The Election That Could Break America
The United States has never failed to clear the bar of electing its next president. For The Atlantic’s new cover story, Barton Gellman issues a devastating warning that––in this year of plague, recession, “a reckless incumbent, a deluge of mail-in ballots, a vandalized Postal Service, a resurgent effort to suppress votes”––the mechanisms of decision making are fragile and at meaningful risk of breaking down. In short, our democracy has never before experienced anything like this.His report for The Atlantic’s November cover is “The Election That Could Break America.” The Atlantic is moving up its publication to today, weeks ahead of schedule, given the urgency of the reporting and the narrowing time until November 3. Merely by refusing to concede, which no other candidate has done in the modern era, Trump would have the tools to keep the outcome in dispute indefinitely. Gellman's reporting shows that Republicans are already discussing contingency plans to seize on this uncertainty to try to bypass the popular vote and directly appoint electors to the Electoral College.“Begin by rejecting the temptation to think that this election will carry on as elections usually do,” Gellman writes. “Something far out of the norm is likely to happen. Probably more than one thing. Expecting otherwise will dull our reflexes. It will lull us into spurious hope that Trump is tractable to forces that constrain normal incumbents.”Gellman reports that the worst-case scenario is not that Trump simply rejects the election outcome and refuses to leave. The worst case is that he could use his power to “prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all.” On January 20, 2021, “two men could show up to be sworn in. One of them would arrive with all the tools and power of the presidency already in hand.” This would be a genuine constitutional crisis. And as Gellman’s reporting shows, there is no umpire in this game, no singular authority that can tell the loser that he has lost.Details from Gellman’s reporting that are of extreme consequence to the American public include:Republicans are discussing contingency plans to bypass the popular vote and directly appoint loyal electors to the Electoral College. According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, Gellman reports that, using a “justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislatures to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of Trump electors directly.” A Trump-campaign legal adviser tells Gellman that “the push to appoint electors would be framed in terms of protecting people’s will. Once committed to the position that the overtime vote has been rigged, the adviser said, state lawmakers will want to judge for themselves what the voters intended.” Three Republican leaders in Pennsylvania tell Gellman they had already discussed the direct appointment of electors among themselves, and one says he has discussed it with Trump’s national campaign.The 2020 presidential election will be the first in 40 years to take place without a federal judge requiring the Republican National Committee to seek approval in advance for any “ballot security” operations. The consent decree, a court order forbidding Republican operatives from using any of a long list of voter-purging and intimidation techniques, expired in 2018 after a federal judge ruled that the decree had worked and Republicans hadn’t recently violated its terms. As a result, Gellman writes, “Republicans have launched a program to recruit 50,000 volunteers in 15 contested states” to monitor polling places and challenge voters they deem suspicious-looking.If you are a voter, think about voting in person. In a year when the presidential election may be the first conducted primarily by mail, Trump’s continual decrying of mail-in voting as a fraud is not meant to prevent votes from being cast this way. His purpose is to discredit the practice, starve it of resources, and suppress votes. His attacks are funneling Republicans away from the mail-in ballots that he will suppress and attempt to disquality. Gellman writes: “Trump, in other words, has created a proxy to distinguish friend from foe. Republican lawyers around the country will find this useful when litigating the count. Playing by the numbers, they can treat ballots cast by mail as hostile, just as they do ballots cast in person by urban and college-town voters. Those are the ballots they will contest.”With only weeks until Election Night, Gellman reports that right now, the best we can do is an ad hoc defense of democracy. “If you are a voter, think about voting in person after all,” he advises. “If you are at relatively low risk for COVID-19, volunteer to work at the polls. If you know people who are open to reason, spread the word that it is normal for the results to change after Election Night. If you manage news coverage, anticipate extraconstitutional measures and position reporters and crews to respond to them. If you are an election administrator, plan for contingencies you never had to imagine before. If you are a mayor, consider how to deploy your police to ward off interlopers with bad intent. If you are a law-enforcement officer, protect the freedom to vote. If you are a legislator, choose not to participate in chicanery. If you are a judge on the bench in a battleground state, refresh your acquaintance with electoral case law. If you have a place in the military chain of command, remember your duty to turn aside unlawful orders. If you are a civil servant, know that your country needs you more than ever to do the right thing when you’re asked to do otherwise.”“Take agency. An election cannot be stolen unless the American people, at some level, acquiesce.”“The Election That Could Break America” is published at The Atlantic today. The November issue will continue to publish online in the coming weeks.