With democracy under attack, it's time to protect American elections

With democracy under attack, it's time to protect American elections
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From freedom of the press to separation of powers, the years-long erosion of America’s democratic institutions has many voicing their concerns. As the country gears up for elections in 2018 and 2020, it’s time to restore faith in a bedrock principle of American politics that is under serious threat: reliable election results and the peaceful transference of power.

Controversies surrounding the 2016 election gave people across the political spectrum reason to distrust the integrity of America’s democratic process. President Trump undermined our elections during his final days as a candidate, when he claimed that if he lost to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonComey: Trump's 'Spygate' claims are made up Clapper: Trump distorting my comments is Orwellian Mueller probing Roger Stone's finances: report MORE, it could be the result of a widespread conspiracy. Mounting evidence of Russian interference, disinformation campaigns, and collusion with the Trump campaign has given many who oppose the president reason to doubt the election results as well.

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Should a future election result be contested, the powers of the president imparted by the Constitution, combined with a near all-time low level of public trust in government and the hyper-partisan media climate, would make any government attempt to resolve the dispute in a credible way difficult. On a local or state level, this scenario could produce disruptions that harm communities and rob them of fair representation. In a presidential election, this could pit the will of the American electorate against an executive who could potentially overrule its results.

The most disturbing prospect is that the president can use legitimate powers of his office to thwart the will of the people. Given the state of the institutions we rely on to ensure the integrity of our democracy, it’s plausible that he could succeed. A large portion of the electorate already believes Trump’s claims that rampant voter fraud cost him the popular vote. By 2020, Trump will have packed the federal courts system with as many judicial nominees who adhere to his worldview as he possibly can. While the integrity of most of the judiciary is unimpeachable, we learned in the 2000 presidential election and subsequent litigation of Bush v. Gore that the will of judges can be in direct opposition to the will of the people.

We can surmise that in this current era of division, the results of a presidential election could be hotly litigated and regardless of the outcome, onlookers could decry the verdict as corrupt. Meanwhile, continuing news of Russian election interference both in the United States and elsewhere will sow distrust on the left and further undercut public trust in elections. More importantly, the legislative will (or even constitutional leeway) to construct a legal framework to limit fake news is limited. Despite noted saber rattling from some senior officials, it remains unclear whether any measures by the networks or congress can effectively limit the problem.

In short, there’s a plausible future in which judicial oversight of presidential elections may be dismissed as partisan maneuvering. At the same, the public lacks faith that our elections result in a legitimate government. But this result is not inevitable. We must start working to strengthen existing mechanisms and create new bodies that ensure the integrity of our elections. In every level of government, leaders from across the political spectrum should work together to build public trust in local election boards, and provide transparency in the vote counting process.

The federal government can start by increasing funding for the Election Assistance Commission, which sets certification standards for voting machines in almost every state, in order to help ensure every district votes with secure, reliable equipment. States and municipalities can also pass measures to modernize their registration and voting processes in ways that ensure each vote is more easily accounted for. Community leaders and local school systems can also engage in public information campaigns that help residents understand how their vote is counted so that they know their voice is heard.

Clear and decisive action should be taken to mitigate the impact of foreign interference on our elections. The Senate should pass measures that impose the harshest possible consequences on Russia or any other foreign government that attempts to meddle in elections via social media. Proactive measures like mandating state of the art cybersecurity in all voting machines and government email accounts, and passing campaign reform that limits the ability of foreign governments to engage with American candidates, should be taken up immediately.

Even in these polarized political times, virtually all Americans are bound together by a belief in a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Regardless of our political leanings, the fact that elections represent the collective will of the electorate is far more important than policy issues of the day. By coming together to strengthen the norms that enforce our will upon the government, we can strengthen America’s most important tradition.

A. Scott Bolden is chair of the political action committee of the National Bar Association. He is the former chair of the D.C. Democratic Party.