Donald Trump is planning to take control of the U.S. government regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election. I believe that deeply. Even if I’m wrong about that, we must prepare on the assumption that I’m right. If wrong, and he goes quietly, fine. If I’m right, saving the country and its republican form of democracy will likely depend on how we prepare in the next three months.
The classical definition of a coup d’état is the “sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.” But there are other, more subtle ways of accomplishing a coup. Trump himself, a master of the “I am a victim” trope, has argued repeatedly that the Mueller investigation was an attempted coup. Many Republicans have reiterated that “argument.” Now the argument has morphed into an attack on mail-in voting, a process similar to absentee voting and identical to the voting procedures used in five states: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth Century, has described Trump’s position as a “prime historical fascist tactic”: create a crisis, then use that as an excuse to reject the peaceful transfer of power. Snyder knows a thing or two about tyranny and how it can work to destroy a democracy. He has written that “Trump’s ‘Delay the Election’ tweet checks all 8 rules for fascist propaganda” https://wapo.st/3i0remw We ignore his warnings at our extreme peril.
Since Trump can’t legally delay the election on his own, his main task is to find someone to foul up the election so he can claim a right to stay in power. The tactic is not unlike the infamous “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,” an utterance by a king that led to the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has launched a multi-front attack to get his way: undermining the U.S. Postal Service and claiming mail-in voting is the cause of massive voter fraud.
Let’s move from the sublime to the practical. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, there are about 200,000 polling places in the United States even after the Republicans’ massive voter suppression efforts in multiple southern states to reduce polling places so as to increase voter travel and waiting-in-line times. Election Administration & Voting Survey, 2018 Comprehensive Report to Congress. https://bit.ly/39UakD7
That Report notes that,
more than120 million Americans voted in the 2018 general elections, a turnout rate of 52 percent of the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) .… turnout in the 2018 general elections increased in nearly all states when compared to 2014. Some states saw turnout levels that approached those of a typical presidential election.
That was the glorious Blue Wave that swept Democrats into control of the House of Representatives. Moreover,
More than half of voters cast their ballots in person on Election Day, and one-quarter of participants cast their ballots by mail. Nearly one-fifth voted early at in-person early voting sites, a rate that more than doubled since the 2014 elections. In six states, more than half of ballots were cast at in-person early voting sites. Although the overall rate of by-mail voting has not changed significantly since 2014, the states of California, Montana, and Utah saw large increases in their statewide by-mail voting rates.
These remarkable results involved more than 600,000 volunteer poll workers. However, nearly 70 percent of responding jurisdictions reported that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient number of poll workers. That was, obviously, long before the coronavirus pandemic. This year the challenge will be massively greater.
There are numerous other obstacles to more robust voting. For example,
Thirteen states do not offer online voter registration
Fewer than half of states allow for same day voter registration
Only three states run their elections entirely by mail (4 others have all-by-mail voting in select local jurisdictions
About a quarter of states require in-person early voters to provide an excuse for doing so
Less than one-third of states have vote centers or allow voters to cast ballots at any polling place in their jurisdiction.
That is what Republican control of many state legislatures, combined with active Republican voter suppression tactics, have left us.
Given the pandemic and ongoing threats to voting by Republicans in 2020, what could go wrong? Answer: everything; the signs are unmistakable.
Republicans, including Trump himself, have publicly admitted that, for example, changes like universal automatic voter registration and mail-in voting will favor Democrats. Therefore, Republicans conjure various bogus and non-evidence-based claims of massive voter fraud, mistakes and delays, even as Trump’s appointee to head the U.S. Postal Service works to cripple the Service’s ability to adapt to major volume increases for the upcoming election. And Trump urges the voter suppression work onward because, as Prof. Snyder has observed, he pretty well knows he’s going to be defeated in a fair election process.
What can Democrats do to avoid the roadblocks Republicans are going to place in the path of increased voter turnout?
The answer is to plan out every potential obstructionist scenario and prepare countermeasures accordingly.
At the most basic level, it is crucial to identify polling places where long lines are likely on November 3. For every such location, Democrats should provide portable toilets, snacks, water, rain ponchos and anything else that will make it easier for voters to stay in line as long as it takes. Virtually everyone who gives up and leaves the line will not return later to vote, so it crucial to help every Democrat stick it out as long as needed.
The actual voting process must be closely observed to assure that bogus obstacles are not thrown in the path of voters. In cases of asserted issues, poll watchers must insist that provisional ballots be provided, and a close count must be maintained of how many such ballots are collected. Watching the final tally at the end of the voting day is equally important. This process can be tedious and a bit complicated; trained observers are important, as their mere presence will discourage shenanigans during the counting and reporting process.
To the extent consistent with local laws, videos and photographs should be taken of the physical setup of each polling place. Record any incidents of potential voter interference outside the polling station. The recent incidents in Minnesota, for example, in which armed “protesters” demanded removal of mask requirements and opening of lockdowns at state legislatures and elsewhere are evidence suggesting that armed groups may appear at polling places in “open carry” states to try to intimidate voters by their presence.
Democratic watchers must be present to record any such incidents and to reassure waiting voters that they should not be deterred from exercising their right to vote. Armed “militias” should not be allowed to, for example, interrogate voters approaching the polling station about why they are there. Poll-watchers should be equipped with contact information for the State and Local Police as well as key media outlets in the area. The more eyes on the situation, the less likely actual acts of intimidation will be successful. In polling places located where potential disruptions are considered most likely, Democrats should always have more than one person on-site from opening to reporting of the final tally.
These recommendations are a tall order, requiring a large commitment from many people. Nevertheless, the stakes are also extremely high — nothing less than the survival of American democracy. Trump intends to steal the election by whatever method works and he has started multiple paths to that end. Having sent federal “troops” to Portland and other cities on the pretext of protecting federal property, with the predictable result of further destabilizing the situation and increasing the violence, he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The people must stop at nothing to thwart his plan to undermine democracy.
It’s important to remember that Trump’s hard-core supporters are a minority of the voting population. Hillary Clinton’s popular vote was larger by just under 2.9 million votes. Her defeat was a product of many things, not least of which was Russian interference and the Electoral College, the vestige of a past time that enhances the voting power of the smaller states and thus, for example, enlarges the impact of southern state resistance to social policies favored by Democrats. It is likely Trump is getting help from Russia again this year. The election rules are fixed for now so the answer to Trump is maximum Democratic voter turnout.
Also keep in mind that Trump has lied repeatedly about his agenda. Just one example — his lawyers are in court right now trying to end insurance protection of pre-existing conditions. If re-elected, Trump will have free-reign to bring down what remains of America’s best institutions. If defeated, we can immediately begin rebuilding a civil society that treats all citizens fairly and promotes the common good of everyone, including recovery from the pandemic.
It’s up to you. If you can do it, please volunteer to help on Election Day. We must prepare for the worst case if we’re going to win.