Presidential Campaign

After Election Day, will there be a smooth transition — or not?


Political campaigns are designed to be contentious. We don’t choose our elected officials through a process of consensus; there are winner and losers. So while 2016 may have taken this logic to an unusually combative extent, disagreement before Election Day is to be expected.

{mosads}What has never been contentious in this country is the day after the election. Since the earliest years of the republic, peaceful transitions of power have distinguished the U.S. system of government. For this reason, talk of rigged elections and contested electoral outcomes raises serious questions about whether this tradition will be upheld in 2016.

The time between the election and the inauguration of the new president is what we call the presidential transition. It lasts around 70 days and is a frenzy of activity to usher the incumbent president out and the president-elect in. Hundreds of personnel and policy decisions have to be made at a heart-pounding speed.

Despite the often chaotic nature of the presidential transition period, we have never had a contested transition. Sure, there are stories of feet dragging and practical jokes played by the outgoing administration. White House staffers in 2000 were found to have removed the “W” key from their office computers after George W. Bush’s win.

Nevertheless, the transition of power has always happened with little contention. In 2008, George W. Bush famously ordered his White House to extend to the two candidates unprecedented support and high-level access. Once Barack Obama won the election, the Bush White House only increased its efforts to coordinate with the incoming team, making that transition a model of cooperation.

This has always mattered because the period after an election is fraught with great risks. In the 1960s, Washington worried that the transition period was ripe for a Cold War emergency. Today, the transition period raises questions of continuity in homeland security to thwart international terrorism.

These concerns recently convinced Congress to pass new laws to better prepare for the transition period. Before the election, both candidates are given federal money and space to begin preparing, and designated transition officials can begin receiving security briefings.

Thus far, GOP nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are fulfilling their roles. Each has designated a set of advisers to begin planning for a peaceful transition. These teams are already underway side by side in the same office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, though this has hardly made the headlines of other juicier aspects of the campaign.

Nonetheless, the recent turn in the campaign belies this thoughtful planning. The firebombing of a Republican headquarters in North Carolina and the constant claims of voter fraud and electoral tampering suggest trouble ahead.

Just as worrisome, large swaths of the electorate seem to have lost faith in basic institutions. Twenty-five years ago, three-quarters of American had confidence in the presidency; today, that’s down to just one-third.

In the midst of this, the next president will have a mountain of major concerns after the election. The transition period is the first opportunity to direct the country ahead. This will be greatly hampered if the country’s long tradition of peaceful and cooperative transitions is forgotten.

The candidates could signal their understanding of these stakes right now by opening their pre-election transition planning to greater scrutiny.

Simply showing the public the hard work being done right now in Washington, often in coordination with nonpartisan groups like the Partnership for Public Service, could cool the heated campaign rhetoric. Demonstrating that the discontent of many voters has been heard and will be incorporated into the earliest days of planning for the next four years could also allay worries about the integrity of the electoral process.

The best opportunity to show this commitment to a peaceful transition in 2016 is during the final presidential debate on Wednesday. The country will be watching.

Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College and the Graduate Center and is the author of the new book “Immigrants and Electoral Politics” (Cornell University Press, 2016).

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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