Can American democracy survive a contested election?

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Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·7 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Over the summer, a group called the Transition Integrity Project, made up of election experts from across the political spectrum, ran a series of hypothetical scenarios for how the presidential election might play out. The results were worrying. With so many potential disrupting factors in this year’s race, nearly all the outcomes they simulated resulted in “a chaotic legal and political landscape” that could tear American democracy apart.

These experts aren’t alone in their concern. President Trump’s ongoing baseless claims of voter fraud to undermine mail-in voting, plus his recent refusal to say he would accept the results, have sparked fears among Democrats that he may try to steal the election. Some Republicans also have little faith that the election will be free and fair, likely due to Trump’s insistence that the only way he could lose is if Joe Biden cheats.

The U.S. has had contested elections before, most recently in 2000 when a fight over ballots in Florida was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. The Transition Integrity Project suggests, however, that 2020’s election could be far more contentious. The more apt historical allegory, its experts say, may be the election of 1876, which brought the country to the brink of a true constitutional crisis and was only resolved by a compromise that set the stage for a century of Jim Crow policies in the South.

Why there’s debate

Trump has no power to hold onto the presidency if the election shows a clear Biden victory. But experts see a number of scenarios in which Trump and his Republican allies may try to use the power of their offices to throw the results into question. The main risk factor, experts say, is the massive increase in the number of mail-in ballots that will be used this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Polls show that Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail, which could make it appear that Trump is ahead on election night based on an advantage from in-person voting. At that point, some say he may try to claim victory and mount an effort, with the help of swing-state Republicans, to stop mail-in votes that could eventually make Biden the winner from being counted.

The American system has mechanisms to deal with a disputed election, but many of the laws are vague and the process is vulnerable to partisan manipulation, legal experts say. Any decision from the Supreme Court, for example, may include votes from three Trump-appointed justices. As lawmakers and courts battle over arcane constitutional questions, potentially violent protests could arise in cities across the country. Key deadlines — the most pressing is Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 — would hang over the whole affair. This complex and heated process may not be enough to determine a winner, or it could result in a president whose victory is viewed as illegitimate by a significant portion of the public. Either would be a crisis for American democracy.

Others have more faith that the U.S. political system will hold up to even the most contentious of disputed elections. The dire scenarios presented above assume that not only will Trump try to affect the election, but that he’ll have enough support to pull off his gambit. Neither of those outcomes is certain. Trump’s rhetoric could be just political posturing or his calls for interference could fall on deaf ears. There’s also the chance that Biden could amass enough of an advantage on Election Day for disputes over mail-in ballots to be largely moot.


A contested election could break our democracy

“In this election year of plague and recession and catastrophized politics, the mechanisms of decision are at meaningful risk of breaking down. Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity.” — Barton Gellman, Atlantic

A conservative Supreme Court could hand Trump an illegitimate victory

“20 years after Bush v. Gore, in an era of hyperpartisanship, it does not seem obvious that the public would — or even should — accept the Supreme Court’s legitimacy as a neutral adjudicator.” — John E. Finn, The Conversation

Fears of election night chaos are unfounded

“Which media outlet is going to report, ‘Trump has a huge lead in the Election Day vote in central Pennsylvania, looks like a landslide to us…’? There is a big market in this country for stoking anxiety about the possibility that Trump might somehow pull this election out of the hat, and I regard this report as pandering to that anxiety, and nothing more." — Political scientist Charles Stewart II to Newsweek

Trump could use the military to squash dissent

“A contested presidential election holds the potential of triggering the collapse of domestic order. Unrest simultaneously affecting dozens of cities on a scale dwarfing recent protests in Portland, Ore., is not inconceivable. Should state and local police agencies prove unable to cope, proponents of order intent on restoring some semblance of stability will argue for deploying U.S. troops. But any such action will carry with it political implications of profound importance.” — Andrew J. Bacevich, The Nation

The odds of a constitutional crisis are low, but there are still major risks

“To be clear, these scenarios are far-fetched. But not impossible. And, they raise a bigger question: Would Americans accept any of these outcomes in today’s toxified political climate?” — Chad Pergram, Fox News

Trump’s election night gambit would fail

“I’ve been one of those to warn that Trump might even declare victory on Election Night if he’s ahead in key states at that point. … The scenario by which Trump would then nail down a purloined victory in the Electoral College (short of an actual coup to impose it) has never been all that clear, and its improbability might prevent even this lawless president to go there.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

History has shown that the American system can endure tough election fights

“History suggests, then, that even if Trump or Biden contest the election, the results would not be catastrophic.” — Alexander Cohen, The Conversation

The president has significant power to undermine a fair election

“What happens if Trump won’t go? The answer is bleak. Experts tell me that the president actually has a lot of power at his discretion to contest the election, and some of the scenarios that could bring us to the edge of a crisis are actually very plausible.” — Geoffrey Skelley, FiveThirtyEight

Trump is clearly laying the groundwork to contest the election

“With the election that will decide everything little more than five weeks away, what scares me isn’t so much the seeming bluster of Trump’s threat to claim fraud and ignore the results, but the growing awareness that he’s been building the infrastructure to actually carry it out.” — Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

The country could fall into chaos in the weeks leading up to a resolution

“In a highly charged atmosphere, if the president claims the election is being stolen from him that could trigger more violence, even if his claim isn’t plausible. That likelihood only increases if the election comes down to heated legal fights, with accompanying protests and counter-protests. Conversely, if liberals think Trump is using the courts to steal the election, especially if he moves to suppress protests or stir violence with overheated rhetoric, things could get ugly.”— Cameron Joseph, Vice

The public is ready to push back against any attempt to steal the election

“When people unite to demand democracy and the rule of law, even repressive regimes can be stopped in their tracks. Mass mobilization is no guarantee that our democracy will survive — but if things go as badly as our exercises suggest they might, a sustained, nonviolent protest movement may be America’s best and final hope.” — Rosa Brooks, Washington Post

A large share of the public will see either winner as illegitimate

“Trump’s assault on the electoral system damages public faith in the elections on both sides of the aisle: Many Republicans actually believe what he’s saying, while many Democrats see his comments as evidence that he’s trying to use his powers of office to rig the game in his favor. … And so we head into Election Day with large chunks of the population poised to doubt the legitimacy of whoever wins.” — Zack Beauchamp, Vox

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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