Considering all that we already know about Trumpism, his attempts to warp the election will occur until the last vote is counted. Sabotage like unfaithful electors or worse could actually hijack the presidency. Suppression becomes repression, whether by virus or vote.
Experts around the country have been churning out model after model — marshaling every tool from math, medicine, science and history — to try to predict the coming chaos unleashed by the new coronavirus and to make preparations.
At the heart of their algorithms is a scary but empowering truth: What happens next depends largely on us — our government, politicians, health institutions and, in particular, 328 million inhabitants of this country — all making tiny decisions on an daily basis with outsize consequences for our collective future.
In the worst-case scenario, America is on a trajectory toward 1.1 million deaths. That model envisions the sick pouring into hospitals, overwhelming even makeshift beds in parking lot tents. Doctors would have to make agonizing decisions about who gets scarce resources. Shortages of front-line clinicians would worsen as they get infected, some dying alongside their patients. Trust in government, already tenuous, would erode further.
Climbing this first hill will be in many ways the most challenging because it involves persuading people to change their individual behaviors for an abstract larger good — and because no one knows how far we actually are from the peak.
The problem will be whether there can be congruence between epidemiological and electoral models. Viral suppression and vote suppression could converge.
Donald Trump can’t cancel the presidential election. Congress sets Election Day by statute, as the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic has already wreaked havoc on our elections. Two states, Louisiana and Georgia, have postponed presidential primaries. Ohio’s governor announced late Monday afternoon that he wanted to reschedule Tuesday’s primary. Florida, Illinois and Arizona, meanwhile, as of now have decided against finding another date, even as the Centers for Disease Control warns against gatherings of 50 more or people, for the next eight weeks.
We know what needs to be done. Every American must be allowed to vote by mail, no excuse necessary. As we quickly ramp up voting by mail, we must also expand online voter registration, while remembering that historically disenfranchised communities often lack reliable or secure mail service, may require printed ballots to be translated, and will need extra protection. In a democracy, the vote must go on.
But this fall’s elections must also be protected from partisans who might use a national emergency as an excuse to subvert democracy. Trump might not be able to cancel elections on his own. Individual state legislatures, however, could essentially nullify the results, if they wished, by exercising the authority to appoint the state’s representatives to the Electoral College.
This seems wildly anti-majoritarian, and it is. The popular vote in each state has long determined how Electoral College votes are assigned. An occasional “unfaithful elector” has made headlines by casting their vote for someone else, but it hasn’t affected the outcome of a race.
Nevertheless, this fall might not unfold in the manner that we have become accustomed. It’s time to talk about this now, before Trump or anyone else attempts to pull an October — or November — surprise. Article two, section one of the U.S. constitution assigns each state legislature the power to “appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” its electors.
It’s easy to imagine any number of nightmare outcomes. If the crisis continues into November, or re-surges in the fall, individual states could be forced to postpone elections. Congress and the states may not act quickly enough to establish a vote-by-mail backup plan, and in-person voting could still be too risky. Mail-in votes could overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service or election officials. They could take weeks to count, putting the December gathering of Electors in doubt. Or, state legislatures might do the seemingly impossible and simply choose to override the winner of the statewide vote, substituting their will for the popular will.
Many models suggest that the Electoral College could be so close this fall that the winner in Wisconsin determines the presidency.
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