Fear and accusations swirl around this election. Like a good Shakespearian drama, the plot thickens with each act. Should we be worried? What can we do to ensure a peaceful election?
This is an unprecedented moment in U.S. democracy – when a sitting president has threatened to disrupt the elections and to not abide by the results if he doesn’t like them, and when some state legislatures have attempted to purge voter rolls.
As scholars of world politics, we know what happens when democratic norms are disregarded. There is sometimes blatant fraud during elections – as in Belarus in August and, frequently, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Belarus, this has led to protests and a crackdown. In Russia, Putin’s hold is so tight that protest, even when it occurs, and dissenting voices are systematically crushed. Elections have become violent.
But in stable democracies where the respect for rule of law is high – such as Canada, post-war Germany, and the United Kingdom – even deeply-contested elections among divided polities can occur without violence.
There can be elections in the United States where the outcome at the Electoral College level is unclear at first – most recently in 2000, when the Supreme Court mandated recounts in certain precincts.
But since the first U.S. election in 1778, and despite Jim Crow laws and gerrymandering, the trajectory has been widening the franchise. More and more citizens have gained the right to vote. The trajectory has not pointed toward fraud.
In the unlikely event that there is large-scale fraud or a lack of clarity in November’s elections, we have governmental bodies that can make an accurate count, and non-governmental institutions – the news media and bipartisan commissions – that can observe and testify to the validity of any recounts.
So, Americans should keep calm and carry on, even as we plan for a rocky election season and navigate November’s shoals. While there are many concerns, several steps would help reassure the American people and ensure a nonviolent, and perhaps even orderly, election and potential transition.
Video: National security officials reassure voters about election safeguards (Fox Business)
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First, some fear that President Trump and his supporters will make trouble if he doesn’t like the direction the election is heading. We urge the president to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and, specifically, from appealing to his supporters to disrupt the voting process before and after the election. Further, while it is strange to write this sentence, we urge the president to announce that he will abide by the Constitution to which he swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend. He must commit to respecting the results of the 2020 election – abiding by the Electoral College results as they reflect the popular vote.
If either President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden is concerned about the outcome of the vote, he will have recourse through local and national mechanisms to ensure its integrity and an accurate count.
Second, some Americans likely are concerned about the potential for election violence. No matter what happens, some will be unhappy and wondering about the outcomes of the presidential, state and local elections. Peaceful protests are lawful, but violence and insurrections are not. Police should respond to violent protests and any reports of voter intimidation.
All Americans should commit to nonviolent direct action, starting with the first and most important act this year – voting. If either side decides it must protest the results, strikes, demonstrations and other forms of civil resistance are legitimate. Violence, on the other hand, only incites further violence.
We urge all state governors to refrain from calling on the National Guard during or after Election Day. Doing so would be justified only in the case of violent protests that police cannot handle, and only if the Guard’s deployment is applied impartially to restore order.
Third, some are worried that the U.S. military might intervene in domestic politics – this would be unprecedented and at this juncture seems unlikely. That said, we urge the armed forces to respect the separation between the military and politics, to obey their oath to serve the Constitution, and to affirm their duty not to obey an unlawful order. Any order by the president or his subordinates for the armed forces to interfere with the election or its results would be unlawful under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.
Finally, civil society and civic institutions – philanthropic foundations, universities, religious institutions, and nonpartisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause – have provided and should continue to provide moral leadership in these troubled times.
As Ben Franklin said, we have a republic “if we can keep it.” This is exactly the time when we all need to reaffirm the importance of the rule of law.
Neta C. Crawford is chair of the Department of Political Science at Boston University.
Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.