If you thought the 36-day national agony over “hanging chads” in the 2000 presidential election was bad, imagine what President Trump might do if the 2020 election is too close to call on Election Night. He’s already preparing the script for a remake of the 2000 election with his own authoritarian twist.
By now, it’s easy to ignore Trump’s angry, conspiracy-laced tweets about a rigged election. We shouldn’t, though, because it very well could be a preview of what’s to come. For example, here’s a tweet from last Friday:
He’s right about one thing. Election results are likely to be delayed this year. Coronavirus concerns have prompted states to expand mail-in voting options, and millions of Americans have taken up the offer. Those ballots take much longer to count than in-person votes. When the 2000 election became “too close to call,” everything came down to a trio of Florida counties where lawyers wrangled over butterfly ballots, miscounts, undervotes, overvotes, hanging chad, swinging chad, tri chad, dimpled chad, and pregnant chad, too. This time, President Trump is already questioning ballots three months before a single vote is cast.
So, go on and get your anti-anxiety meds ready because the stage is set for a democratic crisis far worse than what we lived through in 2000. This time around, Trump has every lever of the federal government at his disposal. Smear merchants and bots will drive social media discussion, not James Baker and Warren Christopher in the courtrooms. Forget the so-called “Brooks Brothers riot” by a bunch of GOP staffers on a floor of a drab bureaucratic building in Miami. This time around, the Proud Boys and Antifa will be warring in the streets. Do you feel the walls closing in yet?
Good. All the better to prepare.
The 2020 stage is a tinderbox compared to 2000. As of today, over 138,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The commander-in-chief Republican candidate is egging on his base in speeches and tweets depicting his opponents as radical left mobsters hell-bent on destroying the country. Pro-gun activists have swarmed state capitols to protest pandemic lockdowns. Mass protests and violence have broken out in cities across America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. To top it all off, President Trump deployed soldiers to gas peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. And for what? A freaking photo op.
Even if one took Trump’s thuggery out of the question, the 2020 election would look different from normal elections, given the widespread use of mail-in ballots. In 2016, nearly a quarter of America’s votes were cast by mail. This year, some observers have estimated that as much as half of the electorate will vote by mail in November. Certainly the rate of voting by mail shot up during the primaries.
Despite Trump’s criticisms of vote-by-mail efforts, Democrats are pushing them to great success.
In Florida, a state where Trump only beat Clinton by just 112,911 votes—49 to 48 percent—to notch 29 electoral votes, Democrats currently have a 400,000-voter advantage over Republicans when it comes to vote-by-mail enrollment ahead of the state’s August primary.
Don’t look now, but the president is already questioning the results from Pennsylvania, another state where the number of mail-in ballots skyrocketed and Trump won by a slim 44,292 vote margin (48 to 47 percent) in 2016.
During the Keystone State’s primary, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf expanded vote-by-mail options to allow no-excuse absentee voting. As a result, 1.5 million people voted by mail last month. That’s 17 times the number of voters (about 84,000) who voted absentee in 2016.
The Trump campaign, along with the Republican National Committee and four Republican members of Congress representing western Pennsylvania districts, filed a lawsuit arguing that ballots dropped off at collection sites, rather than sent through the post office or delivered by hand to county elections offices, should be disqualified. The lawsuit stated that the Pennsylvania system gives “fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”
The primary lesson of the 2000 presidential contest is that campaigns don’t necessarily end on Election Night.
Say what you want about Al Gore’s pathetic scattershot search for more votes after the news networks blew their calls on Election Night. Bush could have rested on his laurels as the declared winner. He secured his victory because his team didn’t stop their campaign after the ballots were cast. The Bush campaign’s three-pronged efforts to mount a full-fledged political, legal, and persuasion offensive is why he became president. The final Supreme Court decision was only the climax.
If put in a similar position to fight for the presidency, it’s safe to predict that Trump would act far more aggressively than either Bush or Gore ever dreamed.
One of the more memorable aspects of the 2000 recount was the “Brooks Brothers riot” where the Bush campaign flew GOP staffers to protest the recount proceedings in Miami-Dade County, Florida. At issue was whether there would be a new standard for counting “undervotes,” and local officials sought to take discussions to an upper floor of the building, where the protesters would not be able to observe. At that point, the Republicans erupted and followed them up. Crammed into the smaller space, unable to see what was happening, they got angry. They yelled that Democrats were stealing the election. They banged doors. They roughed up a Democratic staffer in possession of a sample ballot.
And it worked. Hours later, the officials surrendered. Canvassing board chairman Lawrence King Jr., a circuit court judge, said that when the board agreed to count votes, “It became evidently clear that we were in a different situation . . . than we were this morning when we made that decision. . . . A radically different situation.”
Whether one agrees with the recount or not, it’s stunning to consider that a mild protest was all it took for protesters to shut it down in Miami.
Rory Cooper, a GOP staffer who participated in the so-called “riot,” said to watch out for “flashpoints” where lawyers and protesters can descend, as they did in Miami-Dade. “There are going to be performative acts on each side to show who is winning and losing,” he told me. Like everything with Trump, though, it would be far more jarring. He predicted “mini earthquakes every day, rather than the ongoing rumble of a recount.”
But could things actually turn violent this time?
For answers on that, I spoke to Rachel Brown, the founder and director of Over Zero, a non-profit dedicated to preventing identity-based violence and other forms of group-based harm, who studies how communication can increase or decrease the chances of violence. She said that with the type of rhetoric we see around this election, we need to be proactive about preventing violence—both pre-election and post-election. When it comes to post-election violence, she said, “there will be a results waiting period and it will be important to see how politicians handle themselves and how this period is discussed in the media.”
“Do they question the results in broad, big terms or specific complaints that can be remedied?” Brown said. “There will be real grievances if there are procedural challenges, and it’s important that those issues are addressed through proper legal channels quickly. For this to work, there has to be lots of communication about what has happened and how it gets resolved.”
“Media needs to be educated on state-by-state procedures and have the knowledge about how to manage expectations and help people be patient through such a new process,” Brown cautioned. “Be aware of any preemptive declarations the election is illegitimate, preemptive declarations of victory, and any excessive use of state force—for example, if peaceful protesters are met with force.” And the propensity for violence can rise, she added, when “voters feel like the stakes are zero sum.”
Uh-oh. That sounds exactly like President Trump and his supporters.
If you are feeling masochistic, imagine how Trump will act if he’s in a position to question the results on Election Night, whether he be trying to close a tight gap or disqualify votes and maintain a lead. Governor George Bush would have never tweeted: “The lyin’ fake news tried to steal the election from me and then Democrats invented a HOAX about uncounted ballots. I WON. SHUT DOWN THE FRAUD.” But, President Trump sure would.
And just think of what else he could do.
If he was ahead would he find a way, through mass revolt and state intervention to stop counting the mailed-in ballots he told us were “rigged” all along? Might an allied Republican governor confiscate them and plunge them into “circular files” never to be seen? If Trump is down, could he convince Republican state legislators to preemptively certify him the winner, even in defiance of a Democratic governor, to notch Electoral College votes? Would President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active duty military to help them do it?
Given the possible scenarios, a contentious Supreme Court ruling may be the least of our worries.
The 2020 election is our country’s last, best hope to stop President Trump. Still, there are no guarantees if he contests the outcome. Those who wish to defeat Trump need to make it a blowout. This election can’t be too close to call.