I’ve spent the past few weeks talking to veteran homeland security officials, state and local law enforcement, senior military officers and others who, in theory, will help provide an orderly election and inauguration.
The answer I heard repeatedly was that systems are in place for a stable transition. With all the absentee ballots, it will take longer to count the votes, and the outcome may be in doubt for days or even weeks. But if Trump loses, it will be very difficult for him to cling to office. There are just too many career lawyers, cops, generals and other public servants in the way.
“Election officials know how to run elections. They happen every year, after all,” says Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security.
Trusting bureaucracy and legal procedure in this time of division and dysfunction may sound naive. But it’s worth noting how many roadblocks exist to any potential effort — foreign or domestic — to subvert the vote.
The framework was described for me by Krebs. He said that 45 days before the election, his cybersecurity agency will move to “enhanced readiness” for any disruptive incidents. A week before Election Day, he’ll open an “election operations center” to monitor threats and share information with the FBI, the intelligence community, election officials, tech companies, political parties and campaigns. It will stay open until the winner is clear.
Finally, in the days surrounding Nov. 3, Krebs will manage a “cyber security situational awareness room” that can share information and coordinate with all 50 states and thousands of election jurisdictions around the country.
Krebs cautioned last month after meeting with state election directors and secretaries of state (who will oversee the balloting): “Election Day may look different than you’ve seen in the past, and with more Americans voting absentee, it will take longer to tabulate and report complete results.”
Amid the delay and anxiety, rumors will swirl, and Krebs warned that “adversaries may seek to exploit that confusion to spread doubt.” The right response is patience and reliance on trusted information, he advised.
What about the risk that the U.S. Postal Service won’t be able to deliver all the absentee ballots in time this year? That worry spiked after Trump menacingly raised the issue last week. But Trump’s comments galvanized a pushback within the Postal Service and on Capitol Hill. One state election security official told me that if the USPS can cope with roughly 3 billion pieces of mail in the week before Christmas, it should be able to handle 100 million absentee ballots.
Worries about the Postal Service eased with Tuesday’s announcement by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that he would suspend cost-cutting measures and service reductions until after the election. The bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State, whose members oversee elections, had sent him a letter Aug. 7 requesting a virtual meeting to affirm that the USPS would be “a vital partner in administering a safe, successful election.”
Could Trump deploy a paramilitary force during the turbulent times ahead? Such fears increased after Border Patrol agents and federal marshals were sent to Portland, Ore., last month to suppress violent protests there. I put the question to David Aguilar, former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and he was skeptical about any broad deployment of DHS personnel.
Aguilar said that any such operations would be vetted by career attorneys at CBP and DHS, who would have to approve the authorities, operating plans and rules of engagement. He said career employees supported the stand-down in Portland negotiated by Vice President Pence.
“If we’re not needed, we don’t want to be there,” Aguilar said of the career workforce. “They recognize that they do not work for an individual. They don’t work for a political party. They check every box to make sure they’re not stepping outside the lines of our Constitution. That’s what gives me reassurance.”
Sociologist Max Weber had an insight about what shapes modern societies: Revolutions ebb and flow, and technology frames our economic life. But we’re creatures of bureaucracy — the implacable, embedded force of laws and procedures. Trump is a disrupter. But, as he is discovering anew each day, there are limits.