Though former Vice-President Joe Biden maintains a relatively stable polling lead over President Donald Trump, there’s still good reason to prepare for a contested election. For months, President Trump has generated a steady stream of disinformation about mail-in voting, falsely associating it with high levels of voter fraud, and there’s no reason to think that the disinformation campaign will end when election results start coming in on November 3.
Fourteen states, including the battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, won’t begin to authenticate, much less count, mail-in ballots until that day, and definitive election results may not be available for some time. Even if preliminary returns point to a Biden electoral victory, Trump has already refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power.
As president, Trump has immense powers to sow confusion and chaos as the nation enters a period of deepening uncertainty. He can call for investigations into voting and tabulating processes and encourage state legislatures to submit alternative slates of electors.
Though he may lag in the polls, Trump continues to garner strategic support from such key players as state officials, judicial appointees, and right-wing TV and radio hosts. Witness Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s use of the “ballot security” canard to limit the number of ballot drop-off sites to one per county (e.g. only one site for Houston’s Harris County, with 2.3 million voters). Vote suppression, unable to hide the raw usurpation of power beneath a flimsy veil of legality, is closely intertwined with the disinformation and disruption that have characterized the Trump campaign from the outset.
What, then, does it mean to prepare for a contested election? In part it means getting to know work that’s been already completed or that is underway: work that anticipates and seeks to forestall efforts that could undermine the electoral process. This past summer, for example, Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks and Berggruen Institute Vice-President of Programs Nils Gilman convened a bipartisan group of approximately 100 policy experts and former and current government officials to run exercises simulating various scenarios involving the upcoming presidential election. Called the Transition Integrity Project (TIP), this effort was “launched out of concern that the Trump Administration may seek to manipulate, ignore, undermine or disrupt the 2020 presidential election and transition process.”
The TIP exercises led participants to conclude that the outcome of a contested election will entail much more of a political struggle than a legal one, and that a major factor in this struggle will involve the kind of narrative, or narratives, that prevail. If there are efforts to stop the counting of ballots, much may rest on the extent to which citizens mobilize in massive street protests. By the same token, such protests may lead Trump to encourage violent responses from some right-wing groups, and in such chaos he may seek to position himself as the only figure able to restore law and order.
Other groups and individuals involved in preparation and trainings for a chaotic post-election period have stressed the importance of nonviolence and the adherence to democratic norms and values. Choose Democracy, a source of such trainings, offers participants a pledge that asks them, among other things, to “refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted,” and “to nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.”
Yet another group has put together a manual, Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy, that lays out timelines for preparation, including specific suggestions on how groups can be organized and take active roles in their own communities.
One message from all of this planning is clear: if the election is contested, it won’t be sufficient for people to be passive spectators as a struggle is played out by others. Citizens must play decisive roles in their own communities, and to the extent that individuals carry special responsibilities in fields such as the media, government, civil service, and law enforcement, they must be encouraged to fulfill their responsibilities in ways that protect democratic institutions and the orderly transition of power.
Some argue that the prediction of a chaotic post-election scenario is far-fetched. New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat, for example, sees Donald Trump more as a “corrupt incompetent who postures as a strongman on Twitter” than as “a threat to the Republic to whom words like ‘authoritarian’ and even ‘autocrat’ can be reasonably applied.” Others feel that the polling numbers point to such a resounding Trump defeat that contestation is highly unlikely. But as a summary of the Transition Integrity Project reminds us, “President Trump is not running a normal re-election campaign . . . [his] actions and statements over the course of his presidency raise serious concerns about whether he will observe the norms of our electoral system.”
In view of those concerns, and the evidence underlying them, it makes sense to be prepared: to stay informed, to be aware, and to make choices grounded in one’s best sense of what it means to live in, and sustain, a democratic society.