Experts wonder aloud whether we are witnessing an attempted coup, or “coup d’État” which translates as a, “strike against the state,” or an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of political power by a faction. The president’s premature expectoration of victory while votes were still being counted on election night; the embrace by some party leaders of his ridiculous attempt to deny the actual results; the Attorney General’s eagerness to justify the charade with a directive urging federal prosecutors to find “voting irregularities” before results are certified, and legal attempts to overturn the election in court force us all to recognize that we are, for the first time in the nation’s history, seeing a faction refuse to yield power while deliberately using every mechanism at its disposal to foment distrust in the levers of democracy.
We are still in the woods for sure. However, the traps being laid by the wolves on President Trump’s legal team, despite all the gnashing of teeth and howls of voter fraud, are all bark and no bite. Just this weekend the Trump campaign withdrew the only legal claim that could actually affect the outcome, an attempt to invalidate Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail ballots. Meanwhile, in the real world, the electoral process continues forward toward the certification of results, an Electoral College vote, and the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 21st, 2021. But that doesn’t mean that serious damage is not being done to the political system.
At the core of Trump’s legal strategy, laid out in a sprawling 105-page court filing that mostly re-hashes debunked allegations of voter fraud, is that vote-by-mail procedures treat those voters differently, violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Aside from the absurdity of the claim itself, courts are not likely to consider a claim about administrative procedures that should have been made before the election, or one that would effectively invalidate the entire election. Even if the Pennsylvania results were somehow overturned, it would not be enough to keep President-elect Biden from winning the Electoral College, and Biden’s popular vote lead now exceeds that of President Obama’s 2012 electoral victory. The courts will not allow themselves to be used as a political weapon to overturn the will of the voters.
Meanwhile, the electoral process is slowly but surely corralling the wolves’ legal attack. Final votes are being tallied, and the results are being certified according to established election deadlines in the pivotal states: Georgia on November 20th, Michigan and Pennsylvania on November 23rd, Nevada on November 24th, Arizona on November 30th, and Wisconsin on December 1st. In the event of a requested recount in Wisconsin, it will begin shortly after November 17th, while a recount in Georgia has begun. It is unlikely that a recount would change the electoral outcomes. As the process works itself out, it will yield the formal transition in authority to govern. But elections are more than algorithms. They are also cultural practices that authorize a delegation of power as being morally right.
The damage done by the Republican Party’s rogue bad actors goes beyond this election. As Chris Thomas, who has directed elections for Republican and Democratic administrations in Michigan for decades, recently told NPR’s Miles Parks, it’s about “millions of people who take Trump at his word…being fed misinformation, lies…By people who know full well they are not true.” We face a literally Orwellian reality, a “doublethinking” class of politicians committed “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy…consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis…just performed.”
People are disoriented and disaffected, not just by what political authorities are doing, but, as the political scientist David Easton once suggested, “simply because they are perceived to be authorities – and authorities are no longer worthy of trust.” Support for the process, for democracy itself, may become depleted beyond repair. The inauguration of the next president will be an important opportunity for the nation to rebound. And there is reason to be hopeful. After all, even in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, more Americans voted than ever before. This is a remarkable accomplishment, and we should be proud of our country and each other. Congress and the newly-elected President need to build on that energy to strengthen our electoral system, so that all voters can be more confident in the results.
That means expanding options for all voters regardless of what state they live in and removing other discriminatory barriers to voting, through legislation like HR1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Republicans have an opportunity here if they really want every legal vote counted, as they are now fond of saying. Reform ought to also include breaking down the barriers for more candidates and parties to compete for the support of all voters, though legislation like the Fair Representation Act. You can make a commitment today by signing onto our action alert to support these science-based electoral reforms in the first 100 days of the new Biden administration. With so much attention focused on our electoral system, now is the time to start building one that is truly fair for all, before it is too late.