Some take comfort from the polls, believing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden will win with a large enough margin to make all these concerns irrelevant. Maybe. But it is also quite possible things will get very messy. The polls might prove even less useful this year than they were in . Assuming we are still in the midst of a pandemic raging across the country, all states will have instituted new measures related to voting, from social distancing rules to mail-in ballots. These will vary widely from state to state. Norm Ornstein writes in the Atlantic, “The combination of fewer polling places because of the pandemic, the need to space out voters in lines, and fewer poll workers could turn November into a disaster that spirals into January.”
Imagine that on the night of Nov. , backed-up polling sites turn away voters and several states have large enough stacks of mail-in ballots that they cannot announce their results immediately somewhat like the Iowa caucuses debacle. Imagine that some procedures or ballots are contested. Imagine that this ends up in courts around the country.
By Dec. , each state is supposed to decide which party’s slate of electors will cast that state’s electoral votes, reflecting the official ballot tally. But what if that tally is unclear or disputed? “For years, people have worried about the problem of faithless electors, but the real problem this fall might be confusion and delay,” said Jared Cohen, the author of “Accidental Presidents.” He points out that the election could prove to be a toxic combination of the elections of and . In , four states faced serious allegations of irregularities or fraud, and the situation was resolved by a backroom deal. In , a dispute over Florida’s ballots led the Supreme Court to intervene in an unprecedented and highly controversial move, settling the election in favor of George W. Bush. What happens this fall will take place in the midst of the most polarized political climate in a century and with the hyper-accelerant of social media.
Now add to this scenario the most worrisome element: the conspiracy theorists who have already been peddling fear and suspicion of the establishment, and specifically warning that the election will be rigged. If Trump’s prospects worsen as November approaches, his attacks are likely to get more outlandish. He has already claimed in the past that large numbers of undocumented immigrants, out-of-state residents and dead people were voting for the Democrats. He recently insisted there is “ZERO” chance “Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent” because “Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged.” He says foreign countries will print counterfeit mail-in ballots by the millions. None of these charges are backed up with proof.
Americans like conspiracy theories. Theirs is a country suspicious of centralized power, and these theories help people make sense of the world. People dislike the idea of chaos and chance, preferring to see patterns, causes — and villains. This tendency exists on the left as well, whether it’s Oliver Stone’s portrayal of the JFK assassination or the belief that Russia hacked into voting machines in and changed the tallies. But there is an important difference between the candidates: Trump revels in conspiracy theories; Biden does not.
One of America’s greatest legacies to the world has been the peaceful transfer of political power. When John Adams left the White House in and Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as his successor, it marked the first time in modern history that power changed hands between two rival parties competing in an election. It is that precious legacy that Trump is endangering with his conspiracy-mongering about rigged elections.