Attacks on voting by mail. Accusations of voter suppression. Claims of Russian election interference. Hints that President Trump may refuse to leave office.
Following the news lately might make you feel like freaking out.
Please don’t. If we let ourselves get whipped into a frenzy, we risk contributing to the outcome that we as citizens seek most to avoid: the undermining of democracy in America.
American democracy is currently in a highly fragile state, and if broken, it may be difficult or impossible to repair. A democracy depends upon the trust of its citizens for legitimacy, so widespread doubts can lead quickly to its loss. Results of recent polls asking Americans about their confidence (or lack of it) in the fairness of upcoming elections are already cause for alarm.
Sowing doubts about the election’s legitimacy, especially during a stressful pandemic, is obviously part of Trump’s campaign plan.The president and his political strategists want Americans to believe the system will break under the strain. But it seems more likely they want the system to break — and are doing all they can to make it happen.
It’s vitally important not to fall into these legitimacy-killing traps. Expecting the worst can make it more likely to occur, especially since Trump rarely seems to miss an opportunity to do the wrong thing. If everyone already thinks he’s going to contest the outcome of the election, he may have little to lose by actually doing it.
For starters, we should all agree there are some lines that Trump simply cannot cross. When he floated the idea of postponing the November 3 election, for example, widespread objections were raised and Trump backed down.
Let’s not kid ourselves; there are real dangers ahead. Bad actors are waiting in the wings.
Well before vote-counting begins, everyone — Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, undecideds, nonvoters, non-Americans — should insist that Trump honor the results. Not because we give Trump any credit, but because American laws and institutions deserve credit. They may be the last and only hope for preserving US democracy.
Let’s not kid ourselves; there are real dangers ahead. Bad actors are waiting in the wings. They are willing and able to make things go wrong, and we should prepare for that possibility. But instead of assuming the worst, let’s try to make certain that things go right.
The first step is to avoid freaking out, and not falling for Trump’s underhanded efforts to delegitimize the election. The next step is to encourage turnout, whether in person or by mail, and to do everything possible to ensure that every ballot is counted accurately.
If turnout is high and the outcome is decisive, it will be difficult or impossible to steal the election. This will nullify Republican lawsuits intended to restrict ballot collection by third parties, to prohibit the use of drop boxes, to throw out late ballots without postmarks, and to strictly enforce witness requirements. Even if Republicans win these lawsuits — which is far from certain — they’re unlikely to change the outcome unless the election is very close.
Trump’s attacks on voting by mail may also be counterproductive, by convincing more Democrats to vote in person. When it comes to shaping public perceptions, being first to tell your story is usually helpful, so if early returns on Election Night show Democratic challenger Joe Biden leading, they tilt the narrative in his favor.
The GOP’s tactics have already spurred efforts to help voters get the details of mail voting right, and to ensure their ballots are counted. Many Republicans, including the president, have been forced to walk back attacks on voting by mail after realizing they risked inadvertently discouraging their own followers from casting ballots.
David Lublin, professor and chair of the Department of Government at American University in Washington, DC, said in an interview with WhoWhatWhy that Trump “is doing his best to convince us that [the election process] is highly corrupt in the manner of some problematic democracies.”
In reality, Lublin said, the US election system is “not perfect, but is basically okay despite flaws.” He points out there have been several reforms to improve the system since the closely contested 2000 presidential election, which ended only when the US Supreme Court called a halt to vote recounts in Florida.
“While the pandemic has indeed placed challenges on the system, we are nevertheless still better positioned to address them,” Lublin added.
America has seen many close presidential elections — some challenged, some not — and the Republic still stands. If the US is really on the road to becoming a “problematic democracy” — well, we’re not there yet, and it’s not too late to slam on the brakes and make a U-turn. So keep calm, pay attention, and remember to vote.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Ian Th Atha / Flickr and Alison Oddy / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).