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Warning US Democracy Under Threat 'Like Never Before,' Sanders Outlines Plan to Stop Trump's Authoritarian Takeover

"This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy—and democracy must win."

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. on September 24, 2020. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday delivered a speech warning that President Donald Trump—with his preemptive assault on the legitimacy of the upcoming election and refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power—poses an existential threat to U.S. democracy and must be soundly defeated in November to stop the nation's descent into authoritarianism.

"This is not just an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden," the Vermont senator said in a speech from the nation's capital. "This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy—and democracy must win."

Noting that the nation is currently facing "an unprecedented set of crises"—from the ongoing pandemic and mass unemployment to widespread lack of healthcare and soaring inequality—Sanders said he never in his "wildest dreams" thought he would be forced to address the public on "the need to make certain that the president of the United States, if he loses this election, will abide by the will of the voters and leave office peacefully."

"In the Congress and in state legislatures, hearings must be held as soon as possible to explain to the public how the Election Day process and the days that follow will be handled."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

"But today, under Donald Trump, we have a president who has little respect for our constitution or the rule of law," said Sanders. "Today, that peaceful transition of power, the bedrock of American democracy, is being threatened like never before."

The Vermont senator pointed to numerous recent instances of Trump spreading widely debunked lies about mail-in voting and refusing to commit to accepting the election results if he loses. During the Republican National Convention last month, Sanders recalled, Trump said that "the only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election."

"What he is saying is that if he wins the election, that's great," Sanders said. "But if he loses, it's rigged, because the only way, the only way, he can lose is if it's rigged. And if it's rigged, then he is not leaving office. Heads I win, tails you lose. In other words, in Trump's mind, there is no conceivable way that he should leave office."

And just 24 hours ago, Sanders continued, Trump became "the first president in the history of this country to refuse to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election."

"Let us be very clear," said Sanders. "There is nothing in our constitution or in our laws that give Donald Trump the privilege of deciding whether or not he will step aside if he loses. In the United States, the president does not determine who can or cannot vote and what ballots will be counted."

Watch the senator's full speech:

After sketching out a possible scenario in which Trump declares victory in the November election by baselessly deeming mail-in ballots fraudulent, Sanders outlined a number of steps that he said will be necessary in "the struggle to preserve American democracy":

First, it is absolutely imperative that we have, by far, the largest voter turnout in American history and that people vote as early as possible.

As someone who is strongly supporting Joe Biden, let's be clear: A landslide victory for Biden will make it virtually impossible for Trump to deny the results and is our best means for defending democracy. 

Second, with the pandemic and a massive increase in mail-in voting, state legislatures must take immediate action now to allow mail-in votes to be counted before Election Day—as they come in. 

In fact, 32 states allow for the counting or processing of absentee ballots—verifying signatures for example—before Election Day. All states should do the same. The faster all ballots are counted, the less window there is for chaos and conspiracy theories. 

Third, the news media needs to prepare the American people to understand there is no longer a single election day and that it is very possible that we may not know the results on November 3rd. 

Fourth, social media companies must finally get their act together and stop people from using their tools to spread disinformation and to threaten and harass election officials.

Fifth, in the Congress and in state legislatures, hearings must be held as soon as possible to explain to the public how the Election Day process and the days that follow will be handled. As we count every vote, and prevent voter intimidation, everything possible must be done to prevent chaos, disinformation, and even violence.

Lastly, and most importantly, the American people, no matter what their political persuasion, must make it clear that  American democracy will not be destroyed.

"Regardless of what Donald Trump wants," the Vermont senator concluded, "the American people will preserve democracy in our country."

Read Sanders' full remarks as prepared for delivery:

This country faces an unprecedented set of crises. We are struggling with a pandemic that has already cost us over 200,000 lives.

We have an economy in which we have a grotesque level of income and wealth inequality, where the middle class is being decimated, where millions of workers have lost their jobs and half of our people continue to work paycheck to paycheck -- many for starvation wages.  

We are living in the moment when climate change is ravaging this planet, leading to massive fires on the West Coast, drought and unprecedented levels of extreme weather disturbances all across the globe.

We are the only major country on earth not to guarantee healthcare to all people as a right, over 90 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured, and we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.

All of these issues, and others, are enormously important and should be the issues that are being debated in this campaign. But, today, I'm not going to talk about any of them.

What I am going to talk about is something that, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be discussing.  And that is the need to make certain that the President of the United States, if he loses this election, will abide by the will of the voters and leave office peacefully.

What I will be discussing today is the danger that this country faces from a president who is a pathological liar, who has strong authoritarian tendencies, who neither understands nor respects our constitution and who is prepared to undermine American democracy in order to stay in power.

With less than 6 weeks left to go in this campaign it is my fervent hope that all Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, independents, progressives, moderates, conservatives -- come together to defend American democracy, our constitution and the rule of law. We must ensure, in this unprecedented moment in American history that this is an election that is free and fair, an election in which voters are not intimidated, an election in which all votes are counted and an election in which the loser accepts the results.

This is not just an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy – and democracy must win.

The United States is the oldest continuous democracy in the modern world. We held elections in the middle of a Civil War in 1864. We held free and fair elections during World War I, during the Great Depression, and during World War II. After all of those elections, held in extremely difficult circumstances, the loser acknowledged defeat and the winner was inaugurated and took office.  That is what America is all about.  That’s what democracy is all about.

But today, under Donald Trump, we have a president who has little respect for our constitution or the rule of law. Today, that peaceful transition of power, the bedrock of American democracy, is being threatened like never before.

I am not in the habit of quoting former President Ronald Reagan, but I think something that he said in his first inaugural address makes the point about how important -- how precious -- is this part of our heritage. I quote: “The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle." Unquote.

Protecting this “orderly transfer of authority” as President Reagan characterized it, this miracle, is absolutely essential if we together -- all of us, Republicans, Democrats, Independents -- want to keep faith with the American ideals we hold so dear and with the sacrifices that so many made in order to protect our democracy.

And in that regard I think it is terribly important that we actually listen to, and take seriously, what Donald Trump is saying.  

Several weeks ago, speaking at the Republican National Convention, Trump said, and I quote, “The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election.” What is remarkable about that statement is that he made it at a time when almost every national poll had him behind and when he was trailing in polls in most battleground states.

Think about what that statement means. What he is saying is that if he wins the election, that's great. But if he loses, it’s rigged, because the only way, the only way, he can lose is if it's rigged. And if it’s rigged, then he is not leaving office.  Heads I win. Tails you lose. In other words, in Trump's mind, there is no conceivable way that he should leave office.

And just last night Donald Trump went even further down the path of authoritarianism by being the first president in the history of this country to refuse to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election.

When asked by a reporter in the White House briefing room: "Win, lose or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?" Trump responded:

“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.  We want to get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.

That’s not his choice.  That’s for the American people to determine.  Let us be very clear.  There is nothing in our constitution or in our laws that give Donald Trump the privilege of deciding whether or not he will step aside if he loses.  In the United States the president does not determine who can or cannot vote and what ballots will be counted.  That may be what his friend Putin does in Russia.  It may be what is done in other authoritarian countries.  But it is not and will not be done in America.  This is a democracy.

I do understand that Donald Trump is a billionaire, or so he says.  I do understand that he was born to a very wealthy family and, from his earliest days, was able to get anything he wanted because his family was rich and his family was powerful.  I do understand that when you’re rich and you’re powerful you don’t  have to pay taxes like ordinary people and that it’s easy for you to avoid the military draft.  I do understand that when you’re rich and you’re powerful you can buy politicians and get hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare for your real estate empire.  

But this I also understand.  No matter how rich and powerful you may be, no matter how arrogant and narcissistic you may be, no matter how much you think you can get anything you want, let me make this clear to Donald Trump: Too many people have fought and died to defend American democracy.  You are not going to destroy it.  The American people will not allow that to happen.

Despite all of the evidence, Trump continues to be obsessed with the belief that there is massive voter fraud in this country.

In 2017, after he won the presidency, Trump insisted that he would have won the popular vote, which he lost by 3 million votes, if, quote "millions of illegal votes had not been cast." There is absolutely no evidence of that being true. In fact, it is totally preposterous to believe that millions of votes, or any significant number of votes at all, were cast illegally. This is an assertion supported by no one. Not Democratic officials.  Not Republican officials. No one.  And yet that is what Trump said after he won.

There have been numerous studies done on the issue of voter fraud in our country. They have all concluded essentially the same thing.  Voter fraud in the United States of America is extremely rare.

A study by Dartmouth University found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election.  

An article in the New York Times from December 18, 2016 stated: “In an election in which more than 137.7 million Americans cast ballots, election and law enforcement officials in 26 states and the District of Columbia — Democratic-leaning, Republican-leaning and in-between — said that so far they knew of no credible allegations of fraudulent voting. Officials in another eight states said they knew of only one allegation … In Georgia, where more than 4.1 million ballots were cast, officials said they had opened 25 inquiries into “suspicious voting or election-related activity.”  But inquiries to all 50 states (every one but Kansas responded) found no states that reported indications of widespread fraud.”

A report by the Brennan Center for Justice reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. The report concluded that it is more likely that an American, quote, “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls,” unquote.

Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, which maintains a database on election fraud, could only find 143 criminal convictions of mail in voter fraud out of 250 million mail-in votes cast over the past 20 years, a rate of 0.00006%.

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But you don’t have to trust me on this issue.  Benjamin Ginsburg, one of the leading Republican experts on elections, a man who served as national counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign, a man who played a major role for the Republican Party in the 2000 Florida recount, and who co-chaired the bipartisan 2013 Presidential Commission on Election Administration, recently wrote in the Washington Post, and I quote, “The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged,” unquote.

Let me repeat from one of the Republican Party’s leading experts on elections: “The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged.”

And if even the statement of Mr. Ginsburg is not good enough for you, here is what the Trump administration’s own voting integrity commission reported.  According to an analysis of administration documents by the Associated Press, Trump’s commission uncovered, quote “no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud,” unquote, and disbanded in 2018.

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tamped down concerns about mail-in ballots last month, saying, and I quote, “Many parts of our country vote by mail. Oregon, Washington and Colorado have voted by mail for years.”

And yet we have a president who calls mail in ballots “a hoax” and “a scam.”

Trump's strategy to delegitimize this election and to stay in office if he loses is not complicated. Finding himself behind in many polls, he is attempting massive voter suppression. He and his Republican colleagues are doing everything they can to make it harder and harder for people to vote. In addition, he is sowing the seeds of chaos, confusion and conspiracy theories by casting doubt on the integrity of this election and, if he loses, justifying why he should remain in office.

In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News, Trump refused to say that he would leave office if he lost. Asked to give a direct answer on whether he would accept the election results, Trump refused. He said, quote, "I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either." Pretty much what he said yesterday.

In the middle of a pandemic Trump made clear that he wants to defund the Postal Service in order to limit the use of mail in ballots. In an interview on August 13, discussing a possible deal for a relief package that would have funded the post office, Trump let the cat out of the bag by admitting that, quote "If we don't make a deal, that means they don't get the money. That means they can't have universal mail-in voting; they just can't have it.”  

In other words, what Trump is saying to tens of millions of Americans is that at a time when over 200,000 people have already died from the coronavirus, you have a choice: You can either risk your health or even your life by walking into a voting booth or you can’t vote.  How disgusting is that?

Amazingly, at the very same time Trump is making completely baseless allegations about voter fraud, last month he urged his supporters in North Carolina to try voting twice, which is a felony.

In order to advance his plan for mass voter suppression, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit in Nevada, which fortunately was dismissed, challenging the state’s mail-in voting laws.

In July, Trump used false claims of voter fraud to propose delaying this year’s election, which he does not have the power to do. This was so outrageous that Steven Calabresi, the co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society, wrote that it was, quote “grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate,” unquote.

Last week, Trump told his supporters at a rally in Nevada that he, quote, “was entitled” to serve a third term, which is obviously a violation of the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment.

On Saturday, Trump suggested to his supporters in North Carolina that he might sign an executive order to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.

Trump has also urged his supporters to become, quote, “poll watchers,” but what he is really saying is he wants his supporters, some of whom are members of armed militias, to intimidate voters. We’re already seeing this in Virginia, where early voters were confronted by Trump supporters, and election officials in Fairfax County said that some voters and polling staff felt intimidated.

On and on it goes.  Every day, over and over again, Trump is making it harder for the American people to participate in the political process and is attempting to delegitimize the outcome of this election so that if he loses he can remain in office.

The concerns that I am raising today are not just mine alone, and are not just concerns shared by progressives and Democrats.

Miles Taylor, a lifelong Republican who previously served as chief of staff inside the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security, warned that there is nothing that Trump will not do or say to defeat Biden.

"Put nothing past Donald Trump," Taylor told The Associated Press. "He will do anything to win. If that means climbing over other people, climbing over his own people, or climbing over U.S. law, he will do it. People are right to be concerned."

Well, I agree with Mr. Taylor. I am concerned. I am very concerned.

Last week, my former Senate colleague Dan Coats, Trump’s own former Director of National Intelligence, published a piece in the New York Times calling for a high-level bipartisan and nonpartisan commission to oversee the election to reassure all Americans that it has been carried out fairly. Coats wrote, quote, “The most urgent task American leaders face is to ensure that the election’s results are accepted as legitimate. Electoral legitimacy is the essential linchpin of our entire political culture. We should see the challenge clearly in advance and take immediate action to respond.”

I couldn't agree more. I strongly second Director Coats’ call for this election commission.

Last week as well, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and I sent a letter to Senator McConnell urging him to hold hearings on the issue of election and post-election security. Senator Schumer and I stated, "We would like to hear from the most knowledgeable people in the country as to how we can do everything possible to make sure that the election and the period afterward is secure and peaceful."

Majority Leader McConnell: Please respond to that letter.  Please establish that bi-partisan committee.  

And today I call on every elected official in America whether they be Republican, Democrat or Independent to vigorously oppose voter suppression and voter intimidation, to make sure that every vote is counted, and that no one is declared the winner until those votes are counted.  

And to my Republican colleagues in the Congress please do not continue to tell the American people how much you love America if, at this critical moment, you are not prepared to stand up to defend American democracy and our way of life.  Stop the hypocrisy.

With or without Donald Trump this election is unique in American history because it’s taking place during a pandemic and a public health crisis.   

As a result, states all over America are taking the appropriate steps to ensure more Americans can safely vote by mail in their own homes instead of risking their health or their lives to vote in person.  

The result is that this election will see, by far, the largest number of mail in ballots ever.

And let’s be clear.  Despite what Donald Trump says, voting by mail is not a new or dangerous idea.  Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah conduct their elections almost entirely by mail.  California, Nevada, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and my state of Vermont have pledged to mail ballots to all registered voters for the upcoming election.  And many other states are making it easier to vote by mail. Trump himself, as well as members of his administration, have repeatedly voted by mail.  Members of the U.S. military have regularly voted by mail since the 1800s.

Given the significant increase in mail in ballots why, you might ask, are Trump and his allies trying to attack the integrity of our vote by mail system?

The answer is simple.  A number of studies have shown that for, whatever reasons, Republicans are more likely to vote in person while Democrats are more likely to use mail in ballots.  

In fact, one poll found that only about a quarter of Biden supporters would vote in person on Election Day while some two thirds of Trump voters planned to vote in person.

In other words, if Trump can undermine people’s confidence in the validity of votes cast by mail, he will be calling into question the validity of votes that may overwhelmingly support Joe Biden.  

Let us consider the following scenario:  

On election night, Trump is ahead in many battleground states based on the votes of those who voted in person on election day.  All across the television screens people see Trump ahead before they turn in for the night.  But as more and more mail in ballots are counted, Trump’s lead falls.  Trump then announces, with no proof, that there has been massive mail in ballot fraud and that these votes should not be counted - and that he has won the election.

In other words, Trump may well announce that he has won the election before all of the votes are counted and that large numbers of mail in ballots should be discarded.

Furthermore, in states where Republicans control the legislature, it is possible that the election results will be ignored because of false accusations of voter fraud and that the legislature itself will use its power to appoint electors pledged to vote for Trump, overriding the will of the people.

And, in the midst of all of this, with the death of Justice Ginsburg, Trump is attempting to push through a Supreme Court Justice who may very well cast a vote in a case that will determine the outcome of this election.  He is doing that at a time when early voting has already begun and millions of ballots will have already been cast.

In this unprecedented moment what can we as a people do in the struggle to preserve American democracy?  

First, it is absolutely imperative that we have, by far, the largest voter turnout in American history and that people vote as early as possible.

As someone who is strongly supporting Joe Biden, let’s be clear: A landslide victory for Biden will make it virtually impossible for Trump to deny the results and is our best means for defending democracy.  

Second, with the pandemic and a massive increase in mail in voting, state legislatures must take immediate action now to allow mail in votes to be counted before Election Day – as they come in.  

In fact, 32 states allow for the counting or processing of absentee ballots – verifying signatures for example – before Election Day.  All states should do the same.  The faster all ballots are counted, the less window there is for chaos and conspiracy theories.  

Third, the news media needs to prepare the American people to understand there is no longer a single election day and that it is very possible that we may not know the results on November 3rd.  

Fourth, social media companies must finally get their act together and stop people from using their tools to spread disinformation and to threaten and harass election officials.

Fifth, in the Congress and in state legislatures hearings must be held as soon as possible to explain to the public how the election day process and the days that follow will be handled.  As we count every vote, and prevent voter intimidation everything possible must be done to prevent chaos, disinformation, and even violence.

Lastly, and most importantly, the American people, no matter what their political persuasion, must make it clear that  American democracy will not be destroyed.  Our country from its inception and through the sacrifices of millions has been a model to the world with regard to representative government.  In 1863, in the midst of the terrible Civil War, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg stated that this government “of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

That was true then. That is true today.  Regardless of what Donald Trump wants the American people will preserve democracy in our country.

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