While there have been highly contentious U.S. presidential elections in the past, there has never been reason to question if the presidential incumbent would step down in the face of a loss. However, as with many political traditions, Trump has broken this assumption that the American people have long taken for granted. On 23 September 2020, in response to a journalist asking if he would “commit to a peaceful transfer of power,” Trump replied, “We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.”This comes amid Trump’s claims that mail-in ballots will spur widespread election fraud, his refusal to reassure the American people of a free and fair election in the first presidential debate, and after his push to postpone the 2020 election altogether. It is unlikely that Trump would refuse to step down if he loses in November; however, this is an attempt at open sabotage by sowing seeds of doubt into the minds of the electorate.
At this point, the GOP would never allow Trump to stay in office against the vote, as this would delegitimize the Republican Party and go against a basic democratic standard that has been set in the United States’ political culture since 1792. Various Republicans denounced Trump’s statement and promised a smooth transition of power; this included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. If there no is basis behind Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power, then it begs the question of why it even matters that he made this claim. While politicians often make empty statements that can simply be looked over, Trump’s statement is extremely problematic towards American democracy and cannot be ignored. Trump’s statement is important because first, it is an attempt at voter suppression, and second, it allows Trump to call into question the validity of the election results after the vote; both of which create fractures in the democracy of the United States.
With his statement regarding the transfer of power, Trump is attempting to increase his chances in the election by discouraging Democratic voters. This is a scare tactic. Trump essentially wants Biden voters to feel that the democratic process is hopeless to the point that they will not even bother to vote. Since Biden is not the incumbent, he does not have the ability to make this same threat and reciprocally discourage Trump’s voting base; Trump, as the incumbent is using his position of power in order to put the opposition, Biden, at a disadvantage. This makes Trump’s refusal to ensure a free and fair election particularly concerning. This is a blatant attempt to undermine democratic principles on Trump’s part. In order for a democracy to operate properly, it is vital that citizens have faith within democratic institutions and have faith that their elected officials will adhere to the inherent rules of democracy. Trump has demonstrated a lack of respect for the will of the people and a desire to manipulate the system in his favor. This is a red flag concerning the current condition of the United States’ democracy as high power officials should not be attempting to cast undue doubt upon the electoral system in any form or fashion.
The second concerning issue with Trump’s statement is that there will be instances of voting anomalies or mistakes in this election cycle to support his questioning concerning the fairness of this election. The United States has no central voting authority and the electoral systems between states are extremely fragmented. Many states do not have the infrastructure or resources to support an extensive mail-in voting system, but were forced to quickly create a mail-in voting system for this election due to COVID-19. This includes states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Indiana, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Wyoming. Since the election process had already begun, there was no opportunity to test these new voting systems. This means there will be kinks, and there will be mistakes; it is basically unavoidable. Complete accidents can then be framed by Trump as targeted electoral manipulation, and many will simply take his claims at face value instead of checking the facts for themselves. This has already occurred in Pennsylvania,where the Trump administration claimed that there was intentional election fraud when in actuality some ballots were discarded in error by a poorly trained worker. There was no plot against Trump or widespread fraud, yet the accident quickly made national news. While small errors like this may have no impact on the election results, Trump has positioned himself to use these missteps to contest the election results and potentially nullify votes, similar to what occurred in the Ivory Coast in 2010.
While Trump may claim this election will be fraudulent, that does not mean it will be. There is no evidence that mail-in voting will spur widespread election fraud, the United States is not hopelessly doomed to autocracy, and there is the high possibility for a free and fair election. Although there might be some democratic backsliding currently occurring in the United States, this backsliding is not irreversible. While no one can force Trump to commit to a free and fair election, the public can work to hold him accountable by formulating and signifying their preferences to the government.The only way to do this however, is to actually go out and vote. It is vitally important for the people of the United States to keep their faith in democratic institutions and to use their voice in the upcoming election. In order for the game of democracy to continue, not only do politicians have to re-adhere to the rules, but the public must also commit to participating as well.