One of the ongoing challenges of the Donald Trump presidency is that there are so many alarms set off by his troubling tweets, dubious claims, and unfounded statements that it is hard to know which alarms should be taken seriously. A number of reports over the past week suggest we are watching a five-alarm fire that threatens to consume American democracy.
On Wednesday, Trump said that he believes the result of the upcoming presidential election will “end up in the Supreme Court.” Avoiding a tie vote in this instance is one reason for his rush to fill the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat ahead of Election Day. While there is precedent for election results to go before the Supreme Court (the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore), it is unprecedented for anyone, including the sitting president, to publicly assume the results will require litigation before a single ballot has been cast.
Later that day, when asked whether he will commit to a peaceful transition of power after the election, Trump responded, “We’re going to have to see what happens,” and repeated unsubstantiated concerns over mailed ballots.
Having a president who is so dismissive of the very foundation of democracy — the peaceful transition of power — is frightening enough. That fear becomes exponentially greater when he is backed by a party that is willing to use any tool in its arsenal to bypass the will of the people.
Take, for example, this scenario, which could play out in Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state because of our 20 votes toward the 270 needed to win the electoral college. Each candidate chooses 20 electors. In December, after the popular vote has been calculated, the electors chosen by the winning candidate in each state will cast their ceremonial ballots.
However, the Republican-controlled General Assembly could argue that the popular vote is not to be trusted and assert its power to appoint an alternative set of electors, loyal to Donald Trump. The Chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, Lawrence Tabas, told The Atlantic that he mentioned this option to Trump’s national campaign. Pa. State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman also acknowledged this as a possibility.
This plan would create a lot of problems.
It would likely lead to a dispute with the Democratic Governor Tom Wolf about whether his signature to approve such a move is necessary. The issue could end up at the Democratic majority Pennsylvania Supreme Court. If the dispute carries through December 8th, the “safe harbor” deadline, Congress would have to decide which set of electors from Pennsylvania to count.
The logic of this strategy depends on the trustworthiness of the vote count.
The integrity of the count has dominated the conversation for months, fueled by Trump’s false claims that vote-by-mail is more prone to fraud. His Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has taken deliberate steps to slow mail. In Pennsylvania, a Republican legislature set the tight deadlines for requesting and submitting mail ballots, and the requirements governing such ballots (such as to have the ballot in an inner secrecy envelope that is placed within a second envelope to avoid a “naked ballot" that would be tossed out).
To counter these alarming scenarios, there must be a concerted effort to save American democracy.
It requires discipline from elected officials, social media companies, the general public, and the media to recognize there is a good chance that there won’t be a definitive result on election night. The election only ends when every vote that was cast has been counted — regardless what statements anyone makes or what early returns suggest. Just because results take time doesn’t mean they are any less accurate.
But the only true vaccine to post-election chaos is to secure a definitive outcome as early as possible. That means that every person who is worried about the future of American democracy should request and mail a ballot early. Those who’d rather vote in person, and are able and willing to comply with safety protocols, should ensure they are registered and make a voting plan.