But if Senate Republicans hesitate, waiting to see how things play out, then the responsibility will shift to Republicans in battleground states, where Trump could encourage GOP-controlled state legislatures to overturn their voters’ judgment.
Here, the impact of partisan gerrymandering, and the legacy of Trump’s impeachment, both come into play.
The notion of a state’s elected politicians acting to subvert the will of their own citizens should be unthinkable. But that’s, in effect, what gerrymandering is.
Elections are supposed to be held for the benefit of voters so that the public obtains the officeholders it wants. Gerrymandering is premised on the contrary approach: letting incumbent politicians manipulate the electoral system to defy the popular will for partisan advantage.
Soon, the country may be forced to confront the question of whether this anti-democracy attitude has so taken hold that it could actually undo a presidential election.
Indeed, as much as the pandemic has posed huge logistical challenges for election officials, it’s not the coronavirus that is causing the greatest electoral stress this year. The bigger challenge is whether the politicians who currently hold the reins of power truly want the outcome of the presidential election to turn on the preferences of the voters.
That’s where impeachment comes in. The House’s impeachment of Trump, and the Senate’s near-party-line vote to acquit him, impose a particular responsibility on Republicans, both in state government and the Senate.
Although it may seem like ancient history, the impeachment was about the election. Trump was impeached for attempting to abuse the powers of incumbency to subvert a fair fight against Biden, his expected, and eventual, opponent. By his behavior, Trump made clear his willingness to cling to power at all costs. Democrats consequently argued for conviction because, they said, he was too dangerous to be allowed to remain in office.
Senate Republicans were correct to resist that move. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) argued to “let the people decide” the president’s fate in November, and I supported that approach. It does not help democracy to deprive one party of its chosen candidate.
The logical consequence of that acquittal is that Alexander and his party now shoulder a responsibility to ensure that their admonition is put into practice. Letting the voters decide now really means letting the voters decide — not attempting to subvert their choice. It means that if Trump tries to secure a second term despite a landslide against him, other elected Republicans must resist that move even if they have the raw power to help Trump’s effort.
One would think decisive results would tamp down the hyperpartisan forces that might try to defy the popular vote. But given the current political culture of the battleground states, where Republicans hold majorities in the legislatures — and do so after the most aggressive cycle of hyper-partisan gerrymandering in U.S. history — there are reasons to worry.
If the race tightens at the end, there’s even more cause for concern, since any temptation toward a power grab will face less counterpressure.
The result could look like this: A majority of voters in a battleground state — Pennsylvania is one potential example — back former vice president Joe Biden. The state’s Democratic governor certifies that result and approves a slate of electors pledged to support Biden. But the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, agrees with Trump that the results are rigged and approves a competing slate of Trump electors.
Undoubtedly, if Republicans attempt to use their gerrymandered power to subvert the popular vote for president this way, they will face lawsuits and massive protests from Democrats.
However, if state legislatures refuse to accept the certified results of their popular votes, the fight will come to Congress in January. And Republicans — including Mike Pence as president of the Senate — will have to decide whether they remain true to Alexander’s principle.
If Democrats take control of the Senate, this won’t matter under the relevant statute. The Democratic House and Senate would reject the Trump elector slate from any state where the popular vote went to Biden. But if Republicans remain in control of the Senate, Republican senators would then have to choose whether to accept the certified results of the popular vote in that state or to jettison their “let the people decide” rhetoric in order to declare Trump the winner.
America was founded on the basic idea of governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” as the Declaration of Independence extols. It would be the ultimate violation if GOP senators repudiated this most fundamental of national values solely for the sake of retaining power.