The history of failed democracies is replete with one lesson above all others: In times of crisis, it is up to leaders committed to our democratic values to walk democracy back from the brink — and to put the constitution and the country above narrow partisan considerations.
Our research indicates that the United States needs exactly that kind of leadership today. Failure to act decisively now could result in a democratic crisis from which our republic may not recover.
With more than four months until Election Day, President Donald Trump is already challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 election, claiming that increased voting by mail will produce “massive fraud.” While reminiscent of his earlier false claims of “illegal voting” in 2016, the president’s attacks are particularly egregious as COVID-19 continues to strain our nation’s electoral system. Primary elections in states from Wisconsin to Georgia have already experienced unacceptably long lines and confusion over new voting procedures as local officials across the country race to provide safe voting options despite inadequate federal support and little time to spare.
In this environment, a recent survey of 5,900 Americans conducted by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group should ring alarm bells about the fragility of our democracy — and the severe consequences of problems on Election Day.
In the survey, we asked Democrats and Republicans how they would react if their preferred candidate questioned the 2020 election results. While not predictive of future behavior, the responses demonstrated a real receptivity to calls for invalidating the election’s outcome.
More than half of Democrats said a do-over would be appropriate if their preferred candidate alleges election interference by a foreign government. One-third said a Democratic candidate would be justified in calling for a do-over if he or she wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College.
If significant portions of the public do not believe that the election results are legitimate, how will they respond? The massive demonstrations against police brutality, as well as the armed protests against stay-at-home policies, demonstrate a public readiness for impassioned protest beyond anything the country has seen in decades. Our national history teaches us that peaceful protests can be an important vehicle for political reform. But, as we have witnessed time and again in recent weeks, they can also be met with a violent response — whether by political opponents, the police or the military on behalf of threatened political leaders.
While the vast majority of Americans reject political violence, our survey found a troubling level of openness to it. Nearly one in five self-identified Democrats and Republicans would support political violence — “a least a little” — if the other party wins the 2020 election. Some Republicans and Democrats — one in 10 — said violence would be “a lot” or “a great deal” justified in such a situation.
Even if only a fraction of this fraction were actually ready to commit acts of violence, the actions of a few can have much larger political implications in a charged environment — especially if several million more at least sympathize with and condone their actions.
We are living through a precarious moment, but it has been years in the making. Escalating levels of polarization, dysfunction, distrust, hate speech and public equivocation about democracy are all warning signs of serious danger and vulnerability for our constitutional system. If we do not take steps to address these now, come November, American democracy could face one of the most trying tests in its modern history.
With less than five months to go until Election Day, we can and must take every step possible to reduce the likelihood that there will be any legitimate reasons to dispute the results of the 2020 election. Most importantly, this means providing the local officials who manage our elections with the resources they need to ensure a free, fair, inclusive and safe ballot in November.
States and localities must be able to ensure that any voters who want to cast their ballots by mail can do so. They must take steps to ensure that all voters have reasonable access to polling stations, with sanitized equipment and physical distancing and that the infrastructure is in place to recruit enough trained poll workers to manage them.
To make these necessary preparations, states and localities will need far greater federal support than Congress has provided to date.
We recommend that leaders in both parties agree now on standards for a legitimate election and establish a specialized panel of experts to weigh in on potential claims of fraud, suppression and interference. Political leaders from both parties also must forcefully push back on rhetoric that needlessly undermines trust in the process. In the middle of a pandemic, the response should not be a subject of partisan dispute.
Peaceful contestation for power — and mutual acceptance of the legitimacy of the outcome — are irreducible minimums for a viable democracy. For over two centuries, we have managed to preserve those conditions even through periods of intense stress. Our survey data constitute a warning sign that we can no longer take those conditions for granted – and of the repercussions that could follow.