploit this period of uncertainty to the maximum extent practical. They already have armies of lawyers on the ground in swing states and a plan to challenge as many ballots as possible. Trump plans on sending law enforcement to intimidate people at the polls. They are going to blitz conservative media outlets with the narrative that the ballot was fraudulent to confuse the American public.
As days go by after the election, though, it will likely become increasingly obvious they are trying to take the presidency against the expressed will of the people. History teaches us that the reaction will far exceed anything we saw this summer with Black Lives Matter if Trump manages to steal the election. Americans will be furious, desperate, and hopeless if they can’t have the change they voted for. They will protest, and Trump’s GOP will be inclined to respond with brutal force. The outcome would be highly unpredictable, and would almost certainly be bloody and destabilizing.
So, how do we avoid the chaos?
Voting early and in-person would help the vote tally on the night of November 3 and cut into Trump’s claims that the election is disputable. The election results need to be as clear as possible, as quickly as possible.
The other way is to ensure your vote is counted and reduce the Trump legal teams’ abilities to challenge them. To do this, get your ballot as soon as possible, and return it as soon as possible. According to legal analyst and voting rights advocate Mark Joseph Stern, you should have a voting contingency plan. “Request your absentee ballot now. If you never receive it, vote early in-person. If you do receive it, consider filling it out at home then physically returning it to avoid a USPS delay,” he said. “Keep your options open.” There are numerous guides online detailing how to ensure your vote is counted.
In the end, though, an election dispute will end up at the Supreme Court. If there is a ray of sunlight in this, it is that Chief Justice John Roberts tipped his hand last summer in the case of Chiafalo v. Washington, dealing with faithless electors. Roberts indicated he has no patience for election shenanigans. He remembers the 2000 election and knows how the legally unacceptable chaos following it pales in comparison to what happens if he hands the U.S. a government the majority of the population sees as illegitimate. He’s well aware that the election of 1860 was the trigger for the Civil War. He’s smart enough to see the parallels to Venezuela, too. Or so we hope.
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