A coalition of progressive and liberal groups is now gearing up for the possibility of scenarios just like those.
The coalition — which is called “Protect the Results” — now includes two dozen groups. Among them: Stand Up America, Indivisible, Communication Workers of America, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Community Change Action, MoveOn and Republicans for the Rule of Law.
Their plan: To begin building a grass-roots network now that can be mobilized if any such nightmare scenario does materialize, to immediately put a big show of force into the streets to push back.
It’s easy to envision scenarios in which something like this proves entirely unnecessary. Trump could, of course, win outright. Or Joe Biden could win by a sizable enough margin that Trump has no hope of obscuring the results.
Or the vote counting could go more smoothly than we all expect, Biden could win by a tight but still clear margin, and Trump might defy predictions and concede defeat — once it becomes clear there’s little appetite among Republicans for a protracted authoritarian temper tantrum.
Still, there remains a great deal to worry about.
And so, this new coalition is starting this work right now. I’m told it intends to launch digital ads that encourage Americans to sign up now to be easily activated for a mass mobilization, if necessary. The coalition itself — labor, good government and voting rights groups, and even a clutch of Never Trumpers — speaks to the breadth and depth of the anxiety of the moment.
There are good reasons to remain on high alert — and some of these reasons may not be immediately apparent. Richard L. Hasen, who wrote a book about possible election meltdowns, suggests such a scenario.
If the race comes down to one or two states — say, Wisconsin and Arizona are up in the air, or Florida is very close — and the president retains an incredibly narrow lead on Election Day with large numbers of mail-in ballots still uncounted, Trump could declare victory.
If so, a lot depends on what elected Republicans say and do. With the base pressuring them to side with Trump in crowning himself the winner, a mass mobilization against this might make it harder.
“The extent to which it’s clear that the public is not going to accept attempts to manipulate election outcomes is going to weigh on leaders across the board,” Hasen told me. “Public protest is an important part of preserving democracy when elected leaders are breaking norms.”
A second scenario involves the media. As a group of elections experts recently pointed out, a tremendous amount is riding on whether the media adequately communicates it to the public whether very large amounts of mail-in ballots remain uncounted on election night.
This could be particularly problematic in the case of U.S. Postal Service backlogs with much higher demand for mail-in ballots amid the pandemic, as election lawyer Marc Elias notes.
Careful media coverage will entail both stressing that the results are too early to call — as opposed to rushing to make such calls — and explanations to the public about the procedural details involved with outstanding mail-in ballots and the challenges of counting them.
The media will also have to work hard to debunk the inevitable ALL CAPS tweets from Trump about how the election is being stolen. At stake, those experts note, is “the perceived legitimacy of the election.”
One of the organizers of this new mobilization effort tells me this is a key consideration. A large movement that is shaping up to exercise real vigilance over the results could help signal to the media how high the stakes are and prod coverage in a more constructive direction.
We have to hope above all else that none of this is ever necessary. But even those who like to downplay the authoritarian threat that Trump poses would likely not bet their life savings against a scenario in which Trump does prematurely declare victory or refuse to concede. Which is a measure of how far we’ve fallen.