Will our Electoral System withstand the assault?
America is unique in many ways. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of our country is the fact that for over 230 years we have had a peaceful transition of power and leadership. Even during the Civil War, the federal government remained intact and continued to function. At its conclusion, the rebel states were once again reintegrated without the collapse of the existing structure. This is a remarkable feat unmatched anywhere else in the world.
During that period, Europe was marked with often violet change as absolutist empires or fragmented states transitioned into some form of representative government, failed, and tried again. There have been five “French Republics,” with a bit of despotism and dictatorship in between. The British evolution into a democratic state started much earlier with the Magna Carta more than eight centuries ago. However, the intervening period was replete with revolutions and violent regime change. Even up into the 1800’s the hereditary monarchy held considerable power.
It seems that revolution is the easy part. Sustaining a democracy is difficult. This year, we may discover just how hard this is. We are now witnessing the most serious challenge to the maintenance of our democratic system since the Civil War.
The key to our process is the belief that we have free and fair elections. Of course, nothing is perfect (and never will be) and as our country has developed, the process has improved. Our faith in the system, confidence that our vote counts, is the foundation of our system. There is no other viable alternative.
Historically, there have been challenges to election results and disputes at many levels of government. Ultimately, the 2000 Presidential race was decided by the courts. The issue was how to count the ballots or more precisely how to interpret the marks made by a manual voting system. However, there was not a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the election process. This is the novel and damaging component today.
Compounding the problem will be the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mail-in-voting will be prominent. Social distancing requirements will likely cause delays which could put pressure on closing polls when lines of people have not been able to vote. There is opportunity for both error and disenfranchisement. However, one only has to witness the efficient local process to understand that the obstacles are not insurmountable.
Nationally, deep partisan politics is undermining the public’s confidence in the system. This is not by happenstance rather a key component of the election strategies and both political parties are responsible. However, one must admit that the Trump camp has been far more vociferous in its rhetoric.
In the Presidential debate, the moderator asked a key question: ”What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?” The responses were at times incoherent and at others obfuscated but collectively revealed deep concerns.
Quoting politicians is tricky and it is easy to take comments out of context. However, words matter and their meaning reveal the essential heart of the matter.
President Trump has made clear statements that he believes the system is already flawed if not outright fraudulent (before the process has significantly begun). “They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud…already, there’s been fraud…if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that…It means you have a fraudulent election.”
When asked in a press conference if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he balked. “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.” He further stated, “We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be. I don’t know that it can be”
A further indication of the President’s perception that the overall system is defective is his call for supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” This is very different action than training and emplacing poll watchers, which has been done in the past. Today, the specter of groups of potentially confrontational amateurs, there not to verify that the process is fair but to actively seek out fraud, is troubling.
The real test will occur in the aftermath of election day. How long will it take to tally the votes? When will we have a declared winner? Will it go to the courts (it will) and on what grounds will the outcome be challenged? Ultimately, will both sides accept the results (without casting dispersions on the process)?
The specter of a sitting president refusing to leave office until “he” is satisfied with the results is beyond concerning. At best, this election will test all of the mechanisms our Founding Fathers set up. The real issue is whether those processes will be accepted as legitimate. Will we continue to acknowledge that (no matter how flawed it is perceived) we must accept the results and follow the Constitutionally mandated procedure for the transition of power?
Regardless, it is apparent that the slippery slope eroding the people’s belief in the system has steepened. I fear that we could be headed for a crisis in the future, a time when the process fails, and someone may seek an alternative method for taking power. This is the road to anarchy or authoritarianism.