Since the end of the Cold War a global movement has transformed how democratic elections are conducted, with many democracies holding freer and fairer elections than at any time in their history. This movement has led to knowledge sharing, standard setting, best practices, and citizen monitoring that have increased electoral integrity in all parts of the world. American organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have played critical roles in this global transformation, working with election officers, civil society organizations, and monitoring groups to promote and protect the integrity of elections.
Paradoxically, the United States is the one democracy that seems immune from this transformation. Unable or unwilling to professionalize our election management, we lack uniform, capable, independent, and non-partisan election bodies. Instead, we rely on a crazy patchwork quilt of partisan state officers, well-meaning but amateur volunteers, and outmoded equipment to help administer elections in what has become one of the most polarized democracies in the world. America’s electoral exceptionalism almost caught up with it in the disputed 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, famous for its “hanging chads” and eleventh-hour Supreme Court decision that ended vote recounts that could have changed the election’s result. That election ended without violence and American electoral legitimacy alive but gravely wounded. We won’t be so lucky if we have a disputed election this November.
Both of us have been bit players in the attempt to promote electoral integrity worldwide, but more importantly, we have witnessed the consequences of what happens when elections fail basic tests of integrity. From our varied experience in parts of Africa and the Middle East we see worrisome trends in the United States that portend the potential of large-scale post-election violence in November. The very legitimacy of democratic elections in the United States may disappear.
What do we see that is so worrisome? For democracy to work, political parties must believe in the potential for rotational power; that is, the losing party must feel it has a chance to meaningfully compete in future elections. Trouble begins when parties believe they are facing an impending exile from power, either because of long-term trends or because they believe their opponents will change the rules to permanently rig the system against them. Without the prospect of future victory, there is little incentive to stay within the bounds of the democratic system—after all, why keep playing a game when you know you’ll lose?
For many years, the majority of Republicans and Democrats believed in democracy as a long game. When parties lost electoral contests, there was a sense of “oh well, we’ll win the next one.” But there are signs that attitude may be shifting, with deeply troubling implications.
Conventional wisdom holds that long-term demographic trends favor Democratic ascendance. Despite President Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016, his vote margins in key states were razor thin, and he lost the popular vote by millions. Increasingly statements by GOP leaders and the President reflect the belief that demography is not on their side and creating barriers to vote is essential to staying in power. Witness President Trump’s recent comments that shifting to voting-by-mail would lead to political ruin: “[Y]ou’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Though the short-term fate of the Senate remains uncertain—and could perhaps remain a bastion of Republican power for years to come—losing the Presidency could arouse significant Republican fears of impending exile from meaningful national power.
A Trump re-election, however, could cause similar despair among members of the Democratic Party, who fear that he will solidify the Republican stranglehold on the federal judiciary for decades to come. The next President is likely to be able to appoint several new Supreme Court Justices and numerous Circuit Court judges. Anger about Republican treatment of President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland and resentment about the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh runs deep in the Democratic Party. And many Democrats view Republican-backed restrictive election rules as efforts to suppress likely Democratic voters, undermining their political chances.
President Trump himself is a uniquely exacerbating factor. Much has already been written about his autocratic tendencies and lack of concern for democratic norms. Bush v. Gore’s peaceful resolution can be attributed in large part to the democratic restraint of political elites, especially Gore’s willingness to abide by the Court’s ruling and urge his followers to do the same. If the Court were to decide a contested election against President Trump, he would unlikely follow Gore’s example. Trump has encouraged violence at his political rallies, routinely questions the integrity of America’s electoral process, and alleged that “millions” of votes were cast illegally— after he won the 2016 election.
In 2000 political polarization in America was real but had not reached the fever pitch of the past several years. A recent poll by the Democracy Fund found that an astounding 21 percent of Americans felt some level of violence would be justified to achieve political goals if the opposing party wins the Presidency. And the poll revealed few differences between members of either party. The loathing, it seems, is mutual.
Moreover, polarization had not yet affected citizen views of the courts in 2000. If we turn the question around and imagine the Supreme Court were to decide a contested election in favor of Donald Trump, many Democratic voters would see confirmation of their worst nightmare, the rule of law completely captured by Trump and the GOP. With partisan tempers boiling, there is little reason to think that Biden supporters would emulate Gore’s supporters in 2000 and go gently into court-mandated defeat.
Coronavirus did not create these conditions, but it has exacerbated them in several ways. The economic impact of coronavirus has been devastating, depriving over 40 million Americans of work. High levels of unemployment can be a driver of political instability and may prompt individuals to take otherwise unthinkable actions out of desperation or despair. But perhaps even more troubling—in this context, at least—are the virus’s disruptions to election preparations. Efforts to mitigate person-to-person contact have led several key states to hastily create or expand vote-by-mail processes and reduce in-person voting options. If the election is close, an administrative error by harried election officials or a dispute over last-minute changes to voting procedures could quickly escalate into an all-out partisan brawl. And the broad shift to vote-by-mail will likely mean we do not have a clear winner on Election Day. Mail-in ballots often trickle in over the course of several days, increasing the likelihood of a drawn-out spectacle and giving ample time for disruptive events to unfold.
In the transitional democracies we have studied and lived in, post-election violence comes in three kinds. First, violence after elections can be a strategic choice made by political leaders and organized ahead of time. An incumbent who fears losing an election can use post-election violence as a means to cower election officials and judges in the adjudication of a disputed election, or even as a means of extorting a power-sharing deal when defeated. Second, spontaneous demonstrations, fueled by outrage and fear of electoral manipulation, can drive supporters into the streets where violence is a consequence of inappropriate or militarized police response. Finally, even when evidence and consensus points to a clear loss at the polls, an incumbent may refuse to accept the verdict and urge followers to resist forcefully. These varieties of violence may also overlap in ways that make prevention and accountability difficult (for example, spontaneous protest creates an opportunity for organized groups to provoke the use of force). All result in broken lives and begin a cycle of violence that will be difficult to de-escalate.
We never thought our experience in emerging democracies and broken societies would have relevance in America. While it is no secret that democratic norms and partisan civility have steadily eroded, Americans are justly proud of their long tradition of peaceful transitions of power, and it is hard for many Americans to imagine an election bringing serious violence. Yet unless we take action, we believe such conflict is now on the horizon.
This November, America will be combustible. Growing fears of political disenfranchisement; increasing partisan animosity; a lack of conciliatory instincts in key national leaders and followers; rising unemployment; coronavirus’s disruptions to election administration; partisan distrust of mainstream media coverage; domestic strategies of disinformation; and the likelihood of foreign interference in the electoral process all add fuel to the pyre.
A disputed election—with the Presidency hanging in the balance—would provide the spark. Imagine an administrative error causes several hundred mail-in ballots to be misplaced in a swing jurisdiction, placing a key state’s Electoral College votes into dispute. We could easily see mass demonstrations on a scale similar to or greater than the George Floyd protests, but with one major difference: greater likelihood for both sides to rally in confrontation. During the May and June demonstrations, there have been sporadic clashes of demonstrators. In Ohio and New Mexico well-armed right-wing militias rallied to confront and bully protestors against racism. Now imagine such cases a hundred-fold. A lethal cocktail of partisan tempers, police militarization, and provocateurs could lead to localized clashes, carried live on social media—with all of its potential for manipulation and mobilization—to other parts of the country.
The end result is difficult to foresee. Much depends on how partisan leaders react. Conciliatory measures could do much to diffuse tensions and de-escalate a volatile situation; inflammatory actions, such as accusing each other of “treasonous” activities or using security forces in a manner that is perceived to be partisan, could precipitate crisis. But at the very least, partisan animosity will run red hot and lives will be broken. And we will have lost a piece of what it means to be American: the belief that our elections are legitimate and the best way to resolve our differences peacefully.
In the long term, the potential for such violence would be greatly diminished if the United States followed international practice and created an independent, professional, and capable election management body to carry out and oversee its elections, including playing a large role in adjudicating election disputes. But since that is not an option in the short term, we are left to play catch-up for decades of American inurement to the shoddy conduct of its elections.
This first means swiftly modernizing our elections and minimizing electoral incompetence that could enflame partisan tensions. State and federal governments must provide local election administrators the financial resources they need to adequately prepare. Other efforts—like the work of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Election Project—can also play an important role in supporting local election officials with nonpartisan, technical advice on how to adapt elections to the unique demands of a pandemic.
Second, our elections must become more transparent. Each step of the electoral process must be open to scrutiny and inspection by stakeholders like political parties, journalists, and nonpartisan election observers, who can independently certify that election officials are following correct procedures. Such exposure could help refute unsupported claims of fraud, prevent election disputes, and give the public additional tools to uncover and address any actual deficiencies in the voting process.
Third, sometimes post-election violence is not spontaneous, but the culmination of careful planning and organization. State and federal law enforcement agencies should therefore be prepared to detect and disrupt efforts to organize violence in the run-up to Election Day.
Finally, political leaders should prepare to calm post-election tensions, not enflame them. Political party leaders on both sides of aisle should commit in advance to bipartisan displays of conciliation at the first sight of electoral violence. Prominent political leaders, including former U.S. Presidents, should spearhead such efforts. And if President Trump loses an election and tweets about the outcome as illegitimate, GOP leaders need do what they did in Kentucky in 2019 and tell the incumbent to stand down.
We may survive November largely intact. Perhaps the electoral margin will be such that one candidate simply cannot dispute the results. Perhaps police forces will exercise restraint. Or perhaps courageous action will diffuse tension at a critical moment. But if we fail to act, sooner or later America’s electoral exceptionalism will catch up with it. We must reform and professionalize U.S. election administration, or prepare to face catastrophic consequences.