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WASHINGTON – Calling the November election a "struggle to preserve American democracy," Bernie Sanders warned Americans on Thursday to prepare for a doomsday scenario in which President Donald Trump could try to declare victory prematurely by seeking to discredit absentee ballots counted after Election Day.
Striking a somber and urgent tone, the Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential candidate steered clear of his bread-and-butter progressive causes in a speech from an empty auditorium at George Washington University. He instead addressed a fundamental principle of a democracy.
"What I am going to talk about is something that, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be discussing," Sanders said, beginning his 30-minute speech. "And that is the need to make certain that the President of the United States, if he loses this election, will abide by the will of the voters and leave office peacefully."
The remarks kicked off a new six-week campaign for the self-described Democratic socialist, a supporter of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, to highlight the "unique threats to democracy" he said Trump poses. He was making his first live public speech since the Democratic primary in March. He also sought to give young progressive voters who backed him in the primary – some not enthused about Biden – another reason to vote.
"This is not just an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden," Sanders said. "This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy – and democracy must win."
Sanders' speech came one day after Trump declined to say when asked by a reporter whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he were to lose. Trump said "get rid of the ballots" and "there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation." The president's position was strongly rebuked by members of both parties.
"That’s not his choice," Sanders said. "That’s for the American people to determine. Let us be very clear. There is nothing in our constitution or in our laws that give Donald Trump the privilege of deciding whether or not he will step aside if he loses."
The senator added: "That may be what his friend Putin does in Russia. It may be what is done in other authoritarian countries. But it is not and will not be done in America. This is a democracy."
Sanders' stark framing of the race between Trump and Biden echoed President Barack Obama, who during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, warned, "That’s what’s at stake right now: our democracy."
Trump has accused Democrats of seeking to "rig" the election through mail-in ballots, which he's slammed without evidence as being more fraudulent than voting in person. Trump has complained about the weeks it might take election officials to count all absentee ballots, and he's not been clear whether he would accept election results.
While Trump has questioned the legitimacy of "universal mail-voting," Democrats have requested overwhelmingly more mail-in ballots than Republican voters. Polling suggests Biden supporters are twice as likely to vote by mail than Trump supporters.
"In other words," Sanders said, "if Trump can undermine people’s confidence in the validity of votes cast by mail, he will be calling into question the validity of votes that may overwhelmingly support Joe Biden."
Sanders also advanced a theory pushed by Democrats who have have warned of a "red mirage" on election night as in-person election results – expected to favor Trump and perhaps show him ahead in many states – are initially reported before a record number of absentee ballots, that could skew toward Biden, are counted.
"Trump then announces, with no proof," Sanders said, "that there has been massive mail in ballot fraud and that these votes should not be counted – and that he has won the election. In other words, Trump may well announce that he has won the election before all of the votes are counted and that large numbers of mail-in ballots should be discarded."
Sanders suggested states with legislatures controlled by Republicans – these include battleground states like North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – could ignore election results because of "false accusations of voter fraud." He predicted the legislatures itself could then "use its power to appoint electors pledged to vote for Trump, overriding the will of the people."
Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager, in a statement, called Sanders a "disgruntled former presidential candidate" and accused him of "spouting conspiracy theories about hypothetical results."
"If Bernie Sanders wants us to be able to have faith in the results on November 3rd, maybe he should ask the Democrat Party to quit sowing chaos and confusion that could lead to voter disenfranchisement and delayed vote tallies – that’s a tangible step he could take instead of spouting nonsense that is laying the groundwork for Joe Biden to dismiss the outcome when he loses.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment on Sanders' speech.
Sanders' election night scenario is one that was explored by the Transition Integrity Project. The bipartisan group this summer assembled nearly 70 Trump critics, including law professors, retired military officers, former senior U.S. officials, political strategists and attorneys, to conduct "war games" on what the outcome of the election could like. Sanders told The New York Times before his speech that he spoke to Rosa Brooks, a professor of law and policy at Georgetown University and co-founder of the project.
The Transition Integrity Project found a high degree of likelihood the presidential winner will not be known on election night as officials count mail-ballots, giving "opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome."
Trump has blasted mail-voting throughout the campaign, warning without evidence that it is more fraudulent that voting in-person person. An analysis from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found 491 cases of absentee voter fraud out of billions of votes cast across all U.S. elections from 2000 to 2012.
The president's position shifted in recent months to single out "universal" mail-voting as posing the biggest danger for voter fraud and threat to democracy.
But only nine states and the District of Columbia are holding universal mail-in elections –in which ballots are automatically mailed unsolicited to all registered voters without needing to first request one. Five of those states planned to hold all-mail elections even before the pandemic and only one of those states – Nevada – is considered a battleground in the race for president.
A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit from the Trump campaign that sought to overturn Nevada’s vote-by-mail law, ruling that the campaign lacked standing.
"Trump's strategy to delegitimize this election and to stay in office if he loses is not complicated," Sanders said, adding that Trump, who is trailing in national and battleground polls, and Republicans are "doing everything they can to make it harder and harder for people to vote."
"In addition, he is sowing the seeds of chaos, confusion and conspiracy theories by casting doubt on the integrity of this election and, if he loses, justifying why he should remain in office."
Sanders quickly endorsed Biden when the former vice president emerged as the presumptive nominee in April. He spoke on behalf of Biden at the DNC convention, helped Biden piece together policy recommendations, and has held livestream speeches and roundtables for the campaign. But before Thursday he had not made any public live appearances since the final Democratic primary debate March 15.
Sanders, who finished second in delegates in the Democratic primary, remains a rock star among the Democratic Party's left flank particularly young liberals. But a key part of Trump's campaign strategy has been to try to tie Biden to the "socialist" and liberal policies backed by Sanders and other progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
To win in November, Biden needs Sanders' primary backers to turn out for him in November, but Biden has also sought to deflect the socialism tag.
"I beat the socialist," Biden told a local television station in Wisconsin this week. "That's how I got elected. That's how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career and my whole career. I am not a socialist."
Sanders did not answer questions from reporters following his speech.
He offered a variety of ways for Democrats and others to ensure his worst fears about the election don't become reality. For starters, he called it "absolutely imperative" that the U.S. breaks voter turnout records. He said a landslide victory for Biden would make it "virtually impossible for Trump to deny the results."
He said states "must take action now" to ensure ballots can be counted as they come in before Election Day. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among the states that do not allow the counting of absentee ballots to begin until polls close, meaning it could take days or weeks to know their final results. Legislation in Michigan and Pennsylvania would allow that process to begin earlier, but it has stalled in its state legislatures.
Sanders called on the media to "prepare the American people to understand there is no longer a single election day" and that it's possible results won't be ready on Nov. 3.
He pushed social media networks to "get their act together" and fight back at the spread disinformation. He also urged Congress to hold hearings immediately to explain how the election process is handled and help assemble a bipartisan committee to oversee the integrity of the election.
"Lastly, and most importantly," Sanders said, "the American people, no matter what their political persuasion, must make it clear that American democracy will not be destroyed."
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bernie Sanders: Donald Trump poses 'unique threats to democracy'