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Explainer

Our Democracy Is Under Strain. Here’s Why It Will Hold Up.

Despite Trump’s attempts to undermine our election system, he won’t be able to unravel it.

Published: October 19, 2020

Espe­cially in the past few weeks, some Amer­ic­ans have been worry­ing out loud about the 2020 elec­tion and the fear that it will go so wrong that, even if the pres­id­ent loses, he will be able to remain in office, with our demo­cracy in shambles around him. Scen­arios of elec­tion steal­ing like those in a recent Atlantic piece have amped up these anxi­et­ies.

Of course, Pres­id­ent Trump himself has contrib­uted to this panic by relent­lessly ques­tion­ing the legit­im­acy of voting by mail, refus­ing to agree to a peace­ful trans­ition of power if he loses, and asking support­ers to go to the polls and “watch very care­fully” minutes after he told the white suprem­acist group the Proud Boys to “stand by.”

No doubt, he is aiming to under­mine confid­ence in the elec­tion. But it’s time to see the pres­id­ent’s remarks for what they are: so far, empty threats and bluffs. There are safe­guards in place through­out the Amer­ican elec­tion system to ensure no pres­id­ent can steal an elec­tion or cling to power if voters choose to relieve him of his duties. The only way Pres­id­ent Trump stays in the White House if Amer­ic­ans vote him out is if we stand by and let it happen.

Here are the reas­ons you should be confid­ent that come Janu­ary 20, Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in the duly elec­ted pres­id­ent of the United States.

The elec­tion system is decent­ral­ized.

Every state is in charge of running its own elec­tions. There are down­sides to this method, since some states do it better or worse than others, but it also makes it extraordin­ar­ily diffi­cult for a pres­id­ent to impose his or her will on all of them.

The elec­tion system is resi­li­ent.

This year, voting is being strained like never before because of the pandemic, but most states have respon­ded by making it easier to vote by mail. Among the minor­ity of states that have not will­ingly expan­ded access to mail-in voting, several have been compelled to do so by courts. And just the past few weeks courts have ruled in favor of voters’ rights in Arizona, Geor­gia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wiscon­sin.

And in the face of poten­tial cyber­at­tacks and other unfore­seen tech­nical fail­ures, there has been substan­tial progress recently to imple­ment the kind of backup and secur­ity features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will count.

The state and federal laws govern­ing the elec­tion are clear.

Stat­utes in every state lay out how its members of the Elect­oral College are selec­ted and appoin­ted: by the popu­lar vote in each state. A state offi­cial or legis­lature cannot simply decide to change that process after the fact. And just a few months ago in a case about the Elect­oral College, the Supreme Court said that “legis­latures no longer play a role” in select­ing pres­id­en­tial elect­ors.

Simil­arly, the method for count­ing the votes of the Elect­oral College is set by a federal stat­ute in place since the 1880s called the Elect­oral Count Act, and any changes to that law would have to be passed by Congress. There is a role for Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence in the count­ing process as pres­id­ent of the Senate, but, as the bipar­tisan National Task Force on Elec­tion Crises says, his job is purely “minis­terial.” The vice pres­id­ent does not have “the power to decide contro­ver­sies that might arise over count­ing elect­oral votes or to other­wise decide the outcome of the elec­tion.”

The law bars inter­fer­ing with voters by anyone, espe­cially law enforce­ment or the milit­ary.

Both federal and state laws outlaw voter intim­id­a­tion, and elec­tion offi­cials are prepared to remove bad actors. Not just anyone can show up and be an author­ized poll watcher. Most states limit who can do so, often to appoin­ted repres­ent­at­ives of a candid­ate or a party or, in some cases to neut­ral, nonpar­tisan observ­ers. These limits help prevent poll watch­ers from inter­fer­ing and intim­id­at­ing voters. They also ensure that there is account­ab­il­ity for poll watch­ers who do engage in miscon­duct.

It’s also illegal to deploy federal troops or law enforce­ment officers to any polling place or other site connec­ted to an elec­tion, and doing so is a federal crime carry­ing up to five years in prison. And while state and local laws are more flex­ible, the pres­id­ent has no power over nonfed­eral officers, and there are a host of federal and state laws — many of which also carry severe crim­inal penal­ties — that prevent law enforce­ment from harass­ing or intim­id­at­ing voters.

We might not know who won on elec­tion night, and the public is OK with that.

recent poll found that two-thirds of voters expect that getting the final elec­tion results will take longer than usual, and that number appears to be rising. Another poll found that similar numbers of Amer­ic­ans are comfort­able wait­ing beyond elec­tion night to find out who the winner is. And they should be, because delayed results are a sign that the system is work­ing. Unof­fi­cial results will change as provi­sional ballots are adju­dic­ated and offi­cials have time to count absentee ballots. Indeed, it’s more import­ant for elec­tion offi­cials to get it right than to get it done quickly.

Yes, there are reas­ons to be concerned about how this elec­tion will play out. But there are more reas­ons to have faith in our system. In fact, Amer­ic­ans are already cast­ing their ballots this elec­tion season, safely and securely, despite the pandemic. Check with your local elec­tion offi­cials for the dead­lines and other rules that apply to your area. And vote.