Election Show

Preparing for Elections That Are Not Free and Fair

By Lincoln Mitchell

As the November election approaches, it is easy to fall back into the habits of previous campaign seasons. We find ourselves studying the latest poll numbers, wishing we had more frequent polling from the swing states, familiarizing ourselves with the competitive senate races, kibitzing about campaign strategies, tactics and advertisements and speculating about who the best running mate would be for Democratic nominee Joseph Biden. All of this is important and, for many of us, even comforting. However, this year we must begin to ask bigger and different questions.

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Implicit in all those habits from previous elections are assumptions that the election will be conducted fairly and that the outcome will be respected by both sides. There is little reason to continue to hold either of those assumptions in 2020. Tuesday’s primary in Georgia where voters waited for hours in long lines to cast their vote, and where, to the surprise of absolutely nobody who understands the first thing about American politics, the lines and waits were longest in areas that were predominantly African American is only the most proximate example of the kind of voter suppression that African Americans, students and Latinos, all strongly Democratic voting blocks, will face in several states in November. This will be compounded by Covid related voting challenges. For example, many states will switch to vote by mail, but administering this policy creates additional opportunities for voter suppression. Questions such as whether every voter is mailed a ballot or application to vote by mail, whether voters need to pay for postage to mail in their ballots and when deadlines are set will have an impact on voter turnout and who votes.

Given the widespread demonstrations occurring around the country over the last weeks and the general instability that Donald Trump has nurtured, there are other issues around this election we have not needed to consider in the past. First, the notion that Trump will not leave office if he loses has migrated from a fringe idea to a major concern of the Democratic Party. We cannot know for certain what Trump will do if he loses, but given how much he has already sought to undermine the credibility of this election and suggest, falsely, that voter fraud is a major problem, it would be very foolish to just assume that he will accept the outcome if the election does not go his way.

Despite the polls that show Trump trailing Biden badly both nationally and in the electoral college, it is still possible that Trump manages a narrow electoral college victory. However, if Trump does that by winning several states by very small margins amidst evidence of voter suppression while losing the popular vote by a large margin-a very realistic scenario-he will have won through an undemocratic process and have no legitimacy going into his second term. In that scenario he will struggle to gain legitimacy and stabilize the country. 

It is possible that Biden wins the election by 40 electoral votes leading Trump to send bitter Tweets, be uncooperative during the transition and then slink off to Mar-a-Lago on January 21st of 2021, but there is a greater chance than any time in at least the last century that the election ends with neither a peaceful transition nor a legitimate president. Therefore, we must recognize and begin to address the reality that the crisis of American democracy is upon us now and is very real.


 Lincoln Mitchell, is a  Columbia University professor, political analyst, pundit, writer and co-host of "The Election Show on MNN"

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