The Trump campaign has called on an “army of supporters” to observe the polls — emboldening far-right groups who feel called upon to take action. Trump has argued that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett must be urgently confirmed so that she can rule on legal challenges around the election (presumably in his favor). And he has refused to commit to a “peaceful transfer of power.” All of this makes the risk of a constitutional crisis in the aftermath of the election — perhaps involving political violence — greater than at any moment in modern American history.
Thankfully, there is still time to avoid that dangerous scenario. But doing so starts with clear, direct messaging from Democrats, the press and any remaining principled Republicans who are willing to put country before party.
There are three urgent tasks.
First, responsible politicians and journalists should manage expectations of when decisive results will be known. This isn’t just because of the unprecedented rise in mail-in and absentee ballots due to the pandemic. In 2018, many press outlets mischaracterized the midterm election as a “split decision” rather than a “blue wave.” A few days later, as results were finalized, it became clear that Democrats had won their biggest election victory since 1974. That initial misperception could have been avoided with a little patience.
This year, Republicans have deliberately chosen to block efforts to process absentee and mail-in ballots swiftly, most notably in Pennsylvania. That reeks of a malicious strategy to produce a misleading narrative on election night — what some have called the “red mirage.” But as long as we’re ready for it, it’s no big deal. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires Wolf Blitzer to declare definitive result three hours after polls close. Democrats, journalists and Republicans who still respect the republic should make it clear to voters that it might take a few days to know the full results. That’s okay. Take a deep breath. Our democracy will be better off for it.
Second, any and all prominent Republicans who still believe in democracy have a duty to speak out and insist that every legal vote be counted — regardless of what the president says or does around the election. This should not be partisan. But because Trump so often demonizes Democrats as “un-American” and “treasonous,” Republican voices are needed to get through to those voters.
If Trump loses and tries to reject results or create false perceptions of the election tally, Republicans such as Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, Carly Fiorina, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have a civic duty to go on television and denounce such authoritarian tactics. It might not win over the die-hards, but it would make it clear to everyone else that Trump’s desperation is not rooted in reality. Doing so could prevent extremists from taking matters into their own hands.
Third, secretaries of state and local election officials — particularly in battleground states — need to lead with transparency. Some jurisdictions are approaching the election with a novel tactic to give voters even more confidence in the system: live-streaming vote tabulation centers. In Denver, you can watch an excruciatingly boring live feed that allows you to see ballots arrive, get verified and get counted. That’s a rare bit of reality TV that’s actually good for American democracy. Election officials should put the dull minutiae of our elections in the public spotlight as much as possible.
Still, we already know what’s coming: Trumpian Republicans will mislead voters by pointing to minor, routine mistakes as evidence of widespread fraud. They may also just make stuff up, using sophisticated disinformation campaigns.
The truth is that accurate vote counting has historically been a bright spot of our elections. Broadcast journalists can help get that message across. They should give platforms not to those who peddle lies but to wonky election experts who can explain to voters precisely why Trump’s false claims of fraud are inaccurate. In battleground states with close results, daily televised briefings from secretaries of state would be most welcome. Let the sunlight in, and let it shine on the mundane reality of methodical ballot counting, so that those who wish to spread lies can’t gain traction.
Hopefully, the worst will not come to pass. Perhaps the election will be a blowout and the result will be obvious. But a nail-biter election, which is certainly possible, is likely to throw the country into a dangerous constitutional crisis, all while a would-be autocrat occupies the White House. To avoid that scenario, Democrats, Republicans who believe in democracy, and the press need to pay attention to the red flags and act now.