President Donald Trump, in his efforts to retain the Presidency of the United States for a second term, has engaged in many behaviors in the past few months that undermine the very basis of American democracy. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic–that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, caused record high unemployment, and prompted rising civil discontent concerning racial inequality in America–Trump recognizes that a defeat is very possible in his future. Reiterating his rhetoric of 2016, Trump has strongly suggested that he will not accept defeat, will equate losing with fraud in the electoral process, and will utilize the legal system to keep himself in power. When asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transition in the case of his losing the election, Mr. Trump replied “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens”.
Trump’s current behavior is a threat to American democracy and its institutions. He is undermining our electoral system with his unsupported claims of election- rigging, removal of U.S.P.S. mailboxes and sorting equipment, and blocking the widespread use of mail-in-ballots and ballot drop-off boxes. The composite effect is to discourage people from voting by any means and to convince them that their votes have no value. During the September 29th debate, he talked of sending in partisan monitors into polling places. Taking his cues from a dictator’s playbook he is moving the country closer to autocracy, a violent transition should Biden win, and perhaps attempts at enabling a third presidential term.
Since April Trump has claimed repeatedly that election-rigging is rampant with mail-in ballots. His allegations run counter to history and to the rising demand given that the coronavirus pandemic is driving an increase in demand for mail-in ballots and an avoidance of in-person voting locations. Mr Trump said there was a “tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans”. The Trump campaign has also worked with the Republican Party to initiate legal action in multiple swing states to prevent the expansion of mail-in voting. This expansion primarily resulted from state efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The combined efforts of the Trump campaign and the Republican Party are particularly undemocratic, as more Democrats than Republicans plan to vote by mail in November. According to a survey conducted in August by The Democracy Fund and the UCLA Nationscape Project, “more than one-third of Americans plan to vote by mail in November: 48 percent of them plan to cast their vote for Joe Biden, and only 23 percent for Mr. Trump”.
In addition to his claims that mail-in voting enables ballot fraud, Trump refused to give emergency funding to the US Postal Service from the last Coronavirus Stimulus Bill. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic Congressman from California explained, “I think the motivation is quite clear. Donald Trump sees mail-in balloting as a threat to his re-election, and so he’s seeking to dismantle the Post Office,” In addition, the recently appointed U.S. Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy (a prominent donor to the Trump campaign), instituted changes that have gravely affected the efficiency of the postal system. “Failure to Deliver,” a report released on September 16th by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, shared that, “On-time mail delivery fell abruptly following Postmaster General DeJoy’s July 2020 directives ordering operational changes to mail service and delivery. By the second week of August 2020, on-time delivery of First-Class mail nationwide had fallen nearly 10 percentage points compared to the week preceding the changes.” These findings have raised concerns that the increased volume of mail-in ballots will not arrive in time to be counted on election day.
In addition to targeting the Postal Service, Trump has also claimed that ballot drop-off boxes can be vulnerable to voter fraud. According to The Independent, his campaign had gone so far as to sue to block the expansion of ballot drop-off boxes in Pennsylvania and other politically important swing states. Despite losing the case, these claims set the stage for a non-peaceful transition in the case of Trump’s losing, working to support his stance that he will not have lost the election fairly. In addition, his claims likely have caused damage by raising voter distrust in the electoral system and perhaps deterring voters from exercising their right to vote. Voter confidence in this election is an issue that is currently at the heart of many election monitors’ concerns, as it is a pillar of free and fair elections; lack of confidence in the electoral process could potentially propel Trump supporters to reject his loss in November.
The threat of the erosion of American democracy is so evident that the Carter Center, a “democracy promotion organisation” founded by former president Jimmy Carter, is conducting an election mission in the United States for the first time in its own history. The organization, which historically works with countries whose elections do not function wholly democratically, says that it decided to begin this investigation because of growing concerns that “the state of democracy in the US has been eroding”.
The dangers of President Trump’s actions and the sinister intentions behind them are detailed in Varol’s “Stealth Authoritarianism” through the Iowa Law Review. Varol writes,
“Electoral fraud can itself lead to the
extra-legal entrenchment of power, and political instability can create power
vacuums, ushering in extra-legal changes in government authority, such as a
military coup…Although many electoral regulations—including well-worn
methods like gerrymandering of election districts—provide fertile grounds
for stealth authoritarianism,157 this Subpart discusses three less-transparent
sets of electoral laws that are particularly prone to abuse: (1) voter registration
laws; (2) electoral barriers to entry; and (3) campaign finance laws.
With this in mind, Mr. Trump’s flagrant claims of election-rigging, defunding of the United States Postal Service, and inhibiting the efficiency and expansion of both mail-in ballots and ballot drop-off boxes have set the stage for an unprecedented and turbulent election in November. More so, Trump has not confirmed whether he will leave the White House in the event of his losing. With his dampening voter confidence in the reliability of the elections, it is very likely that many of his supporters will stand behind him in his dismantling of the demcratic process and impeding the transition to the next presidential administration.