Fraud, fear, democracy and voting rights: What would happen if Trump refused election defeat?

Donald Trump’s presidency has been far from typical. Critics from the left blame his administration for the widespread divisiveness and polarization that seems to grow every day. His support base fights back with the same reasoning, claiming that the Democrats are just as guilty of division and hostility. Each day it seems that things become more antagonistic in Washington, especially with the November election only two weeks away. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are in the final stretch. Overall the theme of the Trump campaign has been appealing to voters on the basis of building upon the past four years and continuing to make things better for the American people, while Biden has promised a country that will work for everyone, not just a select few. 

There have been attacks from both sides, and this election cycle will be one to remember given that it is occurring during the ever-vicious COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the pandemic, mail-in voting has been more in demand than in the past. Many states have loosened restrictions on who can receive a ballot in the mail, ideally making things easier for voters. However, this system has been widely contested by President Trump, who claims it will undoubtedly be fraudulent and has joked about refusing to leave office because of a rigged election. Could this actually happen? How will every ballot be counted by the end of election night? Will there be a clear winner, or will the results be contested and uncertain for weeks after? Many journalists and scholars from across the country have examined this from a constitutional and legal perspective, giving insightful commentary about these types of statements that the president has made. 

An extensive and fascinating article from The Atlantic writer Barton Gellman describes every piece of 2020 and how it will influence the election. It also discusses who Donald Trump is as a politician and how that will ultimately lead to the results of this election. Mail-in ballots come with a lot of uncertainty. Many factors could prevent a ballot from being counted, including new addresses, a voter writing a different version of their name, changes in signatures, failure to seal the ballot inside the secrecy sleeve and more. Gellman writes that millions of mail-in ballots could take days or weeks to process, stating that this and other factors create “conditions ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result.” Professor Richard Hansen from the UC Irvine School of Law gives insight into what could happen in the days following the election writing that “we could see a protracted post-election struggle in the courts and in the streets if the results are close. The kind of election meltdown we could see would be much worse than 2000’s Bush v. Gore case.” The contention with the Bush v. Gore election went all the way to the Supreme Court when former president George W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Al Gore by a narrow 537 votes. 

The weeks following the election are likely to be stressful unless there is a clear winner on election night. If Joe Biden is the clear winner, historical statements from Trump would put into question the likelihood of his going down without a fight. This past July, in an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Trump was asked if he would accept the results of the election if he lost and stated, “I have to see. Look you- I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes, I’m not going to say no.” In the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton, Trump lost the popular vote and only won the electoral college vote. He claimed that this was due to an influx of at least three million undocumented voters casting a ballot for Clinton. In 2012 he made the claim that former President Obama only won due to votes from those who were deceased. 

Talk of election fraud has not only come from the president but from the Republican National Committee as well. On August 24 during the Republican National Convention, leaders stated that “the only way they can take this election away from us if it is a rigged election.” This creates a fear of voting, likely making it that some voters feel their vote won’t count or that fraudulent votes will be cast. According to Gellman, this is used as a fictitious threat and does not represent the actual process that has already been occurring across the country, with an estimated 28 million people having already cast their ballots (as stated in an article from POLITICO). Voter fraud is defined as illegal interference with the process of an election, but a study from the Brennan Center for Justice determined that it rarely happens. The study, which took place over a period of three elections, found that voter fraud occurred at a rate of 0.003 to 0.0025 percent and was therefore not a significant issue.

The Biden campaign has been putting precautionary measures into place in the event that there will be a distasteful transfer of power. Shane Goldmacher from The New York Times stated that the Biden campaign is bringing the largest election protection program in campaign history. This task force is co-led by Dana Remus and Bob Bauer, who both worked with Biden under the Obama administration and have been a part of his campaign for a long time. Remus told The New York Times, “We can and we will hold a free and fair election this fall and be able to trust the results.” Remus and Bauer are specifically looking at issues regarding foreign interference, pandemic protocol violations, fighting voter suppression and ensuring voter education. No matter what happens in the upcoming post-election months, it is important to remember that American democracy is intended to lift up the voices of voters, and those in leadership should do everything in their power to respect the voice of the people. 


Alli Mitchell ('22) is a Staff Writer for the Beyond section. She is majoring in Political Science and double minoring in Art History and Environmental Studies. She can usually be found with a cup of coffee in the library or at LJs. On-campus, she is a member of the Alpha Gamma Phi sorority, works in the Biology Department and at Cup and Chaucer, and is involved in the Phelps Scholars Program. In her free time, she enjoys reading, yoga, writing, hammocking, photography, and spending time with friends.


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