America must have fair elections

America must have fair elections
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As the country staggers through the worst pandemic in a century and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, and social justice protests on a scale not witnessed since the civil rights movement of the 1960s roil the streets with many of our cities, storm clouds gather over the election. We are tasked with bringing lessons to bear with facing these threats and challenges. Our work strongly suggests the confluence of issues the country confronts this year is no less than historic.

There is a real danger to an orderly and fair election this November given the destruction of public faith, as millions of Americans seek alternatives to lining up at polling stations because of concerns over the coronavirus. Attempts to cast doubt on the process or the results, coming either from foreign interference or at home, could prove destabilizing.

Recent logistical problems with counting increased absentee ballots in the primaries in New York foreshadow the challenges this fall if election authorities do not prepare well in advance for the anticipated surge in absentee ballots in November. If states do not clarify the rules, provide additional options for drop off ballots and early voting, and prepare to assist citizens, then the lawsuits could become numerous.


Experts worry that a historic cataclysm could happen with the election. A bipartisan group of over 100 current and former government officials and campaign analysts established the Transition Integrity Project. They ran a series of four exercises to simulate different election scenarios and likely actions by lawmakers of both parties in Congress, media representatives, and other influential actors. The results in each case were alarming. The bipartisan group concluded that it is very likely that the election this fall will be “marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape.”

President Trump has started laying the foundation to destroy public faith, tweeting that there is “no way” that mailed ballots are “anything less than substantially fraudulent.” His attacks are resonating with some, despite a lack of evidence and decades of success with the use of mailed ballots in many states. In a recent survey, almost half of Americans believe mailed ballots could lead to significant fraud. Perceptions will matter in a highly charged environment. With the partisan echo chambers and sensational stories, there stands a possibility of a constitutional crisis.

A deadlocked or contested election could, by order of the Supreme Court and under the 12th Amendment, be decided by a vote of the states in the House. This scenario could result in a president being declared who does not win either the popular vote or the Electoral College, a result which has precedent in the election of 1824. In the highly charged environment now, with a pandemic raising fears of voting in person, this would result in civil unrest and degradation of faith in democratic institutions.

In a recent column, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has warned us of the danger as he wrote, “We know with certainty that Russia, China, and other nations are actively exploiting our domestic political divisions and looking for opportunities to undermine confidence in our election.” He added that given our significant challenges of “a perfect storm of a global pandemic, public lockdowns, subsequent economic turmoil, and social unrest,” that these efforts could be “like throwing a match on an oil slick.”

Rubio offered a number of sensible precautions to avoid this nightmare scenario, including establishing clear red lines and penalties for foreign adversaries who meddle in our election, extending the federal deadline for states to report results, and increased federal funds and assistance to states to more efficiently handle the many absentee ballots.


Many states already offer several proven best practices, including secure drop boxes for voters to deposit ballots and relieve pressure on the Postal Service, processing mailed ballots as they are received instead of waiting until the day of the election, more polling workers to allow safe voting in person with social distancing, and more early voting.

Perhaps the most important protectors of our democratic freedoms are the voters. They have the power to reject disinformation and extremism coming from whatever source, foreign or domestic, and they can adjust expectations and show patience over the weeks after the election as all ballots are diligently counted in the midst of the pandemic. We share in the duty to defend the idea of a democratic republic, based on free and fair elections, where the will of the citizens prevails.

Glenn Nye is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and is a former representative from Virginia. James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.